Dan Good Wants Voter Support on Columbus School Levy
Columbus voters will decide on a range of issues at the polls this month and next, including a levy for Columbus City Schools to expand operations and address some deferred maintenance.
With some critics calling it a potential waste of money and others calling into question the accountability of the school district based on past scandals, Columbus Underground sat down with CCS Superintendent Dan Good to clear up any misconceptions and trust issues that might keep voters from passing the levy. Good worked to clarify what the levy would do and how residents would be able to keep tabs on the progress.
With 90 percent of their student body living in poverty and 7,000 of their students speaking limited English, CCS has a unique population to accommodate and requires different resources to make it possible. This means altered class sizes, mentorship, career guidance, a revitalized reading program, and opportunity centers for parents.
The school board had four options for the levy they’d put on the November ballot, including one with an extensive project package. The option settled on asks for 6.92 mills, the largest portion of which would go toward enhancing and growing current programs and hiring 325 new staff members. About 290 of the new employees will be new Pre-K teachers, nurses and social workers who’ll support the varied needs of the student population.
With their current staff they’ve already introduced and expanded some programs and features, but Good said that in order to address every student’s needs holistically, they need to do more with them and implement them in more schools.
What they’ve done:
Improved third grade reading by 50 points
Good called the third grade reading program one of their biggest successes. Three years ago, less than half of all CCS third graders were reading at grade level. Since then they’ve been at 91 percent.
“We turned that around with an all community hands-in effort, and I mean it was pretty intense,” Good said. “We put books on the bus. We had Panera raising money for books. We had the libraries create these new homework help centers and reading buddy programs. We had family academies. We now have books in the barber shop, which has been great.”
In the summers, schools offered students breakfast and lunch. Mornings were filled with reading lessons, and in the afternoons, they had “structured activities.”
Enhanced school security
The recently established LobbyGuard is like a digital assistant to the school secretary. School visitors bring an ID, and when they swipe it, the system takes their information and prints out a name card. While it doesn’t replace a person physically checking people in, Good said the LobbyGuard provides school secretaries with information and makes it more convenient for frequent visitors.
By the end of this year they’ll be implemented in every school lobby.
Provided career-tech guidance
“We know that if we hook them in seventh grade in an interest area and provide those career pathways, they’re more likely to stay in school,” Good said.
CCS starts students as early as seventh grade in courses on computer sciences, coding, and designing mobile apps and games. Using partnerships with Columbus State and local employers, students can choose their own paths toward trade school or university.
“Research out of Washington D.C. recognized that the skills to take on these industry jobs right out of high school are the same or often times a little more rigorous than the skills to compete in freshman level college classes,” Good said. “And because we’re in a digital age, because of the complexity of the technical, and the technical nature of jobs, the English and Mathematics proficiencies are still… my point is we prepare them to do whatever, either, so they have choices.”
Brought up the schools’ falling grades
“This was the report card three years ago. We were all Fs and Ds, and now we’re — well, last year we were at As and Bs, and then of course they wiped out the whole accountability system, start over, no big deal. In two years we’ll be at As and Bs again.”
Part of the way they achieved the higher grades is through an improved data-keeping tool that allows them to track students by several groups, including gifted, students with disabilities, 20 percent lowest performing and others. In this way, schools can track progress in real time and make certain each student is being accommodated and improving at the same rate.
“Otherwise you can skew your data pretty easily, saying ‘Oh, on average everybody’s improving,’ but you’re leaving behind all your limited english speakers,” he said.
Recruited mentors for freshmen and seniors
“It’s very, very intense,” he said. “It’s not like, remember the kid’s birthday and show up at one of their games or their concert. You have to commit to an hour a week of engagement with a student.”
Volunteer mentors were brought in when, in one high school last year, slightly more than 20 percent of seniors were on track to graduate. Most were missing multiple credits, weren’t attending school regularly, or had behavioral challenges. Good said the barriers to education include more than an individual student’s actions; many parents are inaccessible and unable to engage with their children. Experiencing economic disadvantage, working more than one job, and dealing with transportation barriers makes helping out with homework a near impossibility.
Central Ohio Compact, an organization working toward postsecondary degrees or certificates for 60 percent of Central Ohioans, held a conference earlier this year outlining the attributes of programs like this. Good said 11 students from surrounding districts spoke at the event about the barriers to education and college readiness.
“I mean from Upper Arlington, Gahanna, all the Columbus students all said what made a difference for them was an adult that continued to motivate them,” he said. “That was in their corner, that wasn’t judging them, that was kind of their guardian angel. Somebody to touch base with when they were running into problems. And I mean intuitively we all know that, but I think we take for granted that everyone might have access to that at home.”
