Tulsa’s Lee Elementary School: Making the Most of Less
On a Friday afternoon the halls at Tulsa’s Lee Elementary School* are quiet. But open the door to the Lee fifth grade science classroom and vivacious students are immersed in a science experiment involving a bit of fire and smoke. Students sit five to a table and are being guided through the experiment by a school volunteer. Dava Chrisco, a Kimberly-Clark employee, is one such volunteer. For every 30 hours Chrisco volunteers at Lee, the company will donate $500 to the school.
Other science room volunteers include a mother whose son graduated from Lee, a neighborhood gentleman who is a longtime Lee helper and several current Lee parents.
Lee Principal Cindy Taylor, along with her teachers, parents and community volunteers, works overtime these days to make sure the decline in statewide education funding and teacher layoffs never affect a Lee student’s learning experience.
Two years ago, the second grade classes at Lee had an average of 20 students. Today, said Taylor, classes have close to 28 students.
“The biggest blow has been class size,” she said. “As a result of cuts in funding for education from the state, class sizes have become larger. We now have 29 and above in third grade classes. Third grade is a testing year, so the more children in a class makes it much more difficult to prepare each one for the tests.”
Last spring a motivated group of Lee parents came to Taylor’s aid. “A group of Lee parents went to the superintendent and started campaigning for funds to help get another teacher. They did it,” she said. “We were allocated funds for another teacher.”
The Lee Parent Teacher Association (PTA) never hesitates to step in when Taylor needs help. Lee PTA President Michelle Cantrell said she believes Lee was able to secure an extra teacher because Lee has involved, dedicated parents who speak out when things are not right.
“I worry about schools where parents aren’t as involved,” Cantrell said. “Every child deserves to be in a classroom that is conducive to learning, not one in which the teacher is merely babysitting.”
Funding cuts have impacted practically every aspect of the school from the talented and gifted program to classroom supplies.
“Two years ago art funding was cut, thus we were going to lose our art teacher,” Taylor said. “I got creative with the schedule and was able to keep our art teacher and have the kids rotate through science and art in the afternoons. Our teacher for the gifted programs was cut to part-time. We now share her with another school. She used to go in all classes from kindergarten and up and spent time with all the kids. Now she is here for half a day several days a week and is just in the third through fifth grade classrooms.”
Yet for every cut, there is a story of a volunteer, a donor or the PTA stepping in to assist Taylor with a solution. “Currently we have donors paying for art and the reading and math interventionist,” Taylor said.
One role of the Lee PTA, Cantrell said, is to provide extras for the students — things that enhance their education and make it more memorable.
“The bulk of our money is set aside for ‘curriculum enhancement’ which allows our kids to have field trips, hands-on science experiments and similar special learning opportunities,” she said.
When the state began cutting funds, grant money became a means for Taylor and her teachers to sustain special programs and acquire classroom supplies and equipment.”
“My teachers and I quickly became adept at writing grants. We spend time after school and on the weekends researching and writing grants to help fill the gaps in funding. Our computer lab is old and the computers and software are somewhat obsolete. We hope to update that lab through a grant,” Taylor said.
And from paper to toner to light bulbs for the classroom Smartboards, funds have become scarce. Teachers can no longer immediately purchase these as well as other everyday use items.
“Myself and the teachers are having to budget and dig into our pockets to keep many basic supplies at the school,” Taylor said. “Teachers pick up slack on time and money.”
Cantrell said another role of the Lee PTA is to support the teachers with tools they need to help educate the students. “We provide things that the state and the district do not have the money to provide. We have allocations for the teachers to use for supplies and supplementary material.”
Another means of financial support for Lee is the Lee Elementary School Foundation. Comprised of Lee parents, principal, teachers and community representatives, the foundation has raised funds for capital improvements such as a jogging track on the playground and an outdoor learning center and community pavilion.
*Lee Elementary has since been renamed Council Oak Elementary