A Blue Ribbon School in Tulsa
Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences honored as a blue ribbon school.
Adilene “Addy” Rios’s bright smile fades and her shoulders hunch forward as she talks about spending her seventh-grade year in a special education class at a Tulsa middle school.
“I was stuck in Special Education for a whole year, and they wouldn’t let me out. We just sat there.”
In eighth grade Addy, an English Language Learner (ELL), was promoted out of Special Education because of higher test scores, so that year was better for her, but Addy said she didn’t feel that her teachers cared about her. She had little interest in school and was fearful of moving on to the high school where fights in the hallways and talking back to teachers were common. For Addy, dropping out of school was a clear possibility until her English teacher encouraged her to apply to Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences (TSAS), a charter high school. Addy took the teacher’s advice and was admitted to TSAS through the lottery in ninth grade.
Now a junior at TSAS, Addy has gone from reading at a fourth-grade level when she entered TSAS to taking AP English.
“It was stressful my freshman year because there was so much work.” she said. “But my mindset changed. In middle school, I thought it was cool to talk back to teachers. Here (at TSAS), the sense of community is great. You can talk to the teachers like they’re your friends, and they will not give up on you. Teachers will help you before or after school. They won’t let you give up. It’s amazing.”
Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences was established in 2001 by a group of four Memorial High School teachers who dreamed of teaching at a high school based on the educational model of liberal arts colleges. The new charter school law opened the door, and TSAS began its first year in an office building at 51st and Yale. Today, it is located in a previously unused TPS building just north of Admiral and Harvard. Next year, the school will move to a larger TPS building located at Owen Park, and a seventh grade will be added.
Under the law, TSAS is a public school that operates on 95 percent of the state funds that TPS receives, with TPS keeping a five percent administrative fee. As a charter, TSAS is not eligible for local or bond dollars.
This year, TSAS was one of five Oklahoma schools honored as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. For Eric Doss, TSAS director, the award helped validate the school’s vision of providing students with a college prep education in a small, collaborative environment. The administration and board purposely limit enrollment to approximately 300 in grades nine through 12, so TSAS has small class sizes (most have 18 students). The school operates on a trimester system, allowing for 70-minute class periods. The longer class time gives teachers an opportunity to provide in-depth project- and inquiry-based instruction.
Addy says the small class sizes and longer class periods allow teachers to give her individual help, and to show her different ways to find success. “My AP English teacher writes all over my paper,” she said. “I get lots of feedback. I love every class.”
Addy’s experience is not necessarily unique, but because students come from throughout the TPS district, each one has his or her own story. Doss said that this year’s freshman class represents 25 different public, private and homeschool experiences.
And, despite its reputation as a college prep school, Doss said that is not the number one reason most young people give for applying to TSAS. The majority of students list their primary reason as safety, not just physical safety, but the safety of acceptance from teachers and peers.
Teacher Daniel Sharples, who is in his second year at TSAS, teaches AP European History and World Studies, a freshman class that he co-teaches with Ellen Stackable. Sharples said that creating the school culture takes work from teachers, parents and administrators. He and Stackable spend time at the beginning of each year indoctrinating a new group of freshman, many of whom are not used to the level of work and responsibility required at TSAS.
“We treat students like adults. We talk about what it means to be a human at TSAS,” Sharples said. “What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a better person?”
For Addy, the collaborative school culture makes all the difference. “I had zero friends when I came here, but my friends now are all great,” she said. “They’re accepting of everything. They don’t judge you, and they’re so understanding.”
Next year, two of Addy’s younger siblings will be entering TSAS at her urging. One is going into ninth grade and the other will begin in the new seventh-grade class. She said her parents understand English, but don’t speak it well, so Addy made sure that her siblings applied. “They’re really excited,” she said.
Critics of charter schools often argue that administrators can pick and choose students and expel them at will. Doss says that is not the case with TSAS, noting that the school has very little attrition. As a charter school, students apply with only a name, address and contact information and, if too many students apply, names are drawn from a box.
“We’re non-selective,” Doss said. “We have students who have incredibly diverse backgrounds. Some come in extremely prepared; some come in unprepared and really not ready (for high school). Forty-three percent are on free and reduced lunch. A little over 15 percent are on an IEP (Individual Education Plan). We don’t ask for grades or recommendations, whether you’ve been suspended. It doesn’t matter.”
