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Tulsa-area districts hope to fill teacher vacancies before start of school

After teaching at Patrick Henry Elementary School for more than two decades, Kathleen Fischer has perfected the art of preparing for a new school year.

Thursday marked the official end of summer break for Fischer and hundreds of other Tulsa Public Schools teachers as they returned to their classrooms to rearrange furniture and organize lesson plans. Students won’t arrive until Wednesday, but educators like to get a head start.

Not everyone has Fischer’s experience. The fifth-grade teacher spends more time helping newer colleagues get their classrooms ready than she does her own.

“They’re very nervous about how to set their rooms up and that kind of stuff,” she said. “The good thing about being a veteran teacher is you’re kind of an old hat. That goes there, and that goes here. And when you put stuff up at the end of the year, you put it where you can find it. But the new teachers don’t have any idea about all that.”

Fischer isn’t complaining, though. She goes out of her way to help the rising number of novice teachers within the city.

TPS and other districts ramped up their recruiting efforts this year as they look to replenish their ranks with inexperienced but eager educators.

The district reported having 32 vacant teacher positions as of Friday, averaging fewer than one per school. District officials believe those vacancies will be filled by the time school starts.

“Principals have identified candidates, and they’re just making sure they make the right decisions,” said Quentin Liggins, director of talent initiatives at TPS.

Even if the positions are filled, some administrators still are expected to teach classes at the beginning of the school year. They’ll step in until the new hires are ready to take over, Liggins said.

It will likely be the fourth straight year administrators take on the role of teacher. More than a dozen worked in classrooms throughout the district in 2018-19. Superintendent Deborah Gist was among those who taught temporarily two years ago.

The need stems from the debilitating teacher shortage that has plagued the state for more than half a decade and prompted districts to rely more and more on nonaccredited teachers.

TPS is projected to begin 2019-20 with about 437 emergency-certified teachers, compared to 279 at the same time last year. That number grew to 388 over the course of the school year.

Many of this year’s nonaccredited teachers are returning for their second year, including about 55 who were part of the first Tulsa Teacher Corps cohort. Another 85 are beginning their teaching careers after completing the second year of Teacher Corps, an intensive summer-training program for new hires who lack traditional or alternative certification.

The Teacher Corps program is one of several strategies implemented in response to the shortage. Liggins said TPS is working to improve employee morale, as seen with the recent restructuring of its central office. District leaders say the reorganization is meant to help them better serve schools.

These efforts, along with last year’s historic teacher raise, have resulted in better retention rates and more people applying for jobs, he said.

“We have increased the rigor of our application process,” Liggins said. “We’ve seen continued demand to work in Tulsa Public Schools, and our principals have an opportunity to be intentionally selective about who they’re bringing in.”

Although district officials expect to fill teacher vacancies, they appear to be less optimistic about driver vacancies.

Liggins said TPS needs an additional 18-20 bus drivers to ensure its fleet runs at optimal levels and is “working feverishly” to meet that need. Bus routes will continue to run even with a shortage, however.

“This is a competitive marketplace,” he said. “All of our surrounding neighbors are also looking for bus drivers, so we want to be intentional about recruiting folks. And then if they do not have their commercial driving license, there is a pathway to being trained, but that just takes time as well.”

Suburban districts also filling vacancies

Bus drivers are one of the biggest areas of concern at Union Public Schools, where 75% of students rely on school transportation. Right now the district has six openings.

Even after making it a full-time position with benefits two years ago, Union still struggles to hire and retain drivers, said Jay Loegering, executive director of human resources.

“There are not enough bus drivers out there,” Loegering said. “We will train people. They have to have no experience. We will put them through a training course and help them get their (commercial driving licenses). But there’s just not enough people out there to do it.”

The lack of drivers resulted in Union moving from three to four school start times so that students don’t have to wait on a bus for an extended period of time.

Meanwhile, Union filled all of its teacher positions before the first day of school — an uncommon feat for the district. New raises from the state as well as through conservative budgeting allowed officials to emphasize hiring early and hiring well, Loegering said.

He also credited additional funding received as part of a Vision Tulsa initiative to help hire and keep teachers. For the next seven years, $1.4 million in funding will be distributed as block grants each year to the Tulsa, Union and Jenks districts based on student enrollment in the city of Tulsa. Union planned to use the money to extend its outreach and bring qualified teachers to Tulsa from neighboring states.

