It's been another stellar year for the Bexley City School District -- full of academic and financial highs despite some new challenges from the state.
The district, like many others throughout Ohio, struggled with new academic benchmarks and other directives from the state, often looking for further guidance when the law appeared to be undefined.
Despite that, this year's headlines touted progress for the district, providing evidence of its high ranking nationally by both U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek.
Here are the top 10 stories that made the year 2013 in Bexley one to remember:
New report card
The Ohio Department of Education released its latest state report card data on Aug. 22, providing a report card that featured changes in both look and content.
Because of the public's anticipation, the ODE website crashed just moments after the new report card's release under a sudden onslaught of visitors. It took a couple of days to get back to normal.
Bexley did not fare as well as it had in the past -- at least on paper. But the news came as no surprise to district officials.
Bexley Superintendent Mike Johnson predicted earlier in the year that Bexley would likely fall slightly in its report card rating, even though performance levels were just as high as they were last year, if not higher.
"The only reason for Bexley going from 'excellent with distinction' (an A+ grade) under the old report card system to a B+ grade with the new report card matrix is the eight-point increase in the Performance Index threshold -- from 100 to 108," Johnson explained at the time. "The threshold was 100 out of 120; now it is 108 out of 120 or 90 percent of 120."
Under the new system, a 106.2 is a B, or 88.5 percent of the overall 120 score.
Johnson said the district historically has made academic gains, and this year was no different. He cited the new benchmarks and calculations as responsible for the slight fall in ranking, but pledged to climb back up again in 2014.
Under the new formulas, not one district in Ohio received straight A's this year.
In an effort to solidify literacy in Ohio, the state worked to implement its Third Grade Reading Guarantee this year. Beginning with this year's third-graders, the new law stipulates that schools cannot promote anyone to fourth grade who scores below a 392 on the Ohio Achievement Assessment.
While there are exceptions for students for whom English is a second language and those in special education programs, the new law has caused quite a stir amongst teachers and administrators.
Bexley's fall testing numbers were released by the state late in the year, but Johnson refused to reveal the number of students who did not pass, citing privacy issues. He said the numbers were so low, excluding ESL and special education students, that releasing the data could actually identify individual students who did not pass. They will be receiving individual intervention.
Johnson is not a proponent of the new law. While he agrees with the law in principle, in that it requires districts to provide intervention for students who do not make the literacy mark, he opposes holding students back based on the results of one test.
Test results from this fall are being used to identify those students who need intervention. But those students will only be held back if they do not score 392 or higher on the spring administration of the test.
Focus on wellness
After months of debate and deliberation in creating a new position to oversee student wellness, the Bexley City School District welcomed one of its newest staff members this summer.
Kimberly Brazwell, a graduate of Ohio State University with a master's degree in educational policy and leadership, was hired in July as the district's new student and community support specialist.
The new job title was approved last winter by Bexley's school board after months were spent crafting the position.
According to Brazwell's job description, "The Student and Community Support Specialist promotes and enhances the overall academic mission by providing services that strengthen home, school, and community partnerships and addresses barriers to learning and achievement."
Johnson was a strong proponent of the position from the beginning and pointed to data collected last spring in student surveys about social and emotional issues as a strong argument for giving attention to this area.
District officials shared data indicating they should remain off the ballot for at least another year, extending the life of the last levy by two years.
District Treasurer Chris Essman delivered the news during October's regular board meeting where he presented his latest five-year forecast, prepared as a requirement of the state.
In May, Essman had predicted the district would fall into deficit spending by 2014. Because of some positive outcomes affecting the district's budget, expenses won't outweigh revenue until fiscal year 2015, Essman predicted.
That's one year later than previously thought.
"Long term, we will have to look at a levy," Essman informed school board members this fall.
Voters in Bexley approved a 6.5-mill levy in November 2010. District officials promised the money would last three years, typical for the Columbus suburb. If Bexley does not return to voters until 2015, Essman said that will give Bexley an additional two more years on the current levy.
Quiet election year
Three candidates ran uncontested for three seats on Bexley's board of education in November, cutting down on the amount of political signs this year.
A fourth candidate, Natalie Coles, had thrown her hat into the ring, but an error on her filing petition led to her elimination from the race. It was her second attempt at a board seat in as many years.
