RISE STEAM Academy approved, OKCPS charter school applications
Members of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board prepare for a meeting regarding charter school applications in front of about 100 observers Monday, Jan. 8, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Members of the Oklahoma City Public Schools board voted Monday night to approve a new “STEAM Academy” charter school serving OKC’s historically Black northeast side, but the board disapproved two others that would educate in similar areas.

The votes — none of which were unanimous — came six weeks after the OKCPS board had disapproved all three eastside proposals while authorizing a Montessori-style school in northwest Oklahoma City.

After presentations from each applicant, OKCPS board members voted Monday to approve RISE STEAM Academy, a pre-K through fourth grade school aiming for broad incorporation of science, technology, engineering, arts and math in students’ classes.

The board rejected applications from P3 Urban Montessori and the Willard C. Pitts Academy, a proposal seeking to provide parents with another public middle school option in northeast Oklahoma City.

Ultimately, the votes were in line with OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel’s final recommendations.

“In this district, unfortunately over the last 20 plus years, we’ve had charters who knock it out of the park and still do, but we’ve had some charters who have not been successful by any measure,” McDaniel said during the meeting. “And so what we want to make sure of (…) is that we put OKCPS kids in a position to succeed. And if we believe that one of these schools offers that opportunity that we don’t, we want to be about kids.”

While each proposed school improved its application scores since the Nov. 27 meeting, RISE STEAM’s resubmission achieved 82 points, just two points shy of the 84 total possible points.

“I think what [the approval] means is that parents have choice,” said Carma Barlow, RISE STEAM’s leader, after the meeting.

Barlow thanked board members for the opportunity to “breathe some life into our application.” She said the newly approved school will give students an opportunity to receive an education with STEAM concepts emphasized in all classes.

“It’s at the center of everything that happens in the school. It’s not an ancillary thing. It’s not an after school program. It’s not a classroom rotation. It is the program,” Barlow said. “So even in literacy, you’re going to be doing science, you’re going to be doing art and math, and getting students to see those connections and experience those connections makes learning and all of those subject areas more sticky for them and more meaningful.”

Barlow said the goal is for RISE STEAM Academy to open for the Fall 2025 semester and serve around 294 students in northeast Oklahoma City.

Anderson votes against each proposal: ‘Went with my gut’

Oklahoma City Public Schools Board member Adrian Anderson, second from right, discusses his votes with constituents Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (Tres Savage)

OKCPS board members swapped between ayes and nays for each of the three votes.

Chairwoman Paula Lewis made motions to approve each school and voted in favor each time. (Board member Mark Mann missed the meeting and said he was out of town.)

P3 Urban Montessori’s motion failed 2-5, with Lewis and Meg McElhaney voting in favor. Carole Thompson, Lori Bowman, Cary Pirrong, Adrian Anderson and Juan Lecona voted against it.

Willard C. Pitts Academy failed 3-4. Lewis, McElhaney and Thompson voted for it. Bowman, Pirrong, Anderson and Lecona voted against it.

RISE STEAM Academy was approved by a vote of 6-1. Only Anderson opposed it.

After Monday’s meeting adjourned, Anderson was approached by several constituents. One requested a coffee meeting to present data about school outcomes and the limited options for parents in northeast Oklahoma City. Another asked Anderson how many phone calls he had received supporting the Willard C. Pitts Academy proposal. He said three people had called him Monday, but he didn’t recall specifics beyond that. He had been willing to meet with Latasha Timberlake, who is leading the effort to create Willard C. Pitts Academy, but it just hadn’t happened.

“I went with my gut,” Anderson told the woman.

Unsatisfied, she pointed at her brain: “Gut? You have to go with —”

Anderson said after his constituent interactions that he wasn’t “against” anything, but that he was a “traditional public school advocate and supporter.” He said if the proposals are ultimately approved by another statewide authorizing entity, he would not advocate against them.

“It was more about just — I was asking the question, ‘What are we doing?’ I believe in what we are doing on the eastside with our schools right now,” Anderson said. “I know some people may not agree. But what I’m looking at, being in the position that I am, I am believing in what we are doing right now, in the investments we have made.”

Lewis said she voted for all three applications because she felt they were strong and that one in particular offered something OKCPS does not.

“There was a six-point difference between [Willard] Pitts and RISE, and that’s really close,” Lewis said. “The other one, the year-round Montessori, we just don’t have anything like it, and I think the community would like something like that.”

