In April, Oklahoma City begins a paramount public discussion on three charter schools possibly expanding their models into the state’s largest school district.
Santa Fe South, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Reach College Preparatory and John Rex Charter Elementary School leaders see opportunity for collaboration with Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS). In February, charter administrators approached district leaders with Quality Seats, a cursory glance at the three charters’ histories, accomplishments and desires to serve more students. A month later, the Oklahoma City Board of Education approved a significant resolution authorizing the three charters to share their proposals with the public in a series of community forums with an emphasis on public feedback.
Funded by the Inasmuch Foundation, local nonprofit Possibilities Inc. will facilitate the community forums. Much is unknown than is known about the three charters’ proposals. No preliminary proposals were made public and community members jumpstarted the dialogue, some even hosting their own forums.
Over the past two months, rumors have run rampant and caused frustration for parents and community members. At the last two school board meetings, the public flooded into the meeting area. Many saught specific details on what charter expansion might mean and how it would impact families and neighborhoods.
OKCPS Superintendent Rob Neu acknowledged the lack of information and irritation; however, the district was awaiting board approval of the four-paragraph resolution. After all, the charters approached the district. Proposals will come from the charters, not from the district.
“This shouldn’t be a narrow conversation or for a specific school,” said John Thompson, an education writer and former OKCPS teacher. “This is a districtwide conversation. Both sides of the story need to get equal time.”
The retired teacher closely monitors and studies school trends, including charter school growth in Oklahoma and across the nation. Charter expansion is a nationwide debate. Districts in Los Angeles, Boston and Oakland are discussing similar measures.
A frequent attendee at OKCPS board meetings, Thompson cautioned against a rushed dialogue. He said charters can help some students achieve success by closing learning gaps, but acknowledged the charter model isn’t for every student. He worried a large number of students would be harmed under “no excuses” disciplinary models in neighborhood schools. Traditionally, charters have strict conduct policies. Critics often question their ability to effectively serve students with behavior challenges.
“The issue shouldn’t be, could this charter or that charter work?” Thompson said. “The issue should be if you scale up the charters, what will happen that’s good and what will happen that’s bad?”
Charters are publicly funded and independently operated schools. Founded on the concept to create an improved learning environment for traditionally underserved populations, Oklahoma lawmakers passed legislation allowing charters in the late 1990s. By 2000, four charter schools were operating in Oklahoma County, including Justice Alma Wilson SeeWorth Academy, an alternative school for students removed from traditional schools for fighting, drugs or gang activity. Janet Grigg serves as the school’s executive director and superintendent, as well as president of the Oklahoma Public Charter Association.
Grigg said charters are required to meet education standards set by the state and federal governments, but have independence to establish specialized curriculum or unique programs for students. OKC is home to charters recognized for their strengths in fine arts, college prep and STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. Charters are held accountable by their governing boards, charter sponsors and the State Board of Education.
Grigg believes charters and traditional schools share much in common. A key difference is charters don’t collect any portion of local bonds; they heavily rely on state funding.
“I think we’ve been pitted against, public schools versus charter schools,” Grigg said. “It is really not [like that]. We are all one. We have different ways of reaching the child. In Oklahoma City, it’s not your child versus our child. They are all our children. It is about serving every single child we can get our hands on to mare sure they are successful.”
Oklahoma County is home to 23 charter school sites, in addition to four virtual charters. There are 6,898 students attending charter schools, according to Oklahoma Gazette’s analysis of Oklahoma State Department of Education 2015-16 school year enrollment data. More than 139,000 county students attend public schools.
The Oklahoma County charter schools serve Hispanic and black students at higher rates than white students. Hispanics constitutes 56 percent of the enrollment. Five years ago, Hispanic students comprised 43 percent of charter enrollment. While the number of Hispanic students steadily increased since the 2010-11 school year, the number of black and white students fell.