Union will start the year with 20 emergency-certified teachers, compared to 31 last year. Loegering said 14 of those teachers are regularly certified, just not in the subject they’re covering.

“For instance, I have a person who has multiple certifications and she’s taught art, but she’s not officially certified in art in Oklahoma,” he said. “She’s a certified teacher, but she didn’t have the art endorsement and the test results won’t be back until after the school year starts. So we’ve gotten her emergency certified to be able to have her as the teacher of record at the start of the year.”

Jenks Public Schools also had teachers for every classroom and, for the first time in years, drivers for every bus. The district still needed four speech-language pathologists and a psychologist. Additional needs included 12 child-care employees, about 10 paraprofessionals and numerous substitutes.

It’s typical for Jenks to not have any teacher vacancies on the first day of school. But that accomplishment seems to get more difficult every year, said Dana Ezell, executive director of human resources at Jenks. Nine teachers will have emergency certifications this year.

Like Union, officials at Jenks have focused on recruiting harder and sooner than in previous years with help from the Vision funding. The extra money allowed them to attend more job fairs and produce more advertising.

“We know that every school district is looking for the same qualified people, and so we just knew that we had to get out there as early as we could to try to identify those candidates,” Ezell said.

At Broken Arrow Public Schools, all teaching openings were filled except for two special education positions, which are the hardest to hire for at most districts. The district has no openings for bus drivers and about a dozen for child nutrition positions.

Broken Arrow implemented a significant pay raise this summer that included a sign-on bonus for special education teachers.

“That really helped,” district spokesman Charlie Hannema said. “We had about 15 or 16 openings, and we got all of those filled except for the two in about three or four weeks.”

The district will have 57 emergency-certified teachers in 2019-20, which is the same number as last year. Hannema said 32 of this year’s are new requests and 25 are extensions. In 2018-19, 40 were new requests and 17 were extensions.

There were two remaining teacher vacancy positions — one for first grade and the other for high school science — at Owasso Public Schools. Lisa Johnson, the district’s human resources director, was confident the positions would be filled before school starts Thursday.

Johnson expects Owasso to have no more than eight emergency-certified teachers, two of whom aren’t certified in the subjects they’re covering. Last year there were 15 teachers with emergency certifications.

Superintendent Amy Fichtner also said her district posted vacancies as early as possible this year and took additional steps to try to avoid the emergency-certification process, which she described as “quite cumbersome” for teachers and administrators.

District officials are working with nonaccredited teachers to become traditionally certified.

“It’s not our preference to have emergency-certified teachers,” Fichtner said. “We have those only in the areas where we have a difficult time finding a candidate that is suitably credentialed for the position.”

The state teacher shortage has heightened awareness of the need to prioritize recruiting and retaining high-quality educators, she said.

“It is a very intentional process putting the highest quality of professionals in front of our children,” Fichtner said, “and it is a collaborative effort among all the administrators in the district to do that.”

Guerin Emig: Honoring the '99 Sooners, and their extraordinary place in OU history, 20 years later
The '99 Sooners: Laying the groundwork for a new golden age of Sooners football

Oklahoma’s 2000 football team will turn 20 next year, and we’ll remember all of the rose petals, champagne fizz and fairy dust from that national championship season. It’s OK to be reverent that way.

Read the complete series here

Part 1: Led by a no-nonsense head coach, new and determined Sooners staff ready to conquer the world

Part 2: Some quit, others got in the best shape of their lives. How Jerry Schmidt transformed OU's roster

Part 3: The '99 Sooners, Part 3: Many want to transfer, but Trent Smith urges players to stay, saying: 'Let's go be part of history'

Part 4: 'Special moments' during season meant, 'We’re so on the cusp of doing something special''

Game by game: A look at the 1999 season

Sooners sound off: An insight to what players, coaches were thinking about a crucial time in OU history

Where are they now

It’s also OK to be mindful, to recognize a 20-year anniversary happening right now.

“I think everyone immediately, and naturally, goes right to the 2000 national championship team,” says Bob Stoops, OU’s coach at that ascendant time. “But I’ve said on multiple occasions that that all begins with those guys in ’99.”

If 2000 marks the Sooners’ last great season, 1999 is their last essential one. It is one of the three most essential seasons in OU history, on par with 1970, the year offensive coordinator Barry Switzer changed from the veer to the wishbone, and 1946, the year Jim Tatum arrived with a young professorial assistant named Bud Wilkinson.

The program Stