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TPS pushes for support on plan to fix McLain feeder pattern decline amid confusion, concerns after community task force recommendation

Karen Pittman checked off a list of names belonging to children who are supposed to attend the revamped Monroe Demonstration Academy as she searched for families at a low-income apartment complex in north Tulsa.

As facilitator of the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force, she and other volunteers recently tracked down parents to verify enrollment and invite them to a school preparation event in August.

Volunteer groups met with nearly 200 families in a two-day bid to assuage concerns about foundational changes to Monroe that could quadruple the school’s enrollment as it becomes the destination for all middle-schoolers in the McLain feeder pattern.

“As you can very well imagine, some of the students as well as the parents are probably anxious hearing that the school enrollment is going from about 200 or so to possibly 900 students,” Pittman said. “So I think us going there could possibly alleviate some of that anxiety the parents and students were having.”

Compounding the concerns, the task force’s work has been shrouded in secrecy. Even after the visit from Pittman’s group, many parents at Apache Manor say they had no idea of the enrollment spike. Nor were they aware of the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force.

Tulsa Public Schools closed the task force meetings to the Tulsa World and public alike. And several teachers felt left out of the plan’s development and implementation.

Superintendent Deborah Gist defended the privacy as necessary for brainstorming and to avoid spreading misinformation. But she also acknowledged working to improve communication based on feedback.

The school district created the group last year to find a solution for a rapidly shrinking McLain 7th Grade Academy. Its formation stemmed from considerable backlash regarding the possibility of shuttering the academy and moving its students to McLain Junior and Senior High School after the 2017-18 school year.

Gist and board member Jennettie Marshall helped select 22 community leaders to serve on the task force.

The superintendent called the “radical collaboration” a historic moment for Tulsa, saying she’s confident no school district in the country has ever approved a plan by a community group.

“The board and I were committed to the implementation of their recommendation, and we made that commitment before we knew what their recommendation was,” she said.

The board’s approval in February meant that Monroe, 2010 E. 48th St. North, will lose its magnet status as it transforms into a neighborhood school complex and the feeder pattern’s only middle school.

McLain Junior High and McLain 7th Grade Academy were shuttered. All elementary schools in the feeder pattern will no longer serve sixth grade.

Penn Elementary, which was located next to Monroe, closed to make room for the influx of new students. Monroe’s enrollment is expected to climb from 250 to 950.

The task force didn’t dissolve after the board approved its recommendation. Its elaborate request involved serving in an advisory capacity to ensure the district carries out its vision, with members and district officials still meeting at least once a month.

Response from families

Despite the ongoing collaboration between this group and TPS, many parents living in Apache Manor have felt in the dark about what’s happening.

Sheka Washington, whose daughter will attend sixth grade at Monroe, said she knew the school would be offering more programs. But she was unaware that Monroe will serve all middle-schoolers in the feeder pattern until being approached by a reporter following Pittman’s group.

Washington said she wasn’t surprised by a “huge” lack of communication, adding that her area doesn’t receive much information. Many who live there are single parents who can’t make it to school meetings and open houses. She believes the district should have done more to explain the changes to families in the spring.

“I don’t really agree with all the students going to one school like that,” Washington said. “I don’t know what’s the purpose. I don’t know if they just didn’t have enough funds and they wanted to put everybody in one school so they can all get the extracurriculars.”

Tasha Smith has two children attending Monroe in 2019-20. Her son attended the McLain 7th Grade Academy before it closed this summer. She also didn’t know about the extent of the changes, but she hopes they’ll make the school better.

Kanaadra Brown received a mail invitation for her to come see the new Monroe before it opens. The letter didn’t mention enrollment, she said, and now she and her husband have many questions.

Brown said she had been looking forward to her sixth-grader having access to the school’s unique curriculum. Now she’s worried about potentially enlarged classes and her son’s learning difficulties in bigger group settings.

“My son kind of needed the smaller class because he’s a little bit more challenged than the other kids and it helps him,” Brown said. “So now there might be even more kids in his class? Normally he shuts down, and that’s not going to be a good thing.”

Getting community buy-in

Task force member Marcia Bruno-Todd, who is a parent of a student in the McLain feeder pattern, said she’s heard from several people, including neighbors, who initially were upset.

