Teachers, students and other citizens are getting creative to supplement Tulsa-area school budgets.
In many ways, the state of education in Oklahoma is a broken record.
We still lead the nation in per-pupil funding cuts since 2008. Teachers are still leaving the state for more competitive pay elsewhere. School districts across the state are still making difficult choices, such as closing schools, cutting bus transportation or implementing a four-day school week.
Tulsa Public Schools district leaders spent the winter and early spring planning for an expected $12 million reduction in state funding for the 2017-18 school year and ultimately recommended approximately $10 million in budget cuts.
“The unfortunate reality is that managing budget reductions of this magnitude means that as a district, we will be forced to make extraordinarily difficult decisions to keep our doors open to the children and families we serve,” wrote Superintendent Deborah A. Gist in a letter to TPS stakeholders this spring.
Left with few viable options for growing state revenues, the education landscape seems unlikely to improve in the short term.
But necessity is the mother of invention.
Despite the budget crisis, bright and committed individuals are working together to bridge gaps between school needs and state dollars.
Here are three examples of Tulsans harnessing their creativity — in the form of crowdfunding campaigns and unprecedented partnerships — to raise funds they hope will make a difference in the classroom and beyond.
It takes a village
Kellie Miller’s teaching degree didn’t come with a course in resourcefulness. She comes by the skill naturally, and her fifth-grade students at Lynn Wood Elementary in Broken Arrow are the lucky beneficiaries.
Now in her 11th year of teaching, Miller says project-based learning makes lessons more memorable for students. “Especially with history, you can talk about it, but unless you make it relevant to them, it’s not going to stick,” Miller says. “That’s especially hard to do with history when you’re talking about something that happened 250 years ago.”
Unfortunately, engaging classroom projects often require “extras” that aren’t covered by school budgets. So two years ago, Miller started writing project grants on the national crowdfunding platform DonorsChoose.org and sharing them on her personal Facebook account. Since then, 22 of those grants have been crowdfunded, raising more than $4,500 for her classroom.
Most of the projects have cost less than $250, but one of Miller’s favorite DonorsChoose projects is a $500 printing press that is a modern version of the one Benjamin Franklin used. Miller uses it to teach her class about Colonial trades. Students take turns printing copies of the Declaration of Independence and other documents. Another Colonial trade unit was recently funded, too, and will provide a loom to teach the students about weaving.
Lynn Wood Principal Chris England says Miller is the school’s most successful grant writer. However, the entire staff is fairly active in writing grants since more than half of Lynn Wood students are from low-income families who struggle to purchase school supplies. He estimates the school has received $65,000-$70,000 in grants in the past two years through various sources, including the Broken Arrow Public Schools Foundation. At press time, the school had raised $36,895 through DonorsChoose since 2009.
Broken Arrow Public Schools guidelines require school administration to approve all proposals for classroom grants, and school board approval is required to apply for grants $2,500 and above. However, England has never denied a request to come across his desk. “I rely on my teachers to help me identify what they need,” he says. “It allows me to save my school budget for necessities like copy paper, pens and pencils.”
Amazingly, most of Miller’s DonorsChoose funders are people she has never met. Many live in other states and appear to check the website regularly for education projects to support. “I had someone in Pennsylvania donate to one of my projects on my birthday,” Miller says. “She just said, ‘We share a birthday, and I want to help fund your project.’ Other people have said that every month they pick a classroom and donate $25.” Another donor from Georgia supported her loom fund because they descended from many generations of weavers and wanted to keep the trade alive.
DonorsChoose also makes it easy for companies and foundations to lend a hand to educators like Miller. Each fall, she and other Tulsa-area teachers participate in Sonic’s national “Limeades for Learning” campaign, which funds communities’ top-voted DonorsChoose projects.
In the Tulsa metro, the education partnership ImpactTulsa doubles donations for literacy-focused DonorsChoose grants up to $500 through a match from Advance Research Chemicals, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation. (Autumn Worten, ImpactTulsa director of partner engagement, says Lynn Wood is the most active Tulsa-area school to utilize its DonorsChoose match funds.)
