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The sun sets on Northeast Academy on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. The three-story building could be the new home of an expanded Classen School of Advanced Studies High School. (Tres Savage)
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Oklahoma City Public Schools would relocate the district’s most academically rigorous high school from the city’s northwest quadrant to its northeast quadrant under all three Pathway to Greatness options unveiled Tuesday evening. The proposal triggered an assortment of reactions from leaders within both school communities.

Application-based with an international baccalaureate program, Classen School of Advanced Studies currently houses a middle school and a high school at 1901 N. Ellison Ave.

But OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel told his board members that capacity could double for both schools if the Classen SAS high school relocates to the Northeast Academy campus, which district administrators have shared with shrinking high school and middle school classes for the past two years.

That received positive response from both board members representing the locations of the current schools.

“I think there are going to be a tremendous number of kids from northeast Oklahoma City that are going to apply, get in and succeed in an SAS environment because it’s challenging and they want to be challenged,” said board member Mark Mann who represents and fundraises for Classen SAS. “I think kids in northeast Oklahoma City are ready for the rigor.”

Board member Ruth Veales represents the Northeast campus (3100 N. Kelley Ave.), and she concurred.

“I have excitement for every student to have the same opportunity to excel and do the best. So if it means moving from one place to another, well so be it,” Veales said. “Equity is about giving resources and opportunity to everyone. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Once the dust settles, I think people will understand that we are more alike than different and that whether your income is up here or down there, we all want the same thing.”

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What McDaniel and board chairwoman Paula Lewis said they want are more seats within the Classen SAS application model and greater equity for district students.

“For the board, it’s about stopping the dying of the district and building capacity,” Lewis said. “That’s where we made our decision a couple years ago. We could keep doing things the way we are doing, but we are losing numbers of kids.”

A three-story structure with two gymnasiums and a large auditorium, the Northeast building would provide ample space to grow the Classen SAS high school model. But it would also dramatically diversify the campus’ current student body, a fact that did not sit well Tuesday with one vocal community activist.

“This is clearly part of gentrification,” said Michael Washington, who waved his hands above his head in disapproval when the Classen-Northeast announcement was made. “This is dividing families that have known nothing but northeast Oklahoma City.”

T. Sheri Dickerson, the leader of Oklahoma City’s Black Lives Matter chapter, said she has concerns about historical movement within OKCPS toward charter and application schools, such as Classen SAS. She expressed disappointment about the proposed closure of Northeast Academy, but she also identified hope in the scenario.

“I sincerely hope the focus on equity across the entire district will come to fruition,” Dickerson said. “I think the expansion plans will seem disconcerting to many Northeast students because of losing the identity of their beloved school. If there’s a collaborative renaming or shared building and Northeast students continue to have reserved spots if they desire to attend, that will help diffuse the pain of the transition.”

CLASSEN SAS APPLICATION

For now, 4 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, stands as the 2019 application deadline for Classen SAS middle and high schools. Deadlines may change, but board member Mark Mann encourages meeting the preliminary deadline.

Download the Classen SAS application

Northeast graduate: ‘I think it will be good’

Northeast Academy Classen SAS
Northeast Academy graduate Dalontae Chatman, right, listens as the OKCPS board discusses its Pathway to Greatness proposals Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in the Northeast auditorium. (Tres Savage)

Dalontae Chatman, a recent Northeast Academy graduate and current college student, stayed for all three hours of Tuesday night’s meeting. A school leader during his time at Northeast, he expressed surprise at the Classen SAS announcement.

“That was kind of a curveball. I wasn’t expecting for them to put Classen and Northeast together,” Chatman said. “I thought they were going to do something with Northeast and Douglas.”

He said he believes moving Classen SAS to the northeast campus — whatever the name — will be positive.

“I think it will be good. It just brings more variety of people here because right now the school is predominantly black,” Chatman said. “It will bring a different variety, and [Northeast] is smaller (currently). So bringing them here, it will definitely increase the numbers and everything. It will be good.”

Chatman’s former Northeast football coach, Kenny Blair, also attended Tuesday’s meeting and echoed his optimism.

“Let’s look at the positive. The positive is going to be where the kids are going to get an opportunity,” said Blair, who now teaches and coaches at Southeast High School. “Classen SAS could bring a field of riches to the school here. Some of the things the children need here, the Classen community can bring over here to these children. And vice versa. Some of the things they have here, they can combine with the students at Classen and make it a great environment for the kids to learn.”

