For education reform to flourish, you need political leadership to change laws and policies, educational leadership with a clear vision for change, community leaders tirelessly advocating for better schools, and funders offering needed resources. On a recent trip to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, we found many of these pro-reform conditions in place, although significant barriers remain.
Most notable was the fact that we met education activists from Black, White, Latino and Native-American communities. All of them expressed hope and confidence that they could create better educational options for their children.
The hope begins with people like African-American pastor Ray Owens of Tulsa, a native Texan who was a member of Teach For America’s first corps in 1990 and then was called to the church.The large and thriving church he pastors, Metropolitan Baptist, just celebrated 100 years. Owens helped start The Greenwood Leadership Academy, a “partnership” school with the Tulsa Public Schools.
Greenwood is the first of seven schools that Owens hopes to create serving the historically Black North Tulsa community. It is run by a dynamic young principal, Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, with a strong assist from parent/community organizer, Greg Robinson.
Robert Ruiz runs Choice Matters, a statewide organization that engages parents in all sectors of school choice, both public and private. Ruiz is also working to create better educational opportunities for the state’s growing Latino population. We also met Elsie Urueta and Chelsea Vanacore, two charter school leaders working in East Tulsa, which has seen significant growth of Latino families in recent years.
Principal Charles Ivy, a former marine, runs Sankofa, a small charter middle school in the basement of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa. One of his teachers, Nehemiah Frank, is a budding media mogul with a blog called The Black Wall Street Times (BWST), covering education, politics and economics through the lens of race. He was recently profiled by NBC.
Phil Gover runs the Sovereign Schools Project, which seeks to help Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized tribes become charter school authorizers, while also working with Albuquerque-based Native American Community Academy to support community leaders seeking to open new charter schools that can serve Native Americans in Oklahoma. The Sooner State has the largest Native American population in the country and there are currently 135,000 Native-American students in Oklahoma schools.
Business leader and Kentucky native Paul Campbell runs an aerospace company in rural Seminole, an hour southeast of OKC. Campbell helped lead the effort to open a new charter school next fall because he struggles to find local employees qualified to work in his company and credits education for his success as “just a rural kid from Kentucky.” The school, which faced considerable opposition from the local school board but was supported by many parents and community members, will be the first of what he expects will be a multi-state network of rural charter schools.
Chris Brewster runs the Santa Fe charter school network in Oklahoma City, serving grades 6-12. Brewster just opened a new school in an underused shopping mall. The school has a unique design that allows teachers to collaborate, observe each other’s work and assist each other with specific tasks and challenges. Everyone at Santa Fe High Schools is expected to get into college, even if they choose not to go. Students post acceptance letters in the school’s hallways.
Tulsa native and current Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist earned a national reputation as a bold education reformer while serving as the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, where she helped win a major federal grant to drive reform. A former school teacher, Gist’s primary focus is teacher quality and curriculum.
Gist concedes that recruiting and retaining great teachers isn’t easy in a state where salaries start in the low 30’s and after 12 years and a master’s degree still don’t reach $40,000. Even after 18 years and a doctorate, a teacher in Tulsa still earns less than $50,000. Oklahoma’s 2016 teacher of the year recently relocated to Texas, where he and his wife, also a teacher, can earn considerably more and the district overall lost 25 percent of its teachers last year alone.
Gist is upbeat, however, highlighting a string of high-quality public assets in Tulsa, including libraries, parks, school facilities, as well as a collaborative teachers union, and supportive philanthropic, business and political leaders.
Brent Bushey is helping existing school leaders implement needed change through the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center (OPSRC), a shared workspace for charter leaders, district reform leaders and others in the education sector. OPSCRC has more than 130 school districts as members.
OPSRC also provides assistance to both district and charter schools on legal, financial, technology and education issues. OPSRC recently launched “Momentum Schools,” a new effort involving rural and exurban districts offering a personalized learning model for students. Next door to OPSRC in the same innovative building near downtown OKC is Teach For America, which has been active in the state for several years.
On the private choice side of the equation, Oklahoma currently has a small program enabling about 1,300 students to use tax-credit financed scholarships to attend private schools. The scholarship amounts are low and the program is capped at $5 million annually, but local choice activists are hoping to grow the program. Recently the state also expanded a voucher program to allow foster kids and adopted foster children to participate.
We also met the founders of a new private high school to serve low-income Black and Latino students, part of the Cristo Rey network, which integrates paid work experience with schooling. The Cristo Rey model began in Chicago and is now in 21 states. The new school will be housed on the Oklahoma State’s Oklahoma City campus.
The university’s president, Natalie Shirley, is also the state secretary of education, appointed by Governor Mary Fallin. Shirley is especially focused on challenging the state’s historically low expectations, where college was not the goal for kids who could easily find work in the oil and gas industry right after high school.
Oklahoma is one of the few states in the country to completely repeal the Common Core learning standards, so there is something of a culture of low expectations (as journalist Amanda Ripley discovered when she wrote her bestselling “The Smartest Kids in the World” four years ago). Nevertheless, the state is a national leader in early learning and is a recognized leader in other areas as well.
Oklahoma also has an elected state superintendent of education, Joy Hofmeister, who supports higher teacher pay and strong accountability, according to her website. Oklahoma currently spends between $7,000 and $8,000 annually per child on education, which is in the bottom five states in the country. Charter schools get even less than district schools. For most of the people we met with, increased funding can’t come “soon(er)” enough.