While they won’t want to hear it during their summer break, Oklahoma City Public Schools students need the 2019-2020 academic year to begin before the adults trying to shape their school options start any more hallway brawls.
Oklahoma’s largest school district seems awash in boisterous battles and political posturing from an array of adults who would all agree that we should provide the best possible educational opportunities to our community’s young people. The longer public attention is paid to these adult squabbles without the celebration of compromise, the worse the climate will become for students upon their August return to classrooms.
Sound complicated? Running any school district surely is, but a series of complex fights has furthered a longtime perception: Oklahoma City Public Schools routinely finds itself in chaos, and the resultant negative energy inevitably seeps down to faculty and students.
In recent years, OKCPS has been unable to strike compromises for innovative school proposals focused on language learning, and tension over the district’s new realignment effort now involves a legal battle with one its board members, a situation causing palpable resentment among many involved.
Meanwhile, all available indications are that students largely remain open to new ideas and are focused more on daily stresses and dreams than on school names, grade bands or catchment boundaries.
A school by any other name …
Earlier this year, OKCPS chose to pursue a “Pathway to Greatness” that has closed more than a dozen schools in favor of important “trade ups” that will increase teacher collaboration and ensure all elementary students have regular access to librarians, counselors, music teachers, art teachers and physical education instructors.
While school closures inevitably cause community pain, OKCPS’ effort to grow its highest-achieving application schools — Classen School of Advanced Studies middle and high schools — has turned into a melodrama featuring uncomfortable racial undertones and noticeable anger … among adults, not students.
‘Blame game’ intensifies on Classen SAS school name by John Thompson
Fueling the fire is Classen SAS High School’s move to the sprawling and long-neglected Northeast Academy campus. Board member Charles Henry, who voted for the P2G realignment project, initially focused his concern on whether northeast OKC children will have longterm access to Classen SAS, an important and noble consideration that will require resource investment in the area’s reshaped elementary and middle schools.
But Henry transitioned his criticism toward lower hanging fruit: fears of gentrification and name nostalgia over the building at 3100 N. Kelley Ave. His polarizing statements sparked other intense rhetoric, and his comments and data requests reportedly led the OKCPS board to consider disciplinary action at its June 24 meeting. Henry, however, filed and won an injunction in Oklahoma County District Court, and he is also arguing that the board did not properly vote on the school’s name.
OKCPS told KFOR on Friday that it could not comment on the pending litigation, but the dispute breaks down like this: District leaders believe the Classen SAS name is nationally recognized and, thus, beneficial for performing arts students who apply to prestigious universities; Henry and some Northeast Academy alumni argue the “Northeast” name is important locally and benefits a traditional community bracing for demographic change. In short, one side wants “Northeast” at the beginning of the school name while the other wants it at the end.
Students, by and large, just want good teachers, resources and opportunities.
Create trust, not hard feelings
Part of OKCPS’ challenge over the past 20 years has been convincing metro parents that the district’s schools can provide those things. During that time, OKCPS authorized several charter schools — Santa Fe South, Harding Charter Prep, Harding Fine Arts, Seeworth Academy, Dove, KIPP, Independence Middle School and the Stanley Hupfeld Academy — that critics say often pulled the highest-performing students out of their neighborhood schools.
Over the same time period, the district churned and burned (out) a series of short-term administrative leaders while its elected board membership fluctuated at the ballot box. Community trust with OKCPS has remained one of the district’s most steady characteristics, in so much as it’s been steadily low. While current Superintendent Sean McDaniel and the existing OKCPS board have attempted to fix generational problems by maximizing school capacities via Pathway to Greatness, the district’s recent inability to find compromise on creative charter school proposals has risked further alienation of specific community groups.
For instance, in 2018 board members disapproved the application of Sovereign Community School only to see it approved by the State Board of Education months later. SCS is intended to be a wellness, language and culture-focused academy for Indigenous students living in the metro area. Now Sovereign Community School is authorized, but it is facing facility hurdles at the same time OKCPS is trying to identify uses for more than half a dozen vacant school buildings that it promised will not be left to rot (as the district has allowed in the past).
At the same time, the charter school application of Western Gateway Elementary School has been pending before the district. Western Gateway is a proposed dual-language immersion school that could physically and symbolically bridge the gap between south OKC hispanic communities and an infilling upper-middle class around the developing Wheeler District. (Nearby Heronville Elementary uses a dual-language program to serve its predominantly hispanic student population, though Western Gateway’s two-way mandate would be different.)
The OKCPS board rejected the Western Gateway proposal last week, citing two main concerns: that future development could decrease the number of low-income families in the school’s catchment area, and that Western Gateway wants to include fifth grade students, which Pathway to Greatness has (mostly) realigned into middle schools. The board’s decision can be appealed, should all parties actually want to reach a compromise agreement.
Dual-language immersion schools are intended to bridge gaps between student populations by establishing commonalities of understanding (language) and purpose (learning). As aggravated adults making and reviewing the Western Gateway proposal debate whether to hammer out a solution, the proposed mission and concept should serve as an obvious metaphor to the value of compromise.
Furthermore, all adults involved or seeking to be involved in the education of Oklahoma City children would do well to consider the students they are trying to help as well as what example they should be setting in the process.