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Reading Partners Tulsa celebrates 'remarkable' year

The Gathering Place was filled with a little more joy Tuesday evening as hundreds of parents, children and volunteers came together to celebrate the culmination of Reading Partners record-breaking year in Tulsa.

Ice cream sandwiches, fluffy dogs and the tunes of Hot Toast Music Company drew a crowd under the reading tree at the park, and the kids wasted no time dripping chocolate down their faces or rushing to meet Pete the Cat, a big, blue children’s book character.

Special guests, including Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist, read picture books to the crowd, and Reading Partners Executive Director Justin Harlan announced the milestones of the year.

Harlan said the program had about 500 additional volunteers in the most recent school year, bringing the total to more than 2,000 who served more than 1,700 children in TPS with more than 55,000 tutoring sessions. The sessions average about one hour.

The program’s growth since it began six years ago is “remarkable,” Harlan said.

“We just thought it was kind of a natural time to get the city together to celebrate,” he said.

Only 17 percent of TPS third-graders are reading proficiently, Harlan said, and research shows that kids who read proficiently by the time they finish third grade are four times more likely to graduate high school.

Harlan called a high school degree “critical” for life and career success, and said it’s important to emphasize literacy and reading in young students, “or we’re going to see a completely different city.”

Gist said she and TPS teachers greatly appreciate the time Reading Partners volunteers dedicate to students.

“We know that the more contact our children can have with adults who care about them and know them and read with them, the farther we will go as a community,” she said.

Wil Bruner, who just finished his fourth year as a volunteer and is looking forward to his fifth, said he learned about the opportunity while reading a Tulsa World story.

It took him back to the time his older sister spent teaching him to read, he said.

“Because of my sister, I’ve always enjoyed reading,” Bruner said. “I thought, ‘Why not pass that along?’”

Bruner said he chose to volunteer at a school close to his office, and he hasn’t looked back since.

He enjoys building relationships with the kids and seeing how each has a different personality and learning style, he said, and knowing they’ve taught him more than he has probably taught them.

To those interested in volunteering but apprehensive about pairing up with an apathetic child, Bruner says there’s no reason to fear.

“Kids are kids,” he said, adding that he often becomes the character of a book he’s reading in an effort to entertain the kids. “If you make it fun, you’re going to capture their attention.”

Plus, “it’s easy,” Bruner said. Volunteers receive straight-forward lesson plans before each tutoring session and often help their students sound out words or understand compound words, he said.

“If you’re thinking about it, do it,” Bruner said. “You’ll love it.”

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TPS police chief wants more data-driven school safety decisions with new records management system

Tulsa Public Schools Police Chief Matthias Wicks says he’s up many nights wondering how to glean more from a more robust data system installed by the district a year ago.

Wicks, in speaking Tuesday at the Mayor’s Policing and Community Council, focused on how he wants to better use data to inform decisions for school safety. He was sworn in as head of campus police in July 2017.

Wicks said his department emphasizes finding solutions that aren’t arrests, such as giving students wraparound services or calling mental-health crisis specialists.

“I’m not saying we won’t arrest,” Wicks said. “But we have to look at alternatives. We want our students to graduate.”

Perhaps the Tulsa Police Athletic League is an option to help a struggling student find a sense of self and belonging. Wicks said his job is to create a safe and secure environment so that teachers can teach.

Positive experiences create feelings of safety and security, so he said helping students have fun is key. Maybe an officer visits with a student as a friend for 3 to 5 minutes once a week for two months.

“So if they’re feeling good about the learning process, guess what they aren’t worried about: somebody shooting it up,” Wicks said. “If they’re feeling good about being with their friends they aren’t worried about their friends shooting it up.

“So it’s so important that we create a safe environment where they actually enjoy learning, and they feel good being around each other and that they belong.”

Wicks said if data indicates a particular school has a high concentration of threats or fights or calls, an officer can be dispatched to spend time with counselors. From there, they can find out what the behaviors specific to that school are and if alternative interventions may help.

“I want officers who love what they do, I want officers who can think through a process, come up with a resolution and can also be in alignment with what the district is trying to do,” Wicks said.

Shawn Houchin, campus police’s lead on the records management system, also was in attendance. She said a simple application of the data is resource deployment, such as identifying busy periods in which an extra officer would be helpful.

Wicks called the data system robust. He wants campus police to become more assertive in how it’s applied to operations.

“Our work is evolving on a regular basis,” he said.

Oklahoma's health system among the nation's worst, study finds

Oklahoma has the next-to-worst health system in the country and is a lot closer to last than it is to the state just ahead of it, a report released Tuesday by the Commonwealth Fund says.