They wanted to know how the task force could orchestrate such a plan and whether it’s actually representative of the community.

Bruno-Todd said they usually changed their minds after she explained factors that drove the recommendation and how all students need to experience a rigorous curriculum. The buy-in comes with her explanation that the task force aims to hold the district accountable during implementation of the changes.

A lot of misconception surrounds the group’s work, in part due to its closed meetings. Bruno-Todd said the group wants to include more voices in its discussions but is unable to because of the district’s strict control of communication.

When task force leaders invited a Tulsa World reporter to attend a July meeting, a TPS spokeswoman rescinded the invitation.

“All of these community elders, their intention has always been to include community voice and continuing to extend the table so that the community is always involved in the process,” Bruno-Todd said. “I don’t think, unfortunately, that’s how things crumbled. Limitations perceived from the district side of things, TPS, have not really played out that way.”

Bruno-Todd said TPS officials haven’t always accurately portrayed concerns during task force meetings that she’s heard from parents and teachers regarding Monroe’s operations.

She described it as a system trying to preserve itself through resistance to critical feedback.

“I think right now we’re caught up in Tulsa niceties,” Bruno-Todd said. “And instead of being very clear about issues and transparency, there’s communication gaps about controlling just what is being shared with us, and then there’s also communication gaps in how it’s being shared even with the schools and the teachers and the staff.” Bruno-Todd said TPS and the task force have engaged in collaborative efforts in an attempt increase communication within the community within the last few months.

During a school board meeting July 15, a prominent north Tulsa education activist addressed concerns “regarding critical issues” facing Monroe. He also sent a letter to Gist and board members.

In it, he laid out those concerns on behalf of the Community Coalition for Academic Excellence, which collected more than 600 signatures last year for a petition to convert the McLain 7th Grade Academy into a school for seventh- and eighth-graders.

Darryl Bright, president of Citizens United for a Better Educational System, alleged several teachers resigned from the demonstration academy this summer because they did not feel engaged in the plan’s development and implementation.

Bright said these teachers and other stakeholders told him Monroe lacked the vision needed to establish the school’s culture and achieve real academic success.

“The reality is evident to us as advocates and expressed by teachers who have resigned that we are experiencing the same things over and over again — Monroe will be mired in a cycle of low performance and indeed, the miseducation (of) our children,” he wrote.

Bright’s letter also listed several concerns and inquiries about whether Monroe and its staff will be prepared to handle the hundreds of new students, including those with special needs, when school starts.

Gist responded to the letter via email on Tuesday, telling Bright she will continue to keep the school board updated on Monroe at both August meetings. The superintendent told him she was confident her updates will answer his questions.

In an interview with the Tulsa World, Gist said the task force gatherings are closed because they aren’t designed to inform people. Rather, they are about brainstorming ideas and methods, she said.

“In fact, part of it could be very misleading,” she said. “If you have someone come to a meeting and you’re saying, ‘Well we might do this and we might do this and we might do this,’ then someone walks away, they’re not leaving with information. They’re leaving with possibilities. Now what you want to be sharing with the public is, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ ”

Gist said Monroe provided teachers with several opportunities in the spring to be involved in the transition.

She said the school hosted multiple open houses and sent fliers home with students to keep families informed about the changes. The details of the recommendation were discussed during a handful of public school board meetings in the spring.

Gist said she and Monroe Principal Rex Langley have worked to address concerns raised about Monroe by teachers and parents.

“We got some feedback about communication and some things we can do better,” she said. “He and I have both used that feedback to make some improvements.”

‘We knew it was going to happen regardless’

Langley, who is entering his third year as principal at Monroe, confirmed seven teachers resigned during the summer, including Shaniqua Ray — the district’s teacher of the year in 2018.

However, Langley said Monroe’s teacher-retention rate was the highest it’s been in six years. Last year the demonstration academy employed about 20 teachers and 30 total staff.

The school has hired 60 people this summer, and many other TPS teachers voluntarily transferred there. This year there will be about 60 teachers and more than 80 total staff.