Those guaranteed a seat included the board's current president, Carol Fey; the board's current vice president, Marlee Snowdon; and John Barno, who conducted an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the board in 2011.
Board member Anne Brown, who filled the remaining two years of a four-year unexpired term left vacant by former board member Diane Peterson (who resigned from her position in 2011) did not seek to remain on the board.
While the number of students who rely on a free or reduced lunch during the school year in Bexley remains relatively low, district personnel and volunteers reached out this summer in a new, locally funded program.
Every Friday, volunteers from Bexley delivered a bag of groceries to 20 families locally, providing breakfast and lunch to approximately 50 children in the community. Organizers said they started small this year, but hope to expand the 10-week program in years to come.
While Bexley school board member Mike Denison, one of the organizers, pointed out that the community is fortunate to have such a low free and reduced lunch rate, children still go hungry during the summer months in Bexley. According to his numbers, more than 240 children in Bexley receive food assistance during the school year, not including those who attend many of the local preschools and private institutions.
"This is an issue that affects even affluent communities," Denison said. "There are families who need help, even if it is intermittent."
He called the new program a great success.
The Cassingham Elementary School community officially broke ground on the Molly Davis Memorial Garden at the northwest corner of the campus in May.
The garden is being established in memory of Davis, a longtime Cassingham teacher who died as the result of an accident in 2011.
Special guest and former Cassingham teacher Mary McMullen helped Principal Jeannine Hetzler use a ceremonial shovel to break ground. McMullen, Davis' sister, taught alongside her for many years.
Former music specialist Deborah Forsblom presented her own parting gift to the school, a Peace Pole to be placed in the memorial garden.
Several members of the school community also spoke in memory of Davis.
"She made you feel like you were the most important person in the world," physical education specialist Melissa McCarthy recalled. Maryanne Claydon, a first-grade teacher, expressed hope that visitors would find "friendliness, bubbliness, spirituality ... and knowledge" in Molly's Garden.
High school honors
Bexley High School received a gold medal top rating and the No. 2 ranking of all Ohio public high schools, according to a report by U.S. News and World Report published this year.
The Best High Schools analysis identifies the top public schools that prepare students for college success.
The magazine evaluated nearly 21,776 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, awarding schools gold, silver or bronze medals based on state proficiency standards, how well they prepare students for college, and other factors. Bexley High School received a silver medal in 2009 when just 2,800 schools across the country were included in the review.
Only 19 Ohio high schools received gold medals and only Walnut Hills High School in the Cincinnati area outranked Bexley.
Bexley's district ranking nationwide was 120.
In addition, Bexley High School climbed in Newsweek magazine's 2013 "America's Best High Schools" list, released earlier this year.
Bexley High School earned a ranking of 228 on the list that highlights the best 2,500 public schools in the nation, giving specific weight to those who best prepare their high schoolers for college.
Again, Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati was Ohio's top-ranking school, at 53rd place.
Dublin Jerome High School came in at 153, making it the only central Ohio high school to rank above Bexley.
A number of outstanding educators were honored in 2013.
Deborah Forsblom, a Cassingham Elementary School music specialist, was selected as a Columbus Symphony Orchestra 2013 Elementary Music Educator Award winner.
Becky Liefeld, an art teacher at Montrose Elementary School, was surprised when she was named Educator of the Year in April by the Bexley Education Foundation. Representatives of the foundation and the district went to Liefeld's class to make the annual Educator of the Year announcement.
The foundation also honored Linda Stern Kass with its Excellence in Education Award. Kass is recognized locally as a strong advocate for education, literacy and the arts. She is a past chairwoman and current member of the foundation's Board of Governors, and also serves as founding chairwoman of its successful author initiative, Bexley Community Book Club, now in its seventh year.
Finally, what would a year be in Bexley without a number of noted authors visiting and interacting with the community? Bexley native R.L. Stine, along with award-winning authors Jennifer Egan and Gary Schmidt, entertained audiences, young and old alike, this year.
The Bexley Community Book Club has announced that best-selling author Russell Banks has been chosen as its 2014 Selected Author.
Banks, an award-winning writer who has been called "one of America's greatest living novelists," will visit Bexley on April 29 and 30, 2014.