Superintendent and CEO Talisa Dixon is making change at Columbus City Schools
It was the third day of the current school year, and already there was another emergency to deal with for Talisa Dixon, superintendent and CEO of Columbus City Schools. This one involved transportation, and the time it was taking to bus students to school.
“There’s a national shortage of school bus drivers,” Dixon says, adding many of these underappreciated, but necessary, school district employees took other jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown and school shutdown, and haven’t come back. The district lost more than 100 drivers. “Because we have less drivers, we had to condense routes and now the wait time is longer than some families would like.”
The transportation problem didn’t emerge in full until the third day of the school year because of a different emergency on day one. Twenty schools without air conditioning were forced to start the school year with remote learning due to a heat wave. “Nineteen of those buildings are back today,” Dixon said on Aug. 30.
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And then there’s the ongoing issues, changes and emergencies related to the pandemic, which began a year into her tenure as the leader of Columbus City Schools, just as Dixon was building her administrative team and making some headway on the Portrait of a Graduate initiative. At the same time the virus was beginning to take root and spread, Dixon and her family were dealing with a crisis. Dixon’s father, Murray Dixon, was in the late stages of a long battle with prostate cancer. Dixon and her three siblings (Thomas, Tansy and Timothy) had been alternating weekly trips back home to Oxford, Mississippi, to take care of the widower, who lived alone.
“On March 6 , I got a call from his caregiver and she said, ‘Talisa, we need you to come home now,’” says Dixon, who wasn’t scheduled to head home for another week. She was able to quickly travel from Columbus to Oxford and was there, a few days later, when her father passed away. His memorial service was scheduled for March 13.
The day before the memorial service, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all of Ohio’s schools to shut down.
“I was in Mississippi and I couldn’t help the team; I felt helpless … I was in a state of depression,” Dixon says, adding her team was able to handle the crisis and she learned several valuable leadership lessons that week and in the difficult months ahead as she led Columbus City Schools through unchartered waters.
Dixon had previously thought that “people expect leaders to lead, regardless of what’s happening, you’re the CEO, the captain, get us out of this storm,” she says. The pandemic taught her that it’s OK not to be OK. “This has allowed me to really understand I don’t have to do this work by myself. I have a great team and I have to rely on them more. Yes, they need me, but not in the way I thought.”
The past year has also reinforced Dixon’s longstanding commitment to equity in education and to provide a quality education to all of the city’s 50,000 students and better prepare them for life after high school.
Jennifer Adair, president of the Columbus City Schools Board of Education, says she has watched Dixon’s leadership become more “human” during the pandemic. “She had to work through all this personal and emotional stuff, while at the same time she was still new and trying to build her teams and her vision,” Adair says. “At one point we had a conversation about mental health and being vulnerable and asking for help. Leaders are not perfect, and she was able to allow for that humanity and feel and grieve and move through it.”
Dixon discovers passion for teaching
Murray and Emma Dixon were both high school science teachers at Lafayette High in Oxford. And so, naturally, they placed a great deal of emphasis on education. “I had a good childhood, but there was also the pressure to do well in school,” says Dixon, who played softball and swam, took piano lessons, and was in the Brownies and Girl Scouts. “I was the second child and Thomas, the oldest, was really smart and I was always in his shadow.”
Attending college was mandatory, with one additional requirement. The Dixons said their children could go anywhere they wanted to for graduate school, but they had to first attend a HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Dixon attended Mississippi Valley State University, majored in sociology, and had no interest in becoming a teacher. “I rebelled against being a teacher,” she says. “I didn’t understand the power to influence teachers have on student’s lives.”
Her perception of the power of teaching began to change while Dixon was in graduate school at the University of Akron, piling up degrees. She eventually earned master’s degrees in sociology, educational administration and secondary education, and a doctorate in educational administration, all from the University of Akron. She was a teaching assistant in a freshman sociology class, and the students flocked to her for help and advice. A professor (Gay Kitson) took notice and suggested Dixon might be in the wrong profession, and she should consider a career in teaching.
“She said, ‘I know you want to change the world, but I see something in your interaction with students,’ and she suggested I take an education course,” Dixon says. At first, she pushed back against the notion of becoming a teacher, but “I took a couple education courses and got the teaching bug.”
Dixon quickly realized something that has shaped her entire career as a teacher and administrator: She was lucky. “I thought everyone had the same start as I did,” she says of being the child of two educators who stressed the importance of education. “I was meeting college students, first-generation college students, who had no idea how to get through college … The drive was there, they deserved to be there, but they were lacking some basic skills.”
