Despite the loss of a promising Race to the Top grant, Reynoldsburg City Schools will move confidently into 2013, with staff members preparing to tackle new and more rigorous state standards, Superintendent Steve Dackin said.
Dackin said the state's new accountability system will challenge many districts and will "raise the bar" for academic success.
"The challenge we always face is to make sure our kids are getting what they need to be successful and productive adults," he said. "If we look at the changes that are occurring with the Common Core curriculum that Ohio has adopted and the new assessments that will arrive at least by the 2014-15 school year, then we have to say it is a 'brave new world' for us in Ohio.
"These are much more rigorous standards, so our challenge is to meet those higher expectations quickly so that our kids are college- and career-ready," he said.
Reynoldsburg schools currently "do a pretty good job" under the current standards to ensure college readiness, but maybe not enough to ensure career readiness for students moving directly into a profession after high school, Dackin said.
"I plan to talk to school board members about what extent we can prepare students to demonstrate employable skills and aptitude upon graduation," he said. "We do pockets of good work in this area with our students who attend Eastland-Fairfield Career Center. But we need more kids graduating with employable skills."
Dackin said the recent partnership with Columbus State Community College, which will open a learning center branch Jan. 9 at BELL Academy, is a "strong step in the right direction."
"We need to do more, though, about making sure students achieve employability and students graduate with industry-recognized skills," he said.
Dackin said losing a $20 million Race to the Top grant, after being one of three Ohio finalists, out of 61 chosen from among 379 applications, was a big disappointment.
"We were deeply disappointed that we were not funded in that competition after coming as close as we did," he said. "We scored a 195 on the application and tied for 18th.
"To be that close was heartwrenching, because the grant would have been an immediate source of revenue to amplify what we are doing."
The U.S. Department of Education selected 16 school districts around the country to receive Race to the Top grants.
Dackin said Reynoldsburg has been approached by other organizations besides Battelle and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation -- both of which worked with the district on the Race to the Top proposal -- who are interested in helping the district achieve its goals.
"People are still interested in figuring out how we can achieve the goals in our proposal," he said.
The Race to the Top proposal included ways to personalize student learning, expand school choice, develop a web-based analytical tool for processing student data and increase partnerships with local organizations to help reduce expenses and increase student opportunities.
School board member Loretta King said being a finalist in Race to the Top was still a good thing. She said it is an accomplishment she will remember about 2012, besides "establishing STEM learning throughout the district."
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She said her goals for 2013 include staying at the top of the state report card rankings.
"Reynoldsburg is a diverse, close-knit community and I'm proud the district received a report card with an A-plus rating for the first time," she said. "I want to continue our A-plus rating and continue the expansion of our partnerships with organizations such as Columbus State, Battelle, BalletMet, Mount Carmel and others to bring innovative ways of learning to our kids."
Dackin said the partnerships with community entities help reduce district expenses.
"I believe we have been blessed to have nice facilities that are conducive to educating kids and because our taxpayers continue to fund our schools, I think we owe it to them to take advantage of our available resources to provide more opportunities for our kids," he said.
The district's new open enrollment policy is already paying off, he said.
"The kids who enrolled through open enrollment are attending and performing well and they are motivated learners," he said. "These kids want to be here and their families want them here."
Dackin said the district expects to bring in "just short of $900,000" in revenue from open enrollment.
"One mill of a levy is $688,000, so we have made up over a mill with this program," he said. "It is another way to stay off the ballot longer and provide opportunities for students."
The district's finances are in good shape, Dackin said.
"We are in better financial condition right now than we have been for five years," he said. "This is largely due to partnerships and open enrollment and the fact we negotiated contracts that were fair to employees and the taxpayers. Of course, because half of our funding comes from the state, any dramatic changes in the new biennial budget could change that, but it is those things that have helped us provide more opportunities for our kids than we have been able to in the past."
Dackin said the A-plus -- excellent with distinction -- rating on the state report card was a big accomplishment in 2012, especially since it was done within a limited school budget.
"We are spending less money, have 200 fewer employees and the demographic of our community has changed, so that more kids are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches than five years ago," he said. "We are pleased about where we are, but it is not good enough."
Dackin said the current global economy demands more of school districts.
"I think the more rigorous state assessments should have come even sooner," he said. "The new accountability system is right-minded, although I would tweak some of it if I could. Setting the bar high for our students is important.
"A lot of school districts will have a performance dip when the new standards come in, but the whole point is to stretch and challenge our kids to make sure they are competitive, which is the primary purpose of what we do in education," he said.