During his time at Northeast Academy, Blair helped lead cleanup efforts of the campus’ long-neglected outdoor athletic facilities, and he questioned why neighborhood stakeholders would fear a plan that puts students and resources back into the monumental building and sprawling campus that were built as a mirror of Northwest Classen.

“When they say, ‘change the neighborhood,’ is it for the better or for the worse?” Blair asked. “As far as negatives, I don’t see any negatives in it.”

Kenny Blair OKCPS
OKCPS teacher and coach Kenny Blair, right, speaks to community members during a volunteer campus clean-up effort Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, at Northeast Academy. (Tres Savage)

McDaniel: ‘Diverse schools are great schools’

If social media conversations Tuesday evening were any indication, some district parents do see negatives. Discussions in the private Classen SAS info for parents Facebook group percolated with fear, frustration and the occasional awkward use of the word “they” by parents discussing the current Northeast Academy student body.

“Concerned about the location,” one woman wrote. “Not a fan of this move.”

Other parents pushed back against negative reactions.

“I bet over half the people complaining about this change because of the bad area and extra kids posted a nice MLK quote to their timeline yesterday about love and acceptance or valuing equality,” another woman wrote. “But today when our kids are moved to what is perceived to be a less desirable part of our city, we get upset and say it’s dangerous a dilution?”

OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel

Asked Tuesday night about the impact race may have on public consideration of the Classen-Northeast move, McDaniel said one of the district’s guiding principles is that diverse schools are good.

“We know conclusively through research that diverse schools are great schools,” McDaniel said. “Kids from all different walks of life — particularly ethnicity, racially, socio-economically — when they merge, they love each other. They take care of each other. The academic needle moves in a very positive way.”

He hinted that many students may be more at ease with the transition than some parents.

“We have full confidence in our kids as they merge and as cultures come together,” McDaniel said. “Our kids are going to be great with each other. It’s some of the other things (…) some of the fears, some of the unknowns. ‘I’m not familiar with that part of town.’ We believe as a district we can overcome that with good communication, with good opportunities to come and walk campuses.”

Pennington-Fletcher: ‘This is a huge trade up’

Classen SAS
Two groupings of notes about the district’s Pathway to Greatness project line OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel’s conference room Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Tres Savage)

Chaya Pennington-Fletcher, a black Northeast graduate whose children now attend Classen SAS, praised the proposal as an opportunity for the entire community.

“As a parent of a Classen SAS middle school and high school student, I am excited for what the merging of NEHS and CSAS high school means for northeast OKC,” she said. “Although I’ve been skeptical of the potential outcomes, this is a huge trade up for the residents in northeast OKC to have more access to the best high school the district has to offer.”

An OKCPS teacher at Star Spencer High School, Pennington-Fletcher criticized the reactions from some of her parental peers and attempted to offer a history lesson.

“It’s disheartening to hear Classen SAS parents say they wouldn’t send their children to an eastside school when eastside students have been left out of the equation for decades, due to access,” she said. “Before Classen was reopened as Classen SAS, Northeast was the only high school in the 1990s that offered an application-only academic program, and it is because of Northeast’s success with its program that Classen SAS became viable.”

Mary Mélon, president and CEO of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, attended Tuesday night’s meeting and pushed back against whatever concerns district parents might have about northeast Oklahoma City.

“I think people fear what they don’t know, and they fear this perception that Oklahoma City Public Schools are unsafe schools,” said Mélon, who is white. “And they aren’t. They aren’t. I’m in them, and I don’t sense it. I’ve never experienced it. So I think it goes back to how change is hard.”

Mélon said she hopes current Classen SAS families will see the large Northeast campus as an opportunity.

“This isn’t a punishment of Classen SAS. This is, in fact, opening up room for them that they desperately need, and it’s expanding a good model,” she said. “It is positively bringing resources. It is going to take this model at Classen SAS that is one of our bright spots and expand it to more of our kids in northeast Oklahoma City. That’s equity.

“But for the kids who are going to be coming over here, their worlds are going to be expanded in a really amazing way.”

(Editor’s note: The author of this article has been part of discussions and efforts to revitalize the baseball field at the Northeast campus since 2015, a year in which he also substitute taught at Northeast Academy. He participated in the Aug. 13, 2016, clean-up day pictured above.)