The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

More Good News About Schools from Tulsa Oklahoma

on April 6, 2017

An article that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times describes the extent of school reform achieved in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The major changes were serving the needs and interests of students and parents.  

The Union Public Schools district in Tulsa has managed to create a variety of appealing schools and family services in a short period of time. Beginning in 2004, the district began to convert its traditional schools into community schools that serve students and parents exceptionally well, especially those living in poverty. To accommodate community needs schools now open early so parents can drop off their children on their way to work, and they also stay open late in the afternoon so parents can pick them up on their way home. Several schools also operate during the summer for the same reasons. In addition, school services assist parents who are seeking jobs, provide clothing, food, furniture and bikes, to needy families, and help teenage mothers to stay in school by providing day care for their young children.

To give students the full range of educational opportunities all schools offer art, music, and science classes, along with personal tutoring, if needed. After school activities at most schools include choir practice, art classes, a soccer club, a vegetable garden, and a place for students to work on a school newspaper.

One of the newest changes in the district is a strong emphasis on science and math in selected schools. The curriculum in those schools features hands-on activities in those areas that are both practical and creative. As the former Tulsa school superintendent, Cathy Burden, said, “Focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids” In those new STEM classes students create games, build both practical and imaginative objects, and produce algorithms for their creations so that others can make them, too.

All these school changes have paid off dramatically. Attendance and test scores have risen, and school suspensions have dropped. Also, the high school graduation rate rose to 89 percent in 2016, which was up 15 points from what it was in 2007. The one unfortunate piece of data mentioned is the low pay for teachers: less than $50,000 for experienced teachers with high degrees.

In reading about the district’s funding I found myself incredulous. How could a school district do so much with so little money, which amounts to only $7,605 a year for each student? Perhaps, the unreasonably low teacher salaries are making it possible. If so, that bothers me.

On the other hand, I am very pleased by the school services and curriculum changes that have been made and their effects on students. Because the author of the article, David L Kirp, professor at the University of California and respected researcher and author, spent time visiting several of the district’s schools and talked to students, I accept his views of the successes in this school district.

From my perspective as a retired school district superintendent, principal, and teacher, the creation of community schools, the extra services to parents and students, and the emphasis on appealing school programs seem beneficial to all students and desirable for any school district.  The only obstacles I see are insufficient budgets in most states and too much decision making from the top down.

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