OKCPS, which serves 46,500 students, holds ties with 12 OKC-based charter schools, including SeeWorth, KIPP and two of Santa Fe South’s sites. Tulsa Public Schools is the only other district in the state to sponsor a charter school. In addition to districts, universities, tribes and the education department sponsor charters.
Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, applauds the district and charter leaders for sparking the conversation.
“There is potential for collaboration and working together,” said Bushey, whose organization provides resources to member school districts and charter schools throughout the state. “I think the district should be commended for trying to come up with innovative solutions.”
Bushey is one of many who feel there is much ground to cover before final charter expansion proposals are presented to the OKC board. Following the community meetings, charters are expected to bring proposals to the board, which ultimately will make the decision.
“Let’s talk about discipline, let’s talk about expulsion rates and let’s get data,” said Bushey, who explained the key question of enrollment: Would a neighborhood school converted into a charter continue to serve the same students or would students opt-in?
“Parents should ask, ‘If this doesn’t work out for my child, where would they go?’” Bushey said.
Thompson questions the timing of the charters interest in OKCPS. It’s no secret the district is grappling with fewer dollars in wake of the state revenue crisis. The district estimates a $30 million budget short fall for the coming academic year, which begins in July. To save $8 million, the district eliminated 208 teacher positions for the 2016-17 school year.
Transforming some schools into charters could be viewed as a cost-savings strategy. Charters don’t follow state-mandated salary schedules. Most are free from teachers’ unions.
“They know they are kicking the district while they are down,” Thompson said, “and the unions while they are down.”
He wants the public to ask what will most likely happen if there are a large number of charters established at the same time in this environment.
Compared to other states, Oklahoma has been relatively slow to embrace charter schools, with less than a handful opening each fall and not in such close proximity, Grigg said.
“We are very cautious, as we very well should be,” Grigg said. “We need to have plans in place before we say, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’”
The outcome of the community dialogue can’t be predicted; but the public can expect intense debate about reshaping the district. Decisions will influence schools and their students for generations. The overriding goal, however, is to create the best educational opportunities for all students.
As Bushey explained, when it comes to student achievement and school success, it’s as easy as it seems and both public and charter schools can create ideal learning environments.
“Every good school has a good school leader and good quality teachers,” Bushey said. “[At the] end of the day, those are the two factors.”
All meetings are free and open to the public.
6:30- 8 p.m. April 5
Fairview Missionary Baptist Church
1700 NE Seventh St.
6:30- 8 p.m. April 14
Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church
1020 NE 42nd St.
6:30-8 p.m. April 19
Prospect Baptist Church
2809 N. Missouri Ave.
*Times and dates current at press time. Find additional meetings and more information at http://www.okcps.org.
Charters at a glance
John Rex Charter Elementary School
Address: 500 W. Sheridan Ave.
Administrator: Joe Pierce
Grades: Prekindergarten through third grades. Fourth grade offered fall 2016.
Demographics: 36 percent white, 28 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, 12 percent two or more races, 3 percent American Indian and 2 percent Asian.
Sponsor: University of Oklahoma
KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Reach College Preparatory
Address: 1901 NE 13th St.
Administrator: Tracy McDaniel
Grades: Fifth through eighth grades
Demographics: 69 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white, 3 percent two or more races, 3 percent American Indian and 2 percent Asian
Santa Fe South Schools
Address: high school, 301 SE 38th St.; middle school, 4712 S. Santa Fe Ave.; sixth-grade center, 4701 S. Shields Blvd.; elementary at Penn, 5325 S. Pennsylvania Ave.; elementary at Western Hills, 401 SW 44th St.; early childhood, 2222 SW 44th St.
Administrator: Chris Brewster
Grades: Prekindergarten through 12th grades
Demographics: 92 percent Hispanic,
4.6 percent white, and 1.7 percent black.
Sponsors: OKCPS for middle and high school, University of Oklahoma for elementary
Print headline: Ask now, With board approval, community dialogue officially begins on charter school expansions in Oklahoma City Public Schools.