Teachers and coaches, counselors and mentors, foster parents and Big Brothers Big Sisters make considerable differences in the lives of children.
Society acknowledges this, typically, because people are conditioned to do so. It can be surface-level appreciation.
To dig beneath the surface is to realize a few things:
• Oklahoma children encounter more trauma and adversity than those in any other state, according to Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
• Professionals in the children’s mental health field increasingly turn to children’s ACE (adverse childhood experiences) scores to get a psychological grip on kids’ trauma.
“It is really changing a way of thinking,” said Amanda Morris, a regents professor of human development at OSU-Tulsa. “Not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’ ”
• As the ACEs approach to childhood trauma is more widely embraced, so is the psychological approach to buffering that trauma.
In 2014, Morris and OSU colleague Jennifer Hays-Grudo developed a framework to better understand factors that promote resilience in children with high ACE scores. They did so through a questionnaire evaluating the presence of protective and compensatory experiences, or PACEs, that could buffer kids’ trauma.
Two significant questions from Morris’ and Hays-Grudo’s framework: “Did you have someone who loved you unconditionally (you did not doubt that they cared about you)?” and “Did you have an adult (not a parent) you trusted and could count on when you needed help or advice?”
PACEs provide opportunities to build the brain architecture — or neuro connections — that allow a person’s body to calm down and carry forward with positive habits.
“Children with high ACEs and no PACEs have a very difficult time in life because they don’t have the opportunity to develop the skills and the competencies — the psychological skills, the social skills and even the cognitive, learning skills — to compensate for the abuse and neglect that has compromised how their brains develop,” Hays-Grudo said. “ACEs are not a death sentence. I know many people with high levels of ACEs who live very happy and productive and good lives.
“And that’s generally because they also had many other good things going on in their lives.”
That makes something Child Protection Coalition Executive Director Nellie Kelly said at a recent Tulsa children’s mental health forum read like gospel: “Become involved with a child and become that stabilizing adult who cares for them and becomes a cheerleader. There are kids who literally have never had an adult come to a school event and clap for them. Nobody at home tells them to brush their teeth, let alone that they’re proud of them and they do a good job at something. That’s what we can do on a very personal level.”
Fortunately, there are stabilizing adults across the city who are involved. They work in classrooms. They advocate in courtrooms. They open their homes. They volunteer at parks.
“What seems to be really important is that somebody is believing in you,” said OSU’s Morris. “Somebody has your back.”
Linda Vincent lets you know straight away: Being a foster parent can be terrifying.
“Ter-ri-fy-ing,” she says for emphasis. “My kids come into my home and I see behaviors that would blow other people’s minds. They call them ‘trauma rages’ sometimes.”
Foster children tend to have encountered trauma. They tend to have high ACE scores. They typically haven’t encountered stabilizers in their lives.
Then they come into the lives of foster parents. They come into lives like Vincent’s.
“I’ve watched my children go from name-calling that I’ve never heard from a grown-up to months later my children coming and sitting down in front of me saying, ‘Mama Linda, my heart’s hurting right now. I just need to talk about it,’ ” Vincent says. “Or, ‘I need a hug.’ ”
Vincent, a Tulsa real estate agent when she isn’t fostering her 8-, 5- and 4-year-old children, offers a perspective that sounds straight out of a parenting class.
“When a child feels completely overwhelmed and overstimulated and they’ve never been shown healthy regulation ... It’s tough,” she says. “What they’re really trying to say is, ‘I’m hurting and I don’t know how to tell you that. And I’m scared to tell you that because you might hurt me or make fun of me.’ But they can’t say that so they call you really bad words.”
This is where adult stabilizers come in.
Teachers, counselors or mentors give children affected by adversity attention and empathy for periods beyond a moment, and it opens paths.
The children have a sympathetic figure, someone they did not have before, and what can result is dialogue, understanding and some healing.
Vincent presents that figure as a foster mom.
“No one gets to see this kind of progress in human spirit quite like a foster parent. It’s an incredible thing to watch,” she says. “It’s exhausting. But it is the most rewarding and value-building thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
Vincent has been drawn to children since she was a nanny in college. She considered teaching until realizing something: “You would find me having a snuggle session with my kids in a big circle, completely disregarding the ‘letter of the day.’ ”
Vincent wound up volunteering at the Laura Dester Children’s Center for a few years. There, she discovered the sheer number of area foster kids in need of care. She considered fostering herself, only to talk herself out of the proposition because she felt she needed to have her own children first.
