What you need to know about education in Tulsa
As the new school year approaches, we share the essentials in navigating and understanding your child's school options.
Montessori. School choice. Charter. Magnet. When it comes to education, many terms are used on a regular basis. But they don’t need to be scary or confusing. According to Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who raised her four children in Tulsa and currently lives here with her husband, family engagement is a critical element of students’ classroom success.
Here, we highlight some of the particulars around education in Tulsa and in Oklahoma.
Hofmeister says the term school choice is an important one.
“School choice is a term that, I think, is very important to every mom and dad who has a child enrolled in school,” she says. “It ensures they have input into how their student is going to learn in a setting and method that is best for them.”
This can mean, for example, choosing from a variety of schools in a district that might have different educational offerings. It can refer to different types of learning, she says, from a traditional classroom experience to virtual learning or a hybrid of the two. At the high school level, it might mean concurrent enrollment in a district school and in career tech, or even concurrent enrollment in higher education, allowing a student to earn college credit.
“All of these types of school choice opportunities exist within the public-school setting in Oklahoma,” Hofmeister says. Of course, families may also choose a private school and pay tuition.
Many of Oklahoma’s public districts, including Tulsa, she notes, have charter schools in their portfolio of choice.
“They serve either a particular focus for student learning or a concentrated need that would be of interest for students — whether that be the arts or engineering and science,” she says.
Oklahoma law states a charter school is a public school established by contract with a board of education of a school district, an area vocational-technical school district, a higher education institution, a federally recognized tribe, or the State Board of Education, pursuant to the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act. Hofmeister adds that charter schools might offer a special curriculum but are not required to do so.
Tulsa Public Schools has six authorized charter schools: Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, KIPP Tulsa, Tulsa Honor Academy, Collegiate Hall, College Bound Academy and Tulsa Legacy.
“We partner with them, but they have their own separate enrollment process and families apply directly to access those schools, if that’s what they are interested in,” says Jorge Robles, chief operations officer for TPS.
Alternative schools are another choice for students and their families.
Within TPS, alternative schools are offered to students who are in unique circumstances that might require credit recovery or a different type of classroom instruction. Those schools include Tulsa Learning Academy, Phoenix Rising, Street School, Tulsa Tech Career Academy, TRAICE Academy Middle School and High School, and Tulsa Met Junior High and High School.
In magnet schools, a specialized focus within that school draws students, Hofmeister says. “This is a term recognized federally,” she says. “It’s something that has been a very successful model, particularly in Tulsa Public Schools.” Federal law defines a magnet school as a public school that offers a special curriculum that can attract students from diverse backgrounds. Booker T. Washington within TPS is one example. Magnet schools are administered by the school district, and acceptance is funneled through district channels.
Robles says the majority of the TPS’ schools are traditional neighborhood schools from pre-K to 12th grade.
However, the district also has lottery magnet schools ranging from the elementary to high schools. These district schools require student application and acceptance. “There is no guarantee that you will be accepted because you live in that neighborhood or any other reason,” Robles says. “There’s a lottery for applicants to get into that school based on that.”
Seven schools fall in that lottery category: Eisenhower Elementary, Zarrow International Elementary, Mayo Demonstration Academy, Dual Language Academy, Thoreau Demonstration Academy, and Will Rogers College junior high and high schools.
TPS also has five schools that are criteria-based: Carver Middle School, Edison middle and high schools, Booker T. Washington High School and Will Rogers College High School. “Essentially, families apply to transfer to those schools … but there is a criteria that applicants need to meet that is academic related,” Robles says.
Different philosophies, formats
Families might want to consider the learning approach of a school.
The Montessori method, for example, is based on a child-centered approach. Students using the Montessori method are self-directed and self-paced, though they are guided and supported by teachers, according to the nonprofit American Montessori Society. “Individual students follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals,” according to the group’s website.
The Montessori method has several core components, including child-directed work and uninterrupted work periods. The philosophy is named for Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian educator, physician and scientist.