Helping students overcome these obstacles and developing skills became a cornerstone of Dixon’s educational philosophy.
“She went above and beyond working with these kids,” says Flora Dees, who taught at the University of Akron and was another mentor to Dixon. They met in the 1990s when Dixon did her student teaching at Goodyear Middle School, where Dees was the principal. “She had so much optimism and enthusiasm and in everything she did, she always put the students first … I expect her to wind up in Washington one day, as secretary of education.”
Despite, or perhaps because of her numerous graduate degrees, Dixon had a more difficult time than she expected moving up from substitute teacher to full-time teacher in Akron Public Schools. “I heard rumors the school district didn’t hire people with a masters-plus,” she says of her multiple master’s degrees, adding the reason was a masters-plus hire would start at a higher salary. Dixon sent a letter to Akron Superintendent Brian Williams, writing that, “I have been unsuccessful in securing a full-time position” and asked for a meeting.
While the letter didn’t lead to a meeting with Williams, Dixon eventually was hired as a full-time social studies teacher in Akron Public Schools. Three years later, she was named assistant principal at Akron’s Litchfield Middle School, and then, in 2001, she moved to Columbus Public Schools, as an assistant principal at the now-closed Brookhaven High School. She became principal of Brookhaven in 2008, and then Columbus Alternative High School.
The jump from teacher to administrator was a natural one for Dixon, who wanted to do more. “In my mind, it all goes back to those freshman students at Akron,” she says. It was all about closing the education gap. “Back then, it was all about prepping you to leave high school and then you have to make it on your own from there. There was a disconnect between K-12 and the colleges and now, I think our students are so much better prepared and we’ve closed the gap.”
Dixon was deputy superintendent of the Saginaw (Michigan) Public School System from 2010 to 2014. She was then selected as superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools in 2014.
“She was a visionary and caring leader who truly understands the big picture,” says Felisha Gould, an assistant superintendent in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district. During Dixon’s tenure, she oversaw facility improvement projects at the district’s high school and two middle schools and “she also helped us create the first equity policy in northeast Ohio,” Gould says, adding this included a “look at everything … the curriculum, the finances, the resources, the training of our staff around implicit bias and how we approach things.”
A look at the curriculum found a lack of Black students in advanced placement (AP) classes. “From the perspective of Black families, there was a belief that their children were not encouraged to take AP classes,” Dixon says, adding it took some help from students in the Minority Student Achievement Network to help her convince the school board there was a problem. “One board member asked how many of [the members of the Minority Student Achievement Network] were taking AP classes,” Dixon says, adding one of the students paused, and then answered that, “they didn’t even know they could take AP classes.”
Gaining trust from Columbus-area parents
Dixon was happy in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district, but she was intrigued by the opportunity to impact even more students in the state’s largest school district. And then there was the challenge of helping to turn around a Columbus public school that was struggling and had received an overall grade of “F” on the state proficiency tests.
“I had been gone for 10 years and so much had happened,” she says. “People stopped believing in Columbus City Schools; I talked to people, and they had lost hope and lost trust and for me, the key was to build credibility.”
Dixon reached out to Battelle for Kids (BFK), a Columbus-based nonprofit that works with hundreds of school districts around the country to help students thrive. The foundation of BFK is its Portrait of a Graduate Program that helps districts redesign their curriculum to better prepare students for life after K-12 and an ever-changing world.
Karen Garza, CEO of BFK, met Dixon after the new superintendent asked her to join her transition team. Despite their proximity, Garza says BFK had never worked with Columbus City Schools. “We got to know each other, and the rest is history,” Garza says. “Talisa is a very wise leader who cares deeply about a systems approach and to serve all her students equally.”
BFK is a systems-wide approach that helps districts create a unified program to better prepare students for life after graduation. Rather than teach for tests, Garza says Portrait of a Graduate puts an increased emphasis on engaging students in the learning process through more project-based learning and less reliance on rote learning. “These students also tend to do better on tests, and the research backs that up,” she says.
For Dixon, the process began with meeting with all the stakeholders in the city. “She’s particularly good at listening,” Garza says. “And she’s certainly working hard to create an aligned system where everyone’s working toward a common vision.”
The vision for Columbus City Schools focused on the six common attributes Dixon wanted her high school graduates to master: Critical thinking, global empathy, technology, adaptability, communication and creativity. “Our students need to be able to adapt to any environment so they can do well in college, the workforce and the military,” Dixon says.