TSAS also must adhere to state testing requirements, which for high school means EOI (End of Instruction) tests. But the school doesn’t focus on standardized testing or test preparation. Doss said TSAS doesn’t use a lot of extra standardized testing, preferring that teachers create the tests for their classes. Teachers also create their own curriculum based on state standards. High-level and critical thinking are valued over standardized test preparation.
“If we do use standardized tests, we do it pointing to our number one goal, which is to get kids to college,” Doss said. “They take the ASPIRE test to be ready to take the ACT, and they take the PSAT so they’re ready to take the SAT. Preparatory tests help prepare you as you go on that journey to college.”
Doss said students have had problems when the state tests don’t align with the state standards or when the cut score is moved, as happened with the state biology test. “Hopefully this is fixed in the future,” Doss said. “The past four years, (the state) just ramped the cut score up, and we had a lot of students not pass that test. But if you looked at the PLAN, you would see that most of our students actually knew that content so they were excused from taking that test because their PLAN score was so high.”
While certain state standards must be met, Doss says the difference between TSAS and a regular public school is that decisions are made on site, and they can be made quickly. “You could do the same things we’re doing at every public school,” he said, “but what you can’t do at regular public schools is you just don’t have the autonomy to make those decisions at the classroom level. It would be helpful for Legislators to believe that there are people in schools who know what they’re doing, if they would just trust people. I think there are a lot of great people working very hard in public schools, but there are a lot of handcuffs.”
Principal Leisa Smith said that trusting their faculty is critical. “We believe we have highly trained teachers who are professionals, and they can be trusted to make decisions for student success, and that is something that has really been threatened over the years. We get to decide what we’re aiming at. We’re nimble; we’re small, and we can be responsive in ways that you can’t be if you think teachers can’t be trusted to make some of those decisions. We want our students ready for the common good, for civic engagement, in addition to college readiness.”
Sharples said that the level of discourse among the faculty and the way teachers interacted with students drew him to TSAS. He had transitioned from the mental health profession to teaching through Teach for America in Kansas City, a difficult assignment that had him rethinking his decision to teach. Sharples said he felt under pressure at the Kansas City school to change quickly and to see results quickly.
“Here, we’re trying to build something that lasts and takes time,” he said. “When I wanted to start teaching, this is what I imagined.”
TSAS parent Shelley Faust, who spends countless volunteer hours at the school, has two children at TSAS, a junior and a freshman, whom she previously home-schooled.
“I was so pleased,” Faust said. “There was an atmosphere of respect from the beginning. Parents and teachers want kids to succeed, and they don’t put them in a box. Teachers listen to the kids. Problems are handled quickly and well.”
Faust also likes the 70-minute class periods and individualized instruction. “You can really get into a project or a deeper discussion with more time in class.”
While TSAS only has one sport, cross country, Faust said her children have many choices that interest them. Besides Key Club and National Honor Society, and a robust jazz band and fine arts program, students establish their own clubs such as knitting, social justice, Anime or robotics clubs. Teachers work to get to know what interests each student, feeling that it is important for adolescents to find and pursue passions.
Above all, Faust emphasized that students have the freedom to ask any question and to be accepted. “I come from a Christian conservative background,” she said, pointing out that she has learned to be less judgmental since her children have been attending TSAS. “I want my kids to learn how to get along with all kinds of people. Whether they have blue hair or whatever, you need to remember to respect them because they’re human beings, and don’t just judge them by how they look. They’ve made good friends, and it’s made my kids more assured about who they are.”
TSAS faculty also helps students navigate their high school years with college in mind. Each student is paired with an advisor his or her freshman year through graduation.
Addy says her TSAS advisor has helped guide her through planning for college, and she is looking forward to a bright future.
“I’ve never been this excited about graduating, about going to college,” Addy said, a big smile lighting up her face, her voice full of enthusiasm. “I want to help people. I want to be something in this world.”
The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program is a United States government program created in 1982 to recognize public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. Every year the U. S. Department of Education seeks out and celebrates great American schools, schools demonstrating that all students can achieve to high levels. In 2015, 285 public schools were honored. Oklahoma schools included Carnegie Elementary in Carnegie; Flower Mound Elementary in Lawton; Harding Fine Arts Academy in Oklahoma City; Schwartz Elementary in Oklahoma City; and Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, Tulsa.