TPS has one Montessori school, Emerson Elementary, a neighborhood school. There are several private Montessori options: Undercroft Montessori School, Christian Montessori Academy, Rainbow Montessori School and Montessori Academy of Owasso.
Another teaching philosophy is Lasaillan, which centers on Catholic values. It’s based on the vision of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, according to the Office of the Lasallian Region of North America. Two private schools in Tulsa follow the method: Bishop Kelley High School and San Miguel Middle School.
TPS has a partnership school called Greenwood Leadership Academy. It’s authorized by the district but has some independent aspects, Robles says, and is a partnership between TPS and the Met Cares Foundation, an organization committed to transforming social and academic outcomes for north Tulsa students.
“They (MET) have a board that is a subsidiary of our the TPS Board,” Robles says. “From the parents’ perspective, you access the school and apply in the regular enrollment system for Tulsa Public Schools, and as Tulsa Public Schools we support enrollment and provide access to kids to get there.”
When it comes to language-focused education, Robles says TPS has 10 elementary schools that offer language enrichment programs. Five of those are neighborhood schools that offer dual language in Spanish. Three magnet schools offer dual language in Spanish or French. Two neighborhood schools offer Mandarin language enrichment opportunities.
Three magnet middle schools offer dual language literacy courses for students continuing from elementary dual-language experiences.
Virtual schools are an online educational option growing in popularity in Oklahoma and the Tulsa area.
Epic Charter Schools is one of the most well-known. The virtual charter school is free for students, but has recently come under intense scrutiny.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation recently investigated Epic for embezzlement of state funds. At press time, no charges had been filed.
Within TPS, Tulsa Learning Academy is a blended model that offers online and in-person instruction.
“We believe it is important for students to have access to support and do work in collaborative spaces with other students and create a model that allows the flexibility to work virtually,” Robles says, “but it also creates strong opportunities for them to interact with other human beings in a setting and do work that will help them develop those critical skills.”
Resources for parents
As the new school year approaches, Hofmeister says the state education system is still reeling from the economic downturn the state experienced several years ago. There was a loss of teachers, and salaries stagnated.
Fortunately, “we are now seeing meaningful growth,” she says. Two years of teacher pay raises and more than 1,100 new positions to the teacher workforce last year, as well as a new school accountability system, are just some of the strides, according to Hofmeister.
When considering schooling options, Hofmeister says a family should consider what a particular school can offer to provide their child with a well-rounded education. “I also think it’s important that they have increased transparency, so that the parent can look at the courses and services provided by a school and are able to make an apples-to-apples comparison,” she says.
Today, each public school has a “report card,” outlining its performance in a variety of academic and nonacademic indicators and providing important school-specific contextual information. They are available through the Oklahoma State Department of Education at oklaschools.com.
However, report cards — which have been lambasted by some because of their methodology — are only one side of the equation.
“I think it’s also important to talk with other families who attend schools that they may be considering, and I think it’s especially helpful to visit and tour a school,” Hofmeister says. “We know that we think about that often when considering a private school, but if you’re also looking at making a decision regarding a preschool or any grade level in public school, we invite our families to schedule a tour and come and see what’s offered.”
Another way a family can stay engaged in a student’s education is by logging into a parent portal that includes the student’s previous test scores for multiple years, she says.
“I think it’s important to know that not only will they see their current test results, but also historical information for that child, including previous assessments in the state, will all be housed there,” Hofmeister adds.
In the statewide portal available at oklaschools.com, she says, parents can track information about their child’s strengths and weaknesses to inform how they support their child in the summer or during the new academic school year. This student portal resides within the chosen school’s platform.
“It gives our parents greater opportunities to be engaged in their own child’s learning,” she says. “We believe when we think about success for Oklahoma students, we have to think about the whole child, the whole school and the whole community — all of those levels must be involved and we think it all starts with family,” she says.
Parents will need to have their student’s 10-digit testing ID number to access the information. Some districts also have their own portals.
