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Pathway to Greatness update
Flanked by staff, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel speaks to media Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, at the OKCPS Operations Center. (Tres Savage)

Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel started his week by presenting a Pathway to Greatness update: twice. Monday evening, he made a presentation (embedded below) during a three-hour board meeting, and Tuesday he answered questions from media, emphasizing the district’s “radical change” over the past year.

“This was radical change that upset the apple cart for thousands of people, so we know that there was and still is heartburn and anxiety, and people are upset,” McDaniel said Tuesday. “But we believe that the end result — and we are starting to see some results now — is worth it. Because this is kid-focused.”

For many kids in OKCPS, McDaniel said they are experiencing class types and resources previously unavailable to them.

“We have kids right now who are fourth graders who, in their entire lives, can say this: I have never been to a school until this year that had a full-time art class; I have never been to a school until this year that had a full-time counselor; I have never been to a school until this year that said STEM is so important [that my school has a dedicated STEM space],” McDaniel said.

McDaniel said the same concept of “trade ups” — made possible by P2G’s reduction of elementary school campuses — applies to other support staff positions critical to student wellbeing.

“We’ve added social workers, we’ve added [12 full-time] nurses,” he said. “We went from 24 percent of our 54 elementaries last year that had a full-time counselor to 100 percent of our 33 elementaries this year that have a full-time counselor.”

‘It’s our responsibility to provide solutions’

The OKCPS board approved Pathway to Greatness in March 2019, a dramatic restructuring of the district’s feeder patterns and resources.

While McDaniel praised staff, district board members and community support, he identified areas needing additional focus during his Pathway to Greatness update:

  • Transportation challenges with new and adjusted bus routes
  • Class sizes in some schools
  • Concerns about student behavior at certain schools
  • Community anticipation for immediate P2G success

McDaniel said all school districts deal with bus-route challenges on virtually an annual basis, but he said P2G exacerbated typical problems.

“We have continued to work in that regard to increase our driver pay and increase our compensation for bus drivers,” said Scott Randall, OKCPS chief operating officer. “[Hiring drivers] is overall how we really improve.”

McDaniel said class sizes are also always a challenge at every district and that OKCPS is focused on the issue.

“We know that in some cases, while we’re saying a goal of ours is to reduce elementary class size — and on average we did — we know there are people who are above average, who last year their class size was lower than it is this year,” McDaniel said. “We still have class sizes that are too high, and we will continue to address that.”

McDaniel also addressed public reports about student behavior, which were a theme in the American Federation of Teachers’ OKC chapter survey this year.

“We have looked at the survey. We’ve read every single comment. We take it very seriously. We appreciate Mr. [Ed] Allen and the AFT,” McDaniel said. “That survey and the results of that survey are a value-add to our process.”

Some of the challenges reported in that survey are occuring in middle schools, which were primarily realigned into fifth grade through eighth grade bands. Last school year, fifth grades were mostly in elementary schools, while sixth through eighth grades were sometimes co-located in high schools.

“We believed and still believe a five-eight band works for several reasons,” McDaniel said. “Some (middle schools) are working very well, and some are not working well. Those are the facts, so it’s our responsibility to provide solutions.”

McDaniel said many factors go into operating a school with fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students: how kids are structured in the building, staffing backgrounds and lunch schedules. He said the district moved middle schools out of high schools to separate disparate age groups, which presented problems OKCPS does not want to replicate now.

“The feedback we get is, ‘We don’t want the 5-8 turning into the mid-high (model),'” McDaniel said. “The fear in some of our middle schools is that it’s returning to that feel, and we don’t want that to happen. We got away from [co-located middle and high schools] for some of the very reasons causing the fear in those (middle) schools among parents and teachers right now. So we are addressing that.”

Jason Brown, OKCPS deputy superintendent, said getting the grade-band transition right is important.

“We made a transition in one year. We restaffed all of our middle schools,” Brown said. “But there are some growing pains when you take differing schools and differing staff.”

School closed under P2G turned into film academy

Earlier Tuesday, OKCPS announced its former Green Pastures Elementary School in northeast Oklahoma City would become a “a film and television academy and film studio to meet the growing needs and economic development of the Oklahoma entertainment industry.”

The announcement received bipartisan praise in the district’s press release.

“It is clear that Oklahoma has the opportunity to attract hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment but in order to do so we need both sound stages and a ‘set ready’ workforce,” said Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell. “The repurposing of the school [can] have a significant impact not only on the local community, but on the State as a whole.”

Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-OKC) said the move sends a “strong signal” to anyone looking to bring a film business to Oklahoma.

“I fully support this work to turn Green Pastures (Elementary) School into a studio campus capable of training tomorrow’s workforce,” Dunnington said. “If we work together and focus on opportunities to build in a 21st century economy, many will look back on this time as a turning point in our great state.”

The former Edgemere Elementary School, also closed in OKCPS’ Pathway to Greatness, will now be home to the Trinity School, a private Christian school.

McDaniel said Tuesday that the Green Pastures news marks 14 of 15 the schools closed under Pathway to Greatness that have been repurposed.

Pathway to Greatness update presentation