“Eventually, I just said, ‘This is kind of silly. I can do this right now. And I’m needed right now. I have space in my house and a pretty flexible schedule,’ ” she says. “I did it, and let me tell you, it’s amazing ...
“I started my certification process in October of 2017. In January of ’18, I signed my contracts to become a foster parent. Jan. 19, they dropped the most adorable little kid I’ve ever seen in my life on my front porch. I’ve had kids in my house ever since. I got the three kids I’m fostering now the beginning of January.”
Their trauma can still be frightening, but it is absolutely not defining.
“Their ACE score would paint a scary picture for a lot of people from the outside. But what’s amazing is to watch them say, ‘That’s not who I am,’ ” Vincent says. “ ‘I have all these amazing attributes, and if you give me time and space to explore them, watch me show you what I’m good at, watch me show you how loving I can be...’
“They have zero reason to trust an adult, and yet they do it. It’s incredible. I feel sorry for anybody who doesn’t get to watch that up close and personally.”
A state senator is raising new questions about Epic Charter Schools, the operator of Oklahoma’s largest statewide virtual charter school and centers that blend online and in-person instruction in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, said he has tried in vain for nearly three months to find out how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding the last two years for 3,000-4,000 students in middle and high school when the school’s own website and assistant superintendent have said the Blended Learning Centers they are enrolled in can only be attended by students in early education and elementary school grades.
Sharp, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said the Oklahoma State Department of Education assured him for months that they were working on a request he submitted for public records on the matter.
Then in June, the education department’s legal counsel reportedly told him he would have to pay an $850 labor fee for those records.
“The legislature should have access to any and all financial information from the state agencies we’re entrusted to fund and oversee. The public expects us to be good stewards of their money and we must hold our state agencies, including the State Department of Education, accountable for their spending,” said Sharp in a Thursday news release.
Asked to respond, Steffie Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the education department, said: “We will be following up on the new information received today. They (Epic) have testing information for students in grades 7-12, enrollment data and a signed affidavit from the school principal approving what is the (state accreditation) compliance report.”
And Brad Clark, the department’s legal counsel, said after Sen. Sharp objected, the agency offered to “absorb the cost” of processing the request, which Clark said was for 12 years’ worth of correspondence between Epic and the state agency.
“It’s not common that we receive a request of this magnitude in both time and scope. So when we receive a request like that, it does cause an excessive disruption to this agency,” he said. “Each of those records have to be reviewed for (federal student privacy law) compliance.”
Epic One-on-One is a statewide virtual charter school sponsored by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. Two years ago, Epic added Blended Learning Centers, or BLCs, sponsored by Rose State College in Midwest City, that offer students a blend of online and in-person instruction in buildings located in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Sharp said he is questioning how Epic could have received millions of state dollars for BLC students in grades 6-12 in FY18 and grades 7-12 in FY19 when Epic’s website states that during its first year, “it only accommodated pre-K through fifth grade and pre-k through sixth grade during the 2018-19 school year.”
Epic is opening a new BLC in Midwest City for the 2019-20 academic year.
As of Thursday, Epic’s website still states “Students attending these sites must be residents of either Oklahoma or Tulsa County, respectively, and must be in grades pre-K-6 with the exception of Midwest City, which serves students in grades 7-12 only.”
Sharp attached to his press release an email from Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent at Epic, answering a question about the matter from state senate staff on June 24.
“In 17-18, we served PK-5 in two BLC sites (one in OKC and one in Tulsa). In 18-19, we served PK-6 in three BLC sites (two in OKC and one in Tulsa),” Hickman wrote.
Sharp cited state education records he said show Epic BLC had 3,078 students enrolled in grades six through 12 the first year and 3,995 students enrolled in grades seven through 12 last school year.
“I’m just confused why they turned in enrollment numbers for grades that their website and an administrator said they didn’t provide,” Sharp said in his news release. “Perhaps this is a clerical error or an oversight but as legislators we must be good stewards of the people’s tax dollars, especially when it comes to our education system.”
Sharp alone authored nine bills earlier this year seeking new restrictions or greater accountability for the public dollars flowing to virtual charter schools, but was dismayed that many didn’t even receive a hearing before the Senate Education Committee.