“Oklahoma and Mississippi stand out for poor performance even among poor performing states,” David Radley, one of the report’s authors, said during a teleconference.

Oklahoma ranked 50th among 50 states and the District of Columbia, just ahead of Mississippi and behind Texas. Hawaii’s system rated the best by far.

Tuesday’s report also highlighted a largely overlooked trend in the state. While much attention has been focused on opioids, deaths from alcohol actually grew at a faster rate than fatal drug overdoses from 2005 to 2017.

Drug deaths still outnumber those from alcohol, but the gap is closing. The death rate from drugs actually declined from 2013 to 2017, while the rate for alcohol-related deaths continued to increase.

The rankings released Tuesday were based on 47 criteria divided into five categories: access and affordability, prevention and treatment, avoidable hospital use and cost, healthy lives and disparity.

Oklahoma scored best for prevention and treatment, at 42nd, and worst for access and affordability, at 49th.

Of the ranking’s 47 criteria, the Commonwealth Fund said Oklahoma had improved on 13 since last year’s report, gotten worse in 10 and had seen no change in 22. Two of the criteria were new to this year’s report.

Oklahoma ranked 50th for uninsured adults and 49th for elderly patients receiving high-risk drugs, preventable deaths, colorectal deaths and certain hospital admissions.

The state ranked as high as fifth in a couple of categories — children 19-35 months with recommended vaccinations and home health patients enrolled in Medicare.

Nationally, the report found deaths from suicide, alcohol and drugs rising over a 12-year period, but that the effects of each were largely regional. It also found that rising health insurance premiums are being driven by higher costs, especially for prescription drugs and outpatient services, and not because of greater utilization of the system.

Efforts to expand access to health insurance have largely stalled and in some cases are retreating, the report says.

The Commonwealth Fund, created in 1918 with an endowment from New York socialite Anna Harkness, is a nonprofit dedicated to health care policy and delivery systems.

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Its 2019 “report card” released Tuesday is based primarily on 2017 data, which the authors said was the most recent available.

Trend data mostly covers 2005-2017.

Broken Arrow Public Schools proposes significant pay raises for teachers

Broken Arrow Public Schools, one of the lowest-paying districts in the Tulsa area, announced on Tuesday a proposed pay raise that would increase a starting teacher’s salary by nearly $3,700.

The district plans to invest an additional $4.2 million directly into teacher compensation next school year. If approved by the school board, the move would provide all teachers in the district with a salary that is $1,720 above the state minimum. It also would completely fund the 7.5% mandatory employee contribution to the state’s teacher retirement fund.

The proposal is possible due to recent increases in common education funding. The new state budget includes $74 million for the funding formula to allow schools to hire additional staff, lower class sizes and pay for materials. It also contains $58.8 million for a $1,200 teacher pay raise, on top of the average raise of $6,100 approved last year.

“We are so proud to make this historic investment in our teachers,” Superintendent Janet Dunlop said in a statement. “Our teachers deserve the best, and these increases will directly benefit our students in recruiting and retaining outstanding educators.”

Officials say the new scale would pay teachers with a bachelor’s degree in their first year a total compensation of $41,348, compared to the current $37,674. The total compensation includes base salary, the district-paid retirement contribution and life and disability insurance. The base pay would increase from $34,904 to $38,321.

The step increases aren’t even across the district’s pay scale, but the vast majority of teachers would receive a raise of more than $2,500, chief administrative officer Lori Kerns said.

Total compensation for teachers with a bachelor’s degree in their sixth year would increase nearly $2,800, according to the proposed 2019-20 pay scale. Those in their 26th year would see a $3,940 boost.

The school board is expected to vote on the proposal around August, with the pay raises taking effect in the fall. But first the plan needs to be ratified by the Broken Arrow Education Association.

Kerns said the board’s goal has been to make Broken Arrow the highest-paying district in the region. This pay raise would be a huge step forward in achieving that goal.

That kind of progress is especially noteworthy for Broken Arrow, which posted the lowest base salary among area districts in a December analysis by the Tulsa World.

It’s unclear where Broken Arrow would be located on the list with the salary increase, as several districts have yet to release their new pay scales. But Kerns is confident Broken Arrow will be one of the best in the state.

“We realized we were at the bottom of the region, so with the new operational funding that has come in, it is well-deserved for our teachers to receive all of it in their salary schedule,” she said.

Featured video

Actor Jason Lee talks about his new photo exhibit that is being shown at the same time as photos from Larry Clark's iconic photo book "Tulsa."

Read the story: Larry Clark, Jason Lee exhibits show Oklahoma from inside, outside