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DR. GRAHAM REFLECTS ON HIS FIRST SEVEN MONTHS IN CANTON

Now that we’re neighbors (we recently purchased a home in the district), I’d like to share my thoughts with you as I reflect on my first seven months as superintendent of the Canton City Schools. I share this with you with the full understanding that we as a district have a reputation in some circles for underperforming academically, as well as for being unsafe (a mischaracterization I hope to speak to in a future column).

Spoiler alert - in my personal and professional opinion, these perceptions are wildly undeserved, and we will work hard in the future to tell a fuller and more accurate version of our story. 

When Canton Repository Executive Editor, Rich Desrosiers, invited me to write an article, I was struck by the generosity of that gesture. That said, I wasn’t exactly surprised. Though I’ve only been part of this community for a short time, it’s become evident this big-heartedness comes naturally to the people of Canton.

This revelation has profoundly struck me often throughout the course of my time here. I have spent a great deal of time in our buildings and classrooms, as well as out in the community, talking with students and business leaders alike - parents as well as members of our board of education, staff, and volunteers. 

Throughout my listening tour, it has been made very clear to me that we as a district are in good hands. I have no doubt the Canton City Schools have the right people in the right places to ensure the success of our students. Our children are surrounded by very talented and caring people who want to serve the underserved, and who proudly lead with love.

As we listened to our staff, they made their needs very clear. However, rather than boring you with a bunch of curricular and instructional terminology and our focus on effect size, I’ll summarize by saying that we’re on it. We have identified our academic needs and we’re meeting them. 

That being said, although we continue to have a strong focus on academics, we understand that school is about more than just reading, math, science and social studies. We recognize there are many nonacademic barriers to education that our children face every day in Canton, and we as a school community need to identify and resolve these for our students and their families. 

While we've already begun a free dinner program, and are now partnering with the Boys and Girls Club to provide quality after-school programming, we know our children need more. Needs such as health care, mental health services, vision care and dental care are very real for our students - and we’re working with the right people to assure these needs will be met. I am confident the solutions to these challenges can be found right here in our own community.

Perhaps just as important is the health of our overall school environment. Early in the year, staff shared their frustrations related to the overall culture and climate in our schools. However, it’s difficult to create a plan based on feelings. Instead, we needed to determine the root causes of those feelings. Therefore, after a lengthy engagement process, we were able to identify why they felt the way they felt. And now that we know 'why' - with their help - we will create a plan to address it.

In addition to the ways we formally gather input from our staff, our teacher leadership and I spend at least one day a week in a school with our teachers, support staff and principals during their lunch periods and meet with them while they eat lunch. We go in with no agenda. We don’t have a presentation or a canned speech. We just listen, learn and strive to react appropriately to meet their needs. And I want to thank everyone for their honesty and candor as we work together to improve for those we serve. 

As I’ve shared many times, good things are happening in our classrooms. Not only have I witnessed it, but also we have data to support it. In a previous column published in the Repository, I shared the statistic that in the 2019 graduating class, 96% of the students who were educated in our classrooms - who did not move from Kindergarten through 12th grade - graduated on-time, well-prepared for their futures.

My findings of the loving, talented staff we have in Canton will never be measured on the Local Report Card, but please know they are there. And please know that we are implementing strategies to change the narrative about the Canton City Schools, even at the state level. My role now is to continue to ask questions, listen, learn, empower the right people - and get out of their way.