He told the Tulsa World he issued a news release Thursday because he believes his question about Epic student attendance calls into question the use of millions of taxpayer dollars, and it has yet to be addressed.
“This is a totally different examination of what’s going on from the state investigation into Epic, based on what I’ve been told,” said Sharp, referring to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s most recent investigation into Epic Charter Schools, last described as “active” in February by Beth Green, an OSBI assistant special agent in charge.
Asked what the state’s requirements are for BLC student attendance, Brad Clark, the state department of education’s attorney, said by law, the BLCs are subject to the same attendance requirements as traditional charter schools — not virtual charter schools.
“The statute is very clear that statewide virtual charter schools have a specific methodology for how they are to adopt their policy for reporting and calculating attendance and that is different than what is required for a brick and mortar school,” Clark said.
But asked to respond, Emily Lang, with Epic’s contract public relations firm Price Lang Consulting, said that statement was wrong because all Epic students “are reported in accordance with state law as virtual charter school students.”
“Attendance for virtual students, whether or not they choose to access a blended learning center, is basically a function of whether or not students are completing their assignments,” Lang told the Tulsa World.
“There is not a separate statute governing attendance reporting for virtual students who choose to utilize a physical building. Those buildings are meant to serve as a tool for students and teachers, but their use is not required. At the outset of Epic’s partnership with Rose State College, Senator Sharp was invited to a meeting, which he declined to attend. That invitation remains open.”
A proposed project to house a permanent memorial in the heart of the Greenwood District to recognize the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is coming to fruition after architecture firms were chosen to design a museum-grade history center.
On Thursday, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, along with Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, announced that New York-based Local Projects will lead the conceptual design of a forthcoming 11,800-square-foot exhibit space to be constructed, officials hope, in time for the 100th anniversary observance in 2021.
Local Projects, which assisted in the creation of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain and the Legacy Museum of African American History in Montgomery, Alabama, was chosen from among a group of four firms that bid to work on the project. Selser Schaefer Architects, a Tulsa firm, was retained to spearhead design work.
“There is an incredible and important national story to be told here in Tulsa,” said Local Projects founder Jake Barton. “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre just wasn’t a pivotal moment for this city or communities that were affected by this event. This was also part of a resilience and resurgence of Greenwood that is a much larger story that the nation needs to know about.”
The facility is expected to feature interactive experiences designed to familiarize both locals and tourists with a contextualized narrative around the history of Tulsa’s African American community.
Additionally, Barton hopes the center — like other projects the firm have designed — is used as a mechanism to educate and spark deeper, uncomfortable conversations about the race massacre and its lasting impact on Tulsa.
“There is a reason this has been hidden in plain sight for almost a century, but bringing that to light illustrates something of a controversy,” he said. “But it is really necessary for Tulsa to thrive and move forward. What we’ve learned in a short amount of time is that this community wants to focus on not this event itself but the precursor that built Black Wall Street and the incredible resilience and human spirit that rebuilt Black Wall Street.”
Pinnell, who approved a $1.5 million appropriations bill line item for the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, likened the meaning of the future center to a pilgrimage that will be taken by visitors once word spreads about the exhibit’s powerful arrangement of sensory experiences.
“This to me is that for this city,” Pinnell said. “I’m very excited that the state is invested in this. The state needs to be a major investor in this to tell this story. This is an Oklahoma story. This is a story the rest of the world needs to hear.”
Historian and author Hannibal B. Johnson will orchestrate curation of the exhibit. The focus of the display is expected to center around Greenwood’s history, including the legacy of Black Wall Street before and after the Race Massacre.
The planned project is part of a renovation and expansion of the Greenwood Cultural Center to accompany the John Hope Franklin Center of Reconciliation, that is expected to cost around $9 million.
In May, members of the Centennial Commission, community leaders and select city officials visited several museum sites to formulate ideas on how to effectively present the Race Massacre history to the public in its own version of a history center.
The Centennial Commission has already started work on the Path to Hope project, a walking tour of the original Greenwood area.
These initiatives, said Sen. Kevin Matthews, serve as an important step in civic leaders recognizing a dark time in the city’s history that for so long had rarely been discussed.
“For many years, this is a story that had not been told,” said Matthews. “This is a time where we need to have courageous conversations around telling that story and learning about that history.”