Langley expects class sizes to stay below 30 students, and every teacher should have a second employee — whether a teacher’s assistant or paraprofessional — assisting them.

Only one of the seven teachers who resigned spoke to the Tulsa World on the record about leaving due to perceived issues with the school’s operations.

A. Huang, who asked to not be identified by her full name, taught special education at Monroe for two years until quitting at the end of the school year. She now teaches in Dallas.

Huang blamed faulty leadership from Langley and poor communication for driving her and other teachers out of the school. She accused the principal of not making himself available to teachers nor doing enough to involve them in the redesign.

She was blindsided when the recommendation was first proposed in January. She said it later felt like her teacher friends at other schools knew more about the Monroe changes than she did.

“If anything, a lot of us were not for it because we don’t even have a lot of success here now,” Huang said. “We can’t replicate it on a larger scale. Over time, we tried to be more understanding and open to the idea just because we knew it was going to happen regardless of whether we wanted it to or not.”

Langley said he’s heard a lot of teachers wish they could have been part of the conversation when the task force developed its recommendation.

The principal noted he can understand why, but he also said it’s important to look at the reason TPS was left out of the recommendation process.

“I would have loved to have been at the table, but I understand the need for this to be a decision made by outside of TPS because the whole point of this recommendation was to hear from the community,” Langley said. “So when the task force was assembled, it was representative of the community so that the recommendation would be made without outside influence from Tulsa Public Schools.”

Once the recommendation was made, he said staff had several input opportunities to share ideas about its implementation. Every suggestion went into the planning process, he added.

The task force heard from Huang and other teachers about their complaints in June — about four months after the recommendation’s approval.

The Rev. Andrea Chambers, vice chairwoman of the task force, said some educators and community members shared concerns about the school’s leadership that existed before her group was formed.

Task force leaders worried about the departure of quality teachers and brought these concerns to the superintendent.

They asked Gist about Langley and whether he was the right person to lead Monroe through the momentous process. Chambers and other members said the superintendent maintained Langley is a suitable fit for that position.

Chambers noted that Gist was limited in her response to avoid violating the principal’s privacy.

When asked what task force members thought of Gist’s response, Chambers laughed and said it’s “something that we’re working through.”

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AP source: At least 15 dead in El Paso, Texas, shooting

EL PASO, Texas — A young gunman opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, shopping area packed with as many as 3,000 people during the busy back-to-school season Saturday, leaving 20 dead and more than two dozen injured.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the incident in the Texas border city “one of the most deadly days in the history of Texas.” Police said authorities were investigating if it was a hate crime.

The suspect was arrested without incident outside the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, said El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen. Two law enforcement officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity identified the suspect as 21-year-old Patrick Crusius. El Paso police didn’t release his name at a news conference but confirmed the gunman is from Allen, near Dallas.

Many of the victims were shot at the Walmart, police said.

“The scene was a horrific one,” said Allen, adding that many of the 26 people who were hurt had life-threatening injuries.

The chief said police found a post online possibly written by the suspect.

“Right now we have a manifesto from this individual that indicates, to some degree, it has a nexus to potential hate crime,” Allen said.

The shooting came less than a week after a gunman opened fire on a California food festival. Santino William Legan, 19, killed three people and injured 13 others last Sunday at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

El Paso, which has about 680,000 residents, is in West Texas and sits across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Residents quickly volunteered to give blood to the injured after the shooting, and police and military members were helping people look for missing loved ones.

“It’s chaos right now,” said Austin Johnson, an Army medic at nearby Fort Bliss, who volunteered to help at the shopping center and later at a school serving as a reunification center.

Adriana Quezada, 39, said she was in the women’s clothing section of Walmart with her children when she heard gunfire.

“But I thought they were hits, like roof construction,” she said of the shots.

Her 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son threw themselves to the ground, then ran out of the store through an emergency exit. They were not hurt, Quezada said.

She said she saw four men, dressed in black, moving together firing guns indiscriminately. Police later said they believed the suspect, who was armed with a rifle, was the only shooter.

Ryan Mielke, a spokesman for University Medical Center of El Paso, said 13 of the injured were brought to the hospital with injuries, including one who died. Two of the injured were children who were being transferred to El Paso Children’s Hospital, he said. He wouldn’t provide additional details on the victims.