Bowman said she agreed with McDaniel’s recommendations for each of the applications, so she voted accordingly.

“Obviously, from the initial application to resubmission, there was movement in the positive direction, it just — they weren’t all the way there,” Bowman said.

Pirrong seemed to agree.

“I believe RISE Academy is prepared to hit the ground running and do a good job for the children of Oklahoma City,” Pirrong said. “And the other two schools — while they sound great — I don’t think they had all their ducks in a row, and they weren’t exactly ready to go.”

Thompson voted to approve RISE STEAM and Willard C. Pitts but voted against approving P3.

“Being a product of northeast Oklahoma City, I noticed that for a while we were in a food desert, and we’re in a partial middle school desert because we only have one choice in northeast Oklahoma City for middle school,” Thompson said during the meeting. “So my statement for the board is that this would be another opportunity for parents to have choice in where their children go to school for middle school.”

Possibly compounding the issue, Lewis noted during the meeting that the district has been losing students from the northeast part of the city for years and that the district only enrolls between 40 and 45 percent of eligible students in the area.

Although charter schools draw some students — and the funding that comes with them — away from a public school district, McDaniel said he does not view charter schools as adversaries.

“I can tell you that the charters that we currently sponsor — and then the representatives from these applicants — I’ve been in rooms with them and we’re not adversarial,” McDaniel said. “They support us. We support them.”

To that end, Barlow, RISE STEAM’s leader, emphasized her desire for partnership during her presentation to the board.

“Partnering with the district looks like being able to collaborate and learn from one another,” Barlow said. “So I think some of the innovative practices that we will implement at RISE — I think there are ways that the district could benefit from those, but I also think there are practices within the district that RISE could also benefit from learning.”

During the meeting, Jason Mack, OKCPS’ charter school coordinator noted in a slideshow presentation the expected impact of the proposed schools to the district’s landscape. Mack said it was impossible to estimate the extent to which OKCPS schools would be affected, but he highlighted three schools likely to be most impacted by the proposed charters:

  • Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School
  • Thelma Parks Elementary School
  • F.D. Moon Middle School

In response to questions from Anderson, Mack also noted, incorrectly, that it is illegal for charter school teachers to have unions.

“It’s illegal for charters to have unions. That’s what makes them more innovative and autonomous,” Mack said.

After further questioning from Lewis, Mack added a second inaccurate statement, “They can have outside counsel from like the American Federation of Teachers and stuff like that, but they can’t unionize in the building.”

Although Oklahoma statute does not require charter schools to comply with the collective bargaining laws with which public schools are required to comply, it does say that teacher contracts in charter schools “may provide for employer-employee bargaining.”

OKCPS charter school applications denied at November meeting

Members of the OKCPS board had initially considered the three applications at issue Monday night and another charter school application at a meeting Nov. 27.

At that meeting, members voted to authorize the Oklahoma Montessori Initiative after voting on it three times. That school will primarily serve students in northwest Oklahoma City.

OKCPS board members voted to reject the other three applications and send them back for revisions. While the specific deficiencies judged to each application varied, members seemed broadly concerned with the schools’ facilities, finances and program design.

OKCPS’ review committee had recommended denying each application and released the scoring rubric for each one prior to the Nov. 27 meeting.

Members decided to reject McDaniel’s recommendation for the Oklahoma Montessori Initiative and approve the school, but scoring rubrics indicated that the proposal tied among the four for the lowest-scoring application.

Each of the resubmitted applications scored higher than their initial submissions. P3 Urban Montessori, which had tied with OMI for the lowest score of 46 out of 84, gained 18 points to achieve 64 total points. The proposed Willard C. Pitts Academy, which had 63 points initially, rose to 76 with their resubmission.

RISE STEAM Academy, had received 61 points initially, climbing to 82.

With a slideshow presented during the meeting, OKCPS review committee members said they still had concerns about facilities for all three proposed schools. Additionally, committee members also said they were still concerned with P3 Urban Montessori and Willard C. Pitts’ finances.

The OKCPS board’s denial to authorize the P3 Urban Montessori and Willard C. Pitts Academy is not the end of their effort to create the schools. Both will be able to seek other charter school authorizers, such as the State Board of Education or universities, to approve their applications.

Latasha Timberlake, who is leading the effort to create the Willard C. Pitts Academy, said she intends to apply for approval from the State Board of Education.

“At the end of the day, I’m still an advocate for education in northeast Oklahoma City and a supporter of the community of northeast Oklahoma City,” Timberlake said after the meeting.