Miller says she hopes the state’s funding situation improves, but until then she is grateful for the support of groups like these and individual donors in what has truly become a community effort. “That’s a good way to put it,” she says. “It really does take a village.”
Survival of the fittest
The scientific method usually begins with observations about the natural world, followed by hypotheses and experiments. When three Cascia Hall science research students observed that Oklahoma’s budget cuts meant no statewide science fair for the first time in more than 40 years, they predicted they could change that fate by raising awareness and funds. Their experiment? To form a group known as Oklahoma Students Advocating for Statewide Science (OSASS).
In the first three months of 2017, OSASS crowdfunded $4,015 for the Oklahoma State Science and Engineering Fair through a GoFundMe page created by OSASS co-founders Minna Apostolova, Braden Milford and Erika Ravitch. Donors ranged from former science fair participants who valued their student experiences to Tulsa’s STEMcell Science Shop to the editor of a U.K.-based scientific journal.
Then, something unexpected happened: Dr. James Young, an Ardmore dentist, mailed a $50,000 check to the state education department to continue the fair through 2018. Now OSASS is happily redirecting its efforts to Oklahoma’s regional science fairs, which also are at risk, according to the students.
Oklahoma has seven regional fairs, down from 11 a few years ago, says Sally Fenska, Cascia Hall AP biology and chemistry teacher and OSASS and science research team adviser. She says Tulsa has not hosted a regional science fair for at least seven years for various reasons, so many Tulsa students have to travel to other cities, such as Bartlesville, Miami or Wilburton, to participate.
Although their GoFundMe page is paused now that the state fair has been funded, the OSASS students recognize their work must continue if they are to ensure Oklahoma science fairs’ long-term survival. “No one is resting by any means,” says Apostolova, a Cascia Hall junior and OSASS president.
OSASS has utilized social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to spread its founders’ belief in science fairs as an outlet to share research, learn from peers and leaders on the cutting edge of their fields and access academic opportunities and scholarships. The group created a video that promotes these virtues and next plans to contact potential corporate sponsors.
Before Young made his generous donation to the state science fair, OSASS traveled to the Oklahoma Capitol to meet with Tulsa native Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of public education, and her staff. Despite the lack of funding available, OSASS found Hofmeister incredibly supportive of their cause. “It was validation of what we’ve been wanting to hear at the legislative level,” Apostolova says. “It was exciting to hear they want to stay in contact with us.”
Since January, the OSASS founders also have made phone calls and sent emails to Hofmeister’s office and media outlets to garner support for science fairs at all levels in the state all while keeping up with difficult courses and their own scientific research in Fenska’s class.
“We want to create a statewide movement,” explains Apostolova, who adds that science fairs could be the only introduction many students get to science beyond the textbook.
A science fair project just might ignite passion in a future Marie Curie or Albert Einstein. OSASS represents students like those, says Fenska, who hopes legislators and others will take note when they see students advocating for a cause important to them.
“A wonderful donor gave this group another year to accomplish what they wanted to do when they set out,” Fenska says. “There has been some great progress … but now it’s time to work on next year.
“The scientific process continues.”
Seeds of hope
Blooming where you’re planted is easiest where the soil is academically and economically fertile. Unfortunately, African-American students from low-income families have historically been some of the most vulnerable in Tulsa, says the Rev. Ray Owens, pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church. Add in state budget woes, and the ground gets a little drier; the weeds, a little higher.
For many years, black students in north Tulsa “have been performing at the bottom,” Owens says, “not because they aren’t bright enough or because their parents don’t care, but because they are in schools that aren’t performing at the highest levels.”
The problem is with how resources are currently allocated, Owens says, along with schools’ lack of emphasis on “cultural competency.” For example, he points to many studies that find students of all races perform better when they have a teacher who looks like them and who they perceive understands them.
It’s clear many north Tulsa parents are dissatisfied with schooling in their neighborhood. In 2016, Tulsa Public Schools reported that 48 percent of students assigned to Academy Central Elementary School in the heart of the Gilcrease Hills community were transferring elsewhere in the district.