An example is the recently announced STEAMM initiative (science, technology, engineering, art, math and medicine) in partnership with the city, Ohio State and Columbus State. The program will create curriculum more focused on STEAMM, with the goal of better preparing the district’s students for college—and careers.
The school board is on board with the Portrait of a Graduate goals, Adair says. “It’s not Talisa’ vision, or my vision, it’s the entire board’s vision and everything in it comes through talking to the community,” she says. “If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t have too many doctors, researchers or nurses,” Dixon says.
COVID-19 accents hardship for Columbus students
The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and schools across the country shut down. The priorities of Columbus City Schools quickly changed as administrators, teachers and students were forced to adapt on the fly to the changing world around them. “We had to first take a step back and think about what our families really needed,” Dixon says, adding that the rapid rise in unemployment disproportionately impacted urban residents, especially those on the lower end of the economic ladder. “Our families needed shelter and food.”
Without free school breakfasts and lunches, the first mission was “to mobilize our food services team and make sure our students had access to meals and then, on our website, we posted information about where they could find additional resources,” Dixon says. “We called families and asked what they needed. This wasn’t about academic support, it was about the other support they needed.”
Academic support revolved around access to computers and the internet, which is a challenge when, according to Dixon, 6,000 of the district’s 50,000 students live in shelters or in foster care, and thousands more live in homes that don’t have the financial means necessary for laptops and WiFi. Computers from computer labs were loaned to students, federal funds helped provide additional computers and partnerships with local companies helped create WiFi hot spots.
Columbus City Schools resumes in-person learning
Columbus City Schools went back to in-person, mask-mandatory learning in late August. Through Sept. 23, a total of 334 students and 96 staff members have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Dixon has learned a lot of lessons during the past year, including aspects of the adaptability, empathy, technology and critical thinking goals of the Portrait of a Graduate program. She’s also managed to find some silver linings. For example, the lockdown forced the district to revamp and improve its website, and to create a virtual-learning platform. “Now, there’s not this wall between us and our neighboring [suburban] school districts when it comes to creating a virtual learning experience,” she says, adding having this system in place is important if there’s another COVID-19 surge and schools are forced to return to virtual learning.
Dixon says she also learned a lot about herself. She doesn’t always have to be the one with the answers, and it’s OK to rely on others.
“It’s recognizing that there are small wins, and you get there through a lot of small wins and encouraging your team and recognizing you can’t do this alone,” she says.
“And it’s recognizing we also have to take care of ourselves and, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be any good for our students and their families.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.
Q&A with Talisa Dixon
How has the pandemic and lockdown changed you as a leader?
It’s allowed me to understand I don’t have to do this work all by myself. I have a great team who are smart and know their strategies and I have to rely on them more. Yes, they need me, but not in the way I thought. I used to think people [completely relied] on the leader and there’s some truth to that, but in critical times the team can come together.
What happens if there’s another school closure due to COVID-19?
We’ll continue to work closely with Columbus Public Health and we’re ready to transition back to remote learning if we need to. We’ve set up that system and it’s important to still have that as a platform if we need it for our students.
How are you working with the Columbus police to reduce violence?
We value our partnership with Columbus police and other community organizations around what’s happening in our neighborhoods and issues that impact our students. Any time that we can partner to improve outcomes for students, we are ready and willing.
Critical race theory is a hot-button topic. It’s not taught at your district, or any district, but what’s the importance of teaching the history and impact of slavery and segregation and the civil rights movement to your students?
It is important for students to understand the contributions of all people, especially our minority students. Our students need to see themselves as part of the story and see the contributions and sacrifices people made throughout history so that we can have the freedoms and rights that we enjoy today. That is part of our history, and those stories should be told. When I think about myself as an African American female, I want to know the contributions of people who look like me and who have allowed me to be here.
I knew we had to frame student success around equity and ensure we had the resources necessary to prioritize it. An equity lens forces you to look back at history and see what systems have and haven’t done for our students today.
Superintendent and CEO, Columbus City Schools
In position since: March 2019
Previous: Superintendent, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, 2014-2019; deputy superintendent, Saginaw (Michigan) Public School System, 2010-2014; principal, Columbus City Schools, 2001-2010; teacher and administrator, Akron City Schools, 1995-2001
Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology, Mississippi Valley State University; master’s degrees in sociology, educational administration and secondary education, University of Akron; Doctor of Education in educational administration, University of Akron.