Ohio’s latest degree and certificate attainment rate is just over 43 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation.
What they want to do:
Offer a full continuum of services
Whether there’s a gifted student or a student who needs more individualized help, Good wants a system that can assist either of them as well as meet any needs in between.
“A full-service continuum may mean that I work with you. You’re Scott’s teacher, Scott’s gifted. I’m the consulting teacher,” Good said. “I help you kind of modify your lesson plans and what you do with Scott. Or I could come into your classroom, and I can work with Scott a little bit each day, or I could come into your building and pull Scott out of your class and work with him, or i could be in an entirely separate building and Scott could come to me for part or full days,” he said.
Good also said that there needs to be a different way to assess giftedness. CCS has, again, 7,000 non-English speakers, many of whom are gifted, but because of of the language barrier are not classified as such.
Bring in more nurse practitioners
“One of the reasons secretaries often times are distracted from their monitoring role is they’re putting bandaids on kids,” Good said. “So that was another reason we added the licensed school nurses as well.”
Good said it doesn’t necessarily make sense to put a nurse in every school. Some schools may have more of a need for nurses than others, such as those with a higher concentration of students with disabilities. Instead, there should be a few nurses designated to a specific area, and a nurse practitioner should be available as well. The nurse practitioner would have more than just first aid skills, actually being able to diagnose and prescribe medications.
Offer mentorship to younger grades
In the younger grades, the class mobility rate is 27 percent, meaning a fourth of a student’s class is going to look different by the end of the year. The purpose of mentorship at this point would be to “help families stay in their homes and plan for permanence.”
“Our mentors are gonna be able to help families find resources so they can stay put, because it could be a number of things,” he said. “Maybe they couldn’t make their rent payment; maybe they don’t have a vehicle; maybe they live in a nutrition desert. I mean there’s just a lot of things. Could be a health issue; could be custodial issues. We’re such a great community with all these resources. It’s making certain you help me know where to go to get those and help make those linkages.”
CCS works with several organizations already to provide mentorship in some schools, including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club and others, “because we know that non-permanence is a pretty strong predictor of non-academic success.”
Improve students’ physical environment
Four CCS buildings are over 100 years old, and one is over 125. There are 28 roofs that need fixing, and some of them need to be completely replaced. On to of that, some asphalt and concrete needs to be redone, “which I’m sure you’ve seen. Plumbing, electrical, and so on, so that last piece [$125 million] is really to address the infrastructure needs.”
“Why the district got to this point, I can’t conjecture.” He continued. “I know a lot of people made interesting decisions in 2007 and 2008 about what they were able to do and what they weren’t able to do.”
District improvements will also involve the new security measures (LobbyGuard, safer safety glass, etc.) and fire alarms.
Never need a full makeover ever again
Not exactly loving the scramble for taxpayer money to pay for these repairs, Good said the annual $4.4 million accounted for in the levy would make sure CCS isn’t this far behind in maintenance again.
From their report, yearly replacement and repair cycles would address bus and other transportation maintenance, parking lots and sidewalks, and classroom technology. Good said CCS actually has more than $200 million of deferred maintenance to do.
“We do [maintenance cycles] already, but obviously we’re not going to be able to catch up from all the deferred maintenance,” Good said. “This wants to address, obviously, what wasn’t done in the past. This is to make sure we’re never in that position again where we have to go to voters and say ‘Hey, we should have done these things.’”
How you’ll know they’re doing it:
Good was giddy about the new accountability feature set to be displayed in each school’s lawn — should the levy pass. The signs will have symbols representing the new features to which each school is entitled.
Each of the symbols will represent roofing repairs, HVAC overhauls (addressing “existing heating, ventilation, and cooling systems which need significant repair or modernization”), safety and security upgrades, fire alarm replacements, plumbing updates, new asphalt and concrete, lighting upgrades and new electrical systems. If parents see something that is yet to be addressed, they have something to point to and can hold CCS accountable for getting it done.
Transparency and accountability seemed a top concern for Good, who approved of the decision made by the Board to put the smallest levy on this year’s ballot. The three others asked for 7.08, 8.52 and 8.58 mills. The last two would have dedicated 1.5 mills to facility bonds for new building projects.
“What they were looking at was also polling that indicated that the community felt the district was headed in the right direction — we pointed the ship in the right direction,” Good said. “But the community needs more time to have the confidence fully restored before they invest in additional bonds and building projects.”
Good described the goals of the levy in an alliterative statement: prepare, protect, and provide. He argued the district has had the best few years in a long time, between expanding Pre-K, closing reading gaps and improving the overall graduation rate.
“It is the lowest amount that I had confidence would be able to continue to take us to the next — to continue to build on our successes,” he said. “We need to continue to build on that, to scale that.”