Eleven other victims were being treated at Del Sol Medical Center, hospital spokesman Victor Guerrero said. Those victims’ ages ranged from 35 to 82, he said.

President Donald Trump tweeted: “God be with you all!”

At a candidate forum Saturday in Las Vegas, presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, appeared shaken after news of the shooting in his hometown was reported. The Democrat said the shooting shatters “any illusion that we have that progress is inevitable” on tackling gun violence.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he knew the shooter was not from his town.

“It’s not what we’re about,” he said at the news conference with the governor and police chief. El Paso is nearly a 10-hour drive from Allen, where the suspect lives.

El Paso has become a focal point of the immigration debate, drawing Trump in February to argue that walling off the southern border would make the U.S. safer, while city residents and O’Rourke led thousands on a protest march past the barrier of barbed wire-topped fencing and towering metal slats.

O’Rourke stressed that border walls haven’t made his hometown safer. The city’s murder rate was less than half the national average in 2005, the year before the start of its border fence. Before the wall project started, El Paso had been rated one of the three safest major U.S. cities going back to 1997.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, also said the El Paso shooting suspect wasn’t on her group’s radar screen prior to the shooting.

“We had nothing in our files on him,” Beirich wrote in an email.

The shooting is the 21st mass killing in the United States in 2019, and the fifth public mass shooting. Before Saturday, 96 people had died in mass killings in 2019 — 26 of them in public mass shootings.

The AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database tracks all U.S. homicides since 2006 involving four or more people killed, not including the offender, over a short period of time regardless of weapon, location, victim-offender relationship or motive. The database shows that the median age of a public mass shooter is 28, significantly lower than the median age of a person who commits a mass shooting of their family.

Since 2006, 11 mass shootings — not including Saturday’s — have been committed by men who are 21 or younger.

Big problems prompt big changes as Monroe Demonstration Academy seeks to revitalize education in north Tulsa

Members of the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force hope the overhaul of Monroe Demonstration Academy will help revitalize the education system in north Tulsa.

The recommendation to shut down three schools in the McLain feeder pattern and funnel every middle-schooler into a revamped Monroe surprised district officials earlier this year. But those who crafted the plan asserted the changes were necessary to reverse — or at least slow down — the decline of the McLain feeder pattern.

The district-appointed community task force worked for months to determine what to do with the unsustainable McLain 7th Grade Academy. Group members determined the issues affected far more than one school.

Retired TPS Principal Karen Pittman joined the task force because she believed the students in her community deserved a well-rounded education. Like so many others, she’s concerned by the dwindling enrollment and terrible test scores plaguing north Tulsa schools.

The long-ignored instability of these schools, she said, caused many parents to lose faith in the district and transfer their kids to private schools and charters.

“I feel like if we don’t do it now, as far as academically, our schools are going to continue to spiral in the wrong direction because if you look at the grades that they’re making every year, they aren’t getting any better,” Pittman said. “They’re getting worse.”

Andrea Chambers, the task force’s vice chairwoman, became involved due to her personal investment in north Tulsa education and desire to see it succeed. Her child is about to begin attending school in the area.

She said her group wants to ensure every kid in the McLain feeder pattern has access to quality learning experiences.

“We thought, what better way than to have one middle school where you can streamline all of the allocations so that they’re not split with competing middle schools,” Chambers said. “We looked at the numbers and thought it would be better because we believe in public school education.”

Part of Monroe’s allure is its Tribes curriculum, which centers on designing and implementing a sense of community in the classroom. Students are organized into groups known as tribes and previously spent 25 minutes each morning participating in collaborative-focused activities intended to meet their social and emotional needs.

The curriculum is being expanded to let students spend the entire day with their tribe. Each group will be assigned to four core-content teachers for the entire school year. This allows the kids to grow closer and their teachers to plan together.

And then there’s MicroSociety, an international program in which students apply classroom learning to real-world situations by transforming their school into a functional society. The program also will be modified to accommodate a second building and surge in enrollment.

One of the task force’s main priorities has been to align the curriculum at the other schools in the feeder pattern so students entering middle and high school reflect more academic similarities than differences.

