A Tale of Two Schools

In November, I had the privilege of visiting a couple of local schools to find out what made them tick. The two articles I wrote as a result are in the January issue. One, Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences (TSAS), a charter school, had just been awarded Blue Ribbon status by the U.S. State Department of Education, and the other, Kendall-Whittier Elementary in Tulsa, was a year or so into a $1.5 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.

Kendall-Whittier, a regular public elementary school, benefits from a unique partnership with the University of Tulsa. The 21st Century grant is being used to beef up an existing after-school mentoring program. Kendall-Whittier has a high Hispanic population; many are English Language Learners (ELL). The after-school program provides the kids with rich project- and literacy-based experiences in addition to snacks and dinner five nights a week.

I came away from my conversations feeling both optimistic and discouraged. Where to start? Bad news or good news first?

One thing was very clear – both schools are finding great success with their programs, and both schools are essentially doing the opposite of what the non-educator pundits, policy-makers and legislators say will “reform” education.

Being an optimist (really, I am), let’s start with the good stuff. The staff at Kendall-Whittier and the supporting staff at TU looked at how they could bolster the academic outcomes for the student population at that specific site. Building on an already, albeit smaller, mentorship program, organizers looked at the needs of the Kendall-Whittier students and designed a project-oriented, enriching and fun after-school program that fit the population. The grant allowed them to hire a staff of certified teachers. There isn’t a drill and test in sight. What they do use are student-run gardens, reading, art, building projects and interesting community partnerships. The families of students are also enveloped into the program. In other words, children living in poverty benefit from the same types of programs their more affluent peers have. The programs just need to be tailored to them. Literacy scores for kids enrolled in the TU True Blue Neighbors Mentorship Program have jumped.

That’s the good news at Kendall-Whittier. The bad news is that the mentorship program serves 140 kids, but there are that many students waiting to get in. It’s a microcosm of the inequities that exist in public education. Just within a single elementary school in Tulsa, some kids are able to enjoy an enriching after-school experience that will help them improve academically and socially, while approximately 100 others wait in the wings.

It reminded me of the time I asked former State Superintendent Janet Barresi about the lack of resources in public schools, and she breezily pointed out that “teachers can get grants.”

Well, yes they can, but grants can’t take the place of a state legislature committed to the social contract of providing public education for all children.

Talking to TSAS teachers, students, parents and administrators was enlightening. The school has an overarching vision of providing a high-quality liberal arts education to every kid, regardless of ability or disability. Apparently, it’s working. Again, I point out that this kind of inquiry-based education is the opposite of what non-educator “reformers” are talking about. While TSAS teachers aren’t paid more than other public school teachers, they do enjoy a working environment that respects them and allows them to teach. TSAS’s approach to education reminded me of what Finland implemented in their schools over a decade ago. The Finnish schools were struggling with poor student outcomes, so they made a commitment to make teaching a respected career choice, and then gave teachers autonomy in their own classrooms. They limited standardized testing and provided needed supports. Now, Finland has the top schools in the world.

The U.S. is not Finland, but TSAS and Kendall-Whittier show what we can do to create optimum learning environments.

Oklahoma is dealing with a serious teacher shortage and seems to be offering alternative certification to anyone with a pulse. While I’m sure there are people who are new to teaching who will become great teachers, it doesn’t happen in a year, or even two. Many of these people won’t last a semester, and high turnover is not good for students. Maybe TSAS can provide a clue as to how to hire and retain teachers.

TSAS hires teachers who see teaching as an art. They have small class sizes and get to know their students so that they can individualize instruction. Class periods are longer in order to provide the student-centered inquiry based teaching that engages students and encourages critical thinking. Good teachers in all schools try to do this, but it makes a huge difference when you have 18 kids in the classroom rather than 30. It also makes a difference that TSAS teachers plan and implement their own curriculum and testing for their classes. Many regular public school teachers are quitting, not just because of the low pay in Oklahoma, but also because of the ineffective, one-size-fits-all, draconian legislation that impedes their power to teach.

Maybe it’s time that legislators, policy-makers and philanthropic organizations such as the Walton Foundation and the Gates Foundation, really listened to educators about what works in schools. What makes success? Here’s an interesting piece about what happens in good schools.  There’s plenty of research that shows how high stakes standardized testing, drill and test, punitive one-size-fits all education is a waste of time. We’ve wasted 15 years on it with No Child Left Behind, opening the door to corporate “public” schools that make a few people wealthy on our tax dollars, but don’t do much for the kids. I hope the new ESSA law that replaced NCLB offers some relief.

What these two schools show is that having educators with a common vision who are treated as professionals to do what is best for their students is a good first step toward good schools. Students who live in high poverty need more “wrap-around” support such as social services, healthcare, afterschool care and food in order to learn best. Teachers need support and a collegial (not competitive) environment; small class sizes to provide individualized instruction; and programming that is site-based with a rich, project-based and varied curriculum, including the arts.

This is ultimately a call to action for parents. We can’t depend on federal grants and generous foundations to bail out our schools, even though both can help. We need to be involved in public education. With a state budget deficit of $900 million, schools will have to do more belt-tightening, which may pull the belt so tight that the oxygen supply is completely cut off. There’s a myth that public schools are failing, and most are educating our children remarkably well, but lack of funding is starving the schools into such an unhealthy state that they may never fully recover. Our schools, teachers and administrators are doing a phenomenal job in the face of dwindling resources, ineffective/misguided legislation and a crazy assumption by some that high stakes standardized testing somehow improves student outcomes. Fortunately, the backlash about testing is having an effect, showing that public outcry can push change.

TSAS and Kendall-Whittier are just two schools that are seeing success based on sensible site-based reforms that most educators and parents would want to see. And neither school shies away from providing quantitative data about their programs.

We’ve been asking the wrong questions, getting the wrong answers and providing the wrong solutions for too many years. The attention that public education is getting lately can be an opportunity for parents to ask themselves what they want public education to look like for their children. Rather than turning everything into a charter, why not look at TSAS, the successful charter in our own backyard, and implement some of their ideas — a culture of respect, high expectations, small class size, inquiry-based education, teacher and site-based autonomy (which would require that teachers are trusted), lean administration, site-based decision-making and a cooperative environment – into regular public schools? After all, that was supposed to be the purpose of a charter school. They were never meant to take the place of public schools, but were supposed to be rare “lab” schools that were free to try new methods that then could be used in every school. TSAS is an excellent example of the historical definition of a charter school.

While the two schools I visited are very different because they have different student populations, they have figured out a way to implement programs that work. I can’t help thinking what they could do with more resources. I think of all the schools that could turn around lives if they had great afterschool programs like Kendall-Whittier or the autonomy of TSAS. There are positive programs that work that we can use to improve all schools for all children. What do you want your child’s school to be?

Categories: Editor’s Blog