New in May, the website sde.ok.gov now has free parent guides for all subjects, pre-K through sixth grade. “This gives our parents ideas on the high-level look of what’s expected to be taught during these grade levels and how they can support that learning at home,” Hofmeister says.
Regardless of a family’s educational choices, she encourages parents to get involved with their student’s school and stay engaged all year long. “It’s always best to find out from their teacher the best way to connect throughout the week or the year — that might be through email or text message or visiting in person, but it’s always best to establish that line of communication early so that we can all be working together to support our students.”
New virtual school at Union
Union Public Schools recently announced that it will have a fully virtual school starting with the 2019-2020 school year.
The pilot program will allow students in grades 6-12 to take their courses online, says Chris Payne, district spokesman. The students also will have the option to take one elective course — like fine arts or athletics — in a face-to-face setting.
“Many students have interests or personal circumstances that make it difficult to attend school on a traditional schedule,” Payne says. “We have had a number of students who travel internationally who participate in dance or athletics that require a more flexible schedule, and virtual has proven to be a great alternative for them.”
To be considered “in attendance,” students must meet a required pace for course completion: five to six hours online each day completing coursework, according to Payne.
“There is no penalty for working ahead, but the minimum completion standards must be met for continued enrollment,” he says. “Students not completing the minimum requirements will receive the appropriate interventions to resume their coursework.”
Students must apply to take part in the pilot program and must meet the same graduation requirements as those in a traditional setting. To be eligible for the virtual school, students in grades 6-12 must live in the district, be enrolled full time with Union Public Schools and may not be enrolled in any other program or school such as private, online or home school, Payne says.
Monroe becomes middle school for north Tulsa students
The North Tulsa Community Education Task Force collaborated with Tulsa Public Schools and the north Tulsa community to come up with an improved structure for the area’s schools, according to Rex Langley, principal of Monroe Demonstration Academy.
Through its research, the task force recommended that Monroe Demonstration Academy become the middle school for all of the schools feeding into McLain High School in north Tulsa, Langley says. This change is effective in August and encompasses sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
The district reports this will create stronger academic and extra-curricular programming for McLain feeder schools while reducing the number of transitions that students have throughout their time in school.
“We are very excited about opening up the doors to a strong middle school that will serve the north Tulsa community and create a feeder pattern that is supporting kiddos,” says Jorge Robles, chief operations officer for TPS. “Research is pretty clear that minimizing transitions really helps academic progress.”
The student population at Monroe will grow from approximately 250 to 950 students, so the school is looking for additional educators and support staff.
“We are growing into an additional building,” Langley says. “It will all be one school. It will just be a little bigger than it has in the past.” That additional building was the former site of Penn Elementary School.
Before the consolidation, Monroe already offered an unusual learning twist, which will now benefit more students. It is one of three schools in Oklahoma offering the microsociety model, which the Tulsa school calls Monrovia. The model was implemented at Monroe in August 2011.
“Microsociety has a pretty awesome concept,” Langley says. “During a part of the day, the school transforms itself into an actual functional society run by students.”
Monrovia includes everything found in a working society — government, lawyers, sanitation workers, entrepreneurs and a court system, among other ventures.
Each student has a role and they earn money, he says. “They get their paycheck, and on their day off they get to go out and explore society and be a part of society, just like you and I would on our day off. It’s very neat.”
The benefits of the microsociety model, Langley says, are that students are able to make real-world connections to their learning — lessons and learning opportunities that other students might not discover until they are adults.
“One of the cool things is that it gives them some buy-in about the things they are learning,” he adds. “For example, if I’m taking math class … microsociety puts scholars in society where they use the skills in their jobs.”
Langley recalls one sixth-grade student talking about starting his own business, but he realized the challenges of running a business, such as paying workers and buying supplies. He learned he might not turn a profit immediately.
“He had that realization … as a 12-year-old kid, he’s learning life lessons that a lot of people don’t learn until they are in their 40s,” Langley says.