Chambers said her team wanted to get the ball rolling in the spring. However, district officials decided to focus on Monroe before diving into the elementary schools.

“We understand that they wanted to put all of their energy and time and focus into getting Monroe up because there will be this larger number of students coming,” she said. “But we have been making sure that we keep that conversation at the forefront of their minds and say as soon as school starts, we’re ready to address the rest of the feeder pattern.”

North Tulsa has experienced a number of school closures over the years to the dismay of residents. Tulsa school board member Jennettie Marshall, who helped create the task force last year, has described her community as being “habitually and historically” victimized by the district’s poor decisions.

Marshall said the continued involvement of a passionate and committed community group distinguishes this consolidation effort from those in the past.

“It’s been a matter of closing schools and then business as usual with sending students to other buildings, but there’s nothing to follow up as far as enhancements,” she said. “But in this effort, there was a look at what are the issues, what are the problems, the pros and cons and how to best serve our communities here in the feeder pattern. And through a collaborative relationship, those things are being addressed.”

Other elements of the task force’s approved recommendation included limiting charter school expansion in north Tulsa and creating a parent resource center.

The resource center will share the former McLain 7th Grade Academy building with the Tulsa Learning Academy and offer support services for families.

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City to make changes to electric scooter ordinance

The City Council this week will consider ordinance changes that would set the minimum age for electric scooter users at 16 and prohibit people from riding the vehicles on sidewalks in certain parts of town.

The proposed ordinance amendments also would limit the number of riders on a scooter to one and provide funding to educate riders and the public about the rules and regulations pertaining to electric scooters and bicycles.

Nick Doctor, the city’s chief of community development and policy, said the city began evaluating its regulations for electric scooters in April, when temperatures began to rise and ridership numbers started to climb.

“The changes we’re proposing reflect areas where scooter riders, street and sidewalk users, businesses and others have identified places for greater clarification or direction and address a need we’ve seen for more robust education efforts,” Doctor said.

Bird and Lime, the electric scooter vendors operating in Tulsa, require users to be 18 years old.

“But that is not a legal policy from our perspective; it’s just a business policy,” Doctor said. “So we wanted a legal standard in place.”

In settling on 16 as the minimum age, city officials relied on recognized best practices and the reasonable expectation that individuals that age “have knowledge of traffic laws and the rules of the road,” Doctor said.

The existing city ordinance prohibits scooters from being ridden on sidewalks in “business districts,” a term that has led to some confusion. The proposed ordinance names those districts — the Inner Dispersal Loop, Cherry Street and Brookside.

Inner Dispersal Loop is defined as the area of the city bounded on the east by U.S. 75, on the west and north by Interstate 244, and on the south by Oklahoma 51; Brookside is defined as Peoria Avenue from 31st to 41st streets; and Cherry Street is defined as 15th Street from Peoria to Utica avenues.

Doctor said there are two reasons scooter users are prohibited from riding on sidewalks in those neighborhoods: the volume of pedestrian traffic and the fact that the speed limits in those areas are relatively low, making it more conducive to operating scooters in the streets.

“We are trying to avoid those conflict points between scooter users, bicycle users and pedestrians,” Doctor said.

The city charges electric scooter companies operating in the city separate licensing and maintenance fees based on the number of scooters in their fleets. Since scooters arrived in Tulsa in late October, those funds have been used for maintenance and infrastructure expenditures.

The proposed ordinance changes would direct some of those funds toward education programs.

“It’s clear that we need resources to be able to do that effectively for this form of technology and for any future forms of technology,” Doctor said.

The proposed ordinance changes also make clear that the same city regulations that apply to bicycles apply to electric scooters.

The scooters have been popular in Tulsa since the day they arrived.

As of Friday, nearly 101,000 riders had used a Lime scooter for a total of 377,072 rides. Bird has had 21,199 unique riders, who have accounted for 50,979 rides.

The Mayor’s Office first proposed possible changes to the electric scooter ordinances in May, shortly after a 5-year-old boy died after falling off a Lime rental scooter operated by his mother.

The City Council will discuss the proposed ordinance changes in a committee meeting Wednesday. No vote is scheduled.

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