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School Districts Look for Opportunities in Pandemic Pivot

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Keith Freund

The past year has forced school districts to pivot overnight. While that’s been frustrating, some districts also see it as an opportunity. In the case of the Canton City School District, its Design for Excellence plan promises to increase courses and extra-curriculars, reduce spending and boost performance.

Canton Schools will be drastically different this fall as the smallest of Ohio’s big eight urban districts overhauls grade levels and expands programs from art to virtual learning to preschool. While no one is getting laid off, the plan cuts positions and millions of dollars from the budget, yet has the support of the teachers’ union.

A plan takes shape

The plan was two years in the making. So much of it took shape during the deepest days of the pandemic. Canton school board member Kim Brown acknowledges the community was a bit skeptical.

“Initially it [parents' reaction] wasn't all that great, but as the real information got out and they began to understand it, they were getting more choices for their children. They became more comfortable with it,” Brown said.

In the spring of 2020, Canton voters passed a levy that helped steer off about $5 million in cuts. But in the eyes of new superintendent Jeff Talbert, the levy was a temporary fix. The district continued to struggle with enrollment and test scores.

“We have buildings that are old and aging. We have buildings that are being underutilized," Talbert said. "And so, we took all of that, and all of that information was compiled into the priorities we used to develop the plan.”

Keith Freund

Not the first time for big changes

This isn’t the first time Canton has implemented major changes. In 2013, it realigned schools under what it called the Brighter Tomorrow plan. But the changes then were controversial and promised improvements didn’t take hold.

Still, Talbert acknowledges, making massive change now generated one big question: Why during a global pandemic?

“We felt that since this year looks so different from a normal year, that we would be doing our students a disservice to bring them back together for a year and then shake them up again," Talbert said.

The plan was introduced at the beginning of February. At four meetings, parents, teachers, staff, and community members weighed in. The final plan was approved within the month.

Initially it [parents' reaction] wasn't all that great, but as the real information got out and they began to understand it, they were getting more choices for their children. They became more comfortable with it.
Kim Brown

The district is not filling 50 teaching positions, and more than 500 staff members are changing buildings. Canton Professional Educators Association President Paul Palomba says the union supports the plan in large part because it will benefit teachers and expand offerings for students.

“We had teachers running from building to building," Palomba said. "And so, we kind of condensed that so people can kind of stay in one or two buildings."

That means teachers spend less time on the road and more time in choir and band rooms, gyms and art studios.

The plan realigns elementary schools so children no longer will change buildings heading into crucial third-grade state testing. It increases art, career, virtual, year-round and STEAMM (science, tech, engineering, arts, math and medical) options while setting up a centralized preschool with door-to-door transportation for all.

Superintendent Talbert says the lynchpin is giving parents options.

“We need our families to understand that they have a choice, choices, in the Canton City School District. The choice isn't Canton City or outside," Talbert said.

Missing the neighborhood school

Kayla Devitto’s two oldest children will attend the year-round academy come fall. Her youngest will be at the Early Learning Center. She acknowledges she’ll miss her neighborhood school.

“I loved the school and the teachers and that it was so close," Devitto said. "So, it will be a bit of a change that my preschooler will have to be kind of further. But, I know that they're providing transportation for preschoolers as well and that wasn't the case before so that's definitely a plus.”

For older students, Career-Tech Director Harold "Ben" Carter notes the plan expands programs like his.

“Any program that we offer at the high school, we can offer it and align it down to our middle school," Carter said. "And then it gives us an opportunity because of our elementary school structure to start doing some career exploration with our Pre-K-through-five students.”

Superintendent Talbert says community input and the staff’s passion to improve education will help refine the plan over the next few years. The fact that many people in the district, including himself, are Canton alumni adds to that passion.

“This is personal for us," Talbert said. "And so, making sure that we build a district that works for the future graduates of this district as well as this district worked for us is very important to the entire team.”

After the pandemic

So, Canton schools will come out of the pandemic looking far different. It’s hoping the change will make the district the choice of parents trying to figure out where their children fit in the schools of the future.

Learning Curve is a statewide media collaborative focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing K-12 public education in Ohio.

Our partners include WCPN, WOSU, WVXU, WYSO and The Devil Strip.

Corrected: June 9, 2021 at 10:39 AM EDT
Correction: An earlier version of the graphics incorrectly listed Patrick as a K-3 school, Belden as a 4-6 school, and the AIM Academy at McGregor. The graphics have been updated to show the correct information: Patrick will be a K-6 school, McGregor a 4-6 school, and the AIM Academy will be at Belden.
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Nahla Bendefaa is a journalist and multimedia storyteller from Akron, Ohio by way of Kenitra, Morocco. She holds an MA in Communication Studies from Kent State University and a BA in Communication Studies from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. She enjoys a great cup of tea, walking around the Summit Metroparks and re-discovering television drama shows from the early 2000s.