Former Oklahoma teacher of the year finalist Ryan Walters was nominated to be secretary of education by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Sept. 10.
Walters grew up attending McAlester Public Schools and went on to become a teacher at McAlester High School. He currently teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history at Millwood High School and McAlester High School, and he is also the CEO of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a private organization that oversees the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet. This program was put in place to distribute $8 million of the federal COVID-19 relief money from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) in the form of $1,500 grants for low-income families to purchase curriculum content, tutoring services and technology.
In the following Q&A, Walters discusses his new role, his priorities for Oklahoma’s education system and how funds from the CARES Act and GEER are being used to assist parents and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responses have been edited lightly for style.
Tell me about your history with Oklahoma’s education system.
First and foremost, I consider myself to be a teacher. I had several teachers that made a tremendous difference in my life while attending McAlester Public Schools. I knew while sitting in my high school classes that I wanted to be a teacher and have the influence on students like so many of my teachers had on me.
For eight years, I was a history teacher in my hometown, at McAlester High School, where I taught advanced placement courses in world history, U.S. history, and U.S. government, as well as on-level history classes, special education classes, and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classes. In 2016, I was honored to be named as an Oklahoma teacher of the year finalist by The Oklahoma State Department of Education. I currently teach AP U.S. History at Millwood High School and McAlester High School as a pilot course through the Oklahoma Supplemental Course Program.
In 2019, I became the executive director of Oklahoma Achieves, an effort founded by the State Chamber of Oklahoma to better engage the business community in education. I currently serve as the CEO of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma (EKCO), an education-focused organization that is empowering teachers, parents and community leaders to improve our education system for all Oklahoma students. EKCO just launched over the summer and is in the early stages of building up teacher and community coalitions.
As I continue working through EKCO and also begin to serve as secretary of education, I am aware of the magnitude of work left to do to make our state great in education. The eldest of my three kids started first grade this year and, like every other parent, I want the absolute best for her. I have a platform to help drive real change for her and every other Oklahoma child, and I can’t wait to get started.
What is your understanding of the role and purpose of the secretary of education in Oklahoma?
As an adviser to Gov. Stitt, my purpose is to partner with our state education leaders and agencies, the Legislature and local schools across the state to ensure decisions are being made that are going to benefit every Oklahoma student. I’m looking forward to drawing on my first-hand experience teaching in our public school system as we work together to innovate, engage in robust conversation and build policy that best serves our teachers and students.
My experience allows me to provide a unique perspective when it comes to making decisions that affect the future of our education system. By providing solutions to the following questions, we can continue our work to achieve Top 10 status in education:
- Innovation: How can we be innovative to provide the best resources for learning and teaching?
- Oklahoma students: What is needed for them to succeed, not only in the classroom, but beyond? What skills can we bring into the classroom that will help students in their post-scholastic life as they take on the professional world?
- Big picture: What policies and programs can we implement that will benefit all Oklahoma students?
What has Gov. Stitt told you about his education priorities? How do you plan on supporting those priorities?
The governor is focused on making sure all students have access to quality education. I agree with Gov. Stitt that Oklahoma could be Top 10 in education. Relationships are important to the governor, and I look forward to utilizing my connections with teachers, business and community leaders, legislators and local school leaders to help craft policies that will benefit every Oklahoma student. Like the governor, I am a father first to school-age children. We know how important a quality education is for every child in Oklahoma.
You’re the CEO of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, which oversees the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet and is funded by federal CARES Act dollars. What are your duties at EKCO? Is there any conflict of interest in serving this private education reform organization while also serving as state secretary of education?
EKCO is a relatively new organization, and it is filling a void in our state. EKCO is uniquely positioned to work with parents, teachers and community leaders to develop policies that help all students. Right now, we are proudly serving as the organization through which Digital Wallet grants are being given to low-income families to help them purchase the supplies, materials and technology needed to have a successful virtual school year. As the CEO, my duties include establishing the vision for the organization, working to build awareness of EKCO across the state and leading an education coalition of peer organizations to set and influence education policy.
As secretary of education, I’ll work closely with the state superintendent, legislators and local educators and administrators to ensure all students across Oklahoma have access to the quality education and resources they deserve. I will be seeking out and working with stakeholders to ensure we’re reaching our common goal of serving all Oklahoma students. We’re pursuing what’s best for students — ALL students.
COVID-19 is presenting a unique set of challenges for school districts throughout Oklahoma. How do you feel the school year is going around the state so far?
It is a new and unique challenge for everyone involved — teachers, students and parents. Students are not getting the personal relationship from their teachers. Parents are putting in overtime trying to work and assist their child with distance learning. And teachers are struggling to make sure kids are prepared and equipped to absorb the material through a unique platform. It is a tough situation, but Oklahomans are resilient and adaptable. There is no doubt in my mind we will all come together to make sure young Oklahomans are prepared and educated. This is also an opportunity to think about how we can use technology to improve education and try innovative solutions. This is a trying time, but I believe a lot of good can come from this period in education if we all work together with students as the focus.
How are CARES Act and GEER money being used to support schools during the pandemic?
A big focus of recent CARES Act and GEER funding has been on giving parents and caregivers the resources they need to help their students succeed in this virtual learning environment.
Approximately $8 million of these funds has been allocated to support the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet grant program overseen by EKCO. In the midst of COVID-19, Digital Wallet is filling a critical gap for many low-income families who might not have the resources to purchase what is necessary to successfully do school from home. EKCO is awarding $1,500 grants to 5,000 Oklahoma families with students in grades K-12. The grants can be used by families to purchase supplies, materials and technology. We have put the power back in the hands of the parents to choose exactly how they want to spend the funds to best support their children’s education. Parents can learn more and apply for the grant at everykidcountsok.org. Families who meet the federal low-income level guidelines of less than $26,200 per year for a family of four are eligible for the grant. See more about the income guidelines to know if you are eligible to apply here.
What are your personal concerns regarding COVID-19 and school districts throughout the state?
I fear teachers will be under enormous amounts of stress and that will take a toll on their long-term passion for teaching. I fear students will fall behind and feel lost, which will add additional stress to an already difficult school year.
I think it’s important for all of us to do all we can to ensure the safety of our students and our school personnel. I also think we must do all we can to utilize our resources to ensure our students are able to continue learning in this difficult environment.
What is the most embarrassing memory you have from your time teaching or as a student?
When I was teaching at McAlester Public Schools, I had the idea of doing an interview series where I talked to fellow teachers about life, school and teaching. My students at the time helped me name the segments, film, produce and publish the videos on YouTube. They were a lot of fun to make, but were made with a pretty low production and planning budget, to say the least. The videos cover a variety of topics that range from funny stories with students to lip syncing some songs from the 90’s. There are definitely some embarrassing moments there. I still don’t know how this series didn’t get picked up by Netflix! You can still find all the videos in the series, titled “Teachers in School Getting Coffee” on the McAlester Public Schools YouTube channel. I encourage you to watch for a good laugh and to learn a few things about how teachers see the world and their jobs.
Also while I was teaching at McAlester Public Schools, I once made a deal with my students that if they scored so well on one of my exams they could “roast me.” My students ended up doing VERY well on the exam and set up a roast. In particular, there was a pretty funny segment they set up where they went on Twitter and found “mean tweets” about me similar to Jimmy Kimmel’s popular segment and had me read them. There were plenty of jokes about how skinny my ties were and my coffee breath! It’s recorded somewhere hopefully to never be discovered! It ended up being a pretty funny/embarrassing experience!