To address widespread concerns about the state of education in Tulsa and the academic achievements of black students in north Tulsa, Owens’ church gathered African-American leaders in the education, business, law enforcement and philanthropic communities in 2014. From those meetings, a team of 15 formed what is now known as the MET CARES Foundation, a secular nonprofit dedicated to changing academic outcomes for these children and ultimately rebuilding north Tulsa through economic development and community ownership.
This month marks the first major step toward the foundation’s vision: the opening of Greenwood Leadership Academy, a tuition-free, TPS “partnership” school with what Owens calls “an unapologetic, unashamed focus on educating African-American kids in north Tulsa.” Owens, who is chairman of the MET CARES Foundation, says children of other races are welcome to enroll, but the focus is on providing African-American kids the environment to thrive that they rarely get elsewhere.
Although not a charter school, GLA operates in a similar way. As a partnership school, GLA has autonomy in areas such as recruitment, teacher salaries and programming, but facilities, food, maintenance and other services are sourced through the school district. GLA students are TPS students, so the enrollment and transfer process is handled through TPS, and the school must particiate in district-wide testing. This relationship with TPS is unprecedented in the state, Owens explains.
This academic year, GLA will serve pre-K through first-grade students while sharing a building with Academy Central. Each year another grade will be added from Academy Central, until GLA serves students through the fifth grade and the current Academy Central is dissolved.
The first spots at GLA will go to students who live within its district boundaries; students who live elsewhere will be able to apply for any remaining openings.
The school’s founding principal, Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, came to Tulsa in 2013 with Teach for America. He spent most of the past year recruiting GLA staff from across the country and hosting community events to build excitement and share information about GLA.
The school will focus on scholarship, entrepreneurship, technology and citizenship, with a particular emphasis in developing financial literacy, says Asamoa-Caesar. He says the MET CARES team visited several high-performing schools in low-income, African-American communities across the country to see what was working well. Gestalt Community Schools in Memphis were a standout, and Asamoa-Caesar has worked closely with the charter school network to develop some of GLA’s curriculum.
Ultimately, MET CARES sees GLA as a mode of community transformation that will propel greater investment in north Tulsa. “We’re sowing seeds of hope in a garden of despair,” says Asamoa-Caesar. “We don’t want kids walking through a blighted community to get to an excellent school. We want them walking through an excellent community to get to an excellent school.”
Although MET CARES is separate from Metropolitan Baptist Church, Owens says much of the foundation’s work and early conversations started there. The congregation has contributed to the foundation since 2014; he says the church has committed to donating $25,000 to MET CARES in 2017. “We always wanted to establish that we have skin in this game,” Owens says, adding that MET CARES has multi-year financial commitments from a number of other foundations.
The pastor says GLA is an example of what can happen when Tulsans decide to put aside differences and collaborate. If MET CARES succeeds in its mission, he believes Tulsa has the potential to become a national model for how this type of work is done in African-American communities.
Asamoa-Caesar says the conditions are right. “We have awesome kids. We want to show what these kids can do and put that work on display,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll stop demanding roses grow from concrete.”
As seen in Memphis
The area of Memphis in which Gestalt Community Schools are located has similarities to north Tulsa, says Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, founding principal of Greenwood Leadership Academy. Once thriving, the predominantly black area had declined.
Founded by black community leaders, Gestalt was formed so that African-American kids could see people like them in the classroom, Asamoa-Caesar says. Beyond that, the founders saw education as a tool for overall community improvement. It worked. Mixed-income housing was established across from the school, and the community collaborated to build a performing arts center. The school drew purpose from the community’s past as a thriving business center and focused its new curriculum on entrepreneurship, a point emphasized even in the uniforms. The first school in the system was Power Center Middle School, founded in 2008. Within three years, it became one of the highest-performing schools in Tennessee.
According to Asamoa-Caesar, GLA founders drew inspiration from Gestalt in the level of autonomy and ownership given to students, plus a blended/rotational classroom learning approach that allows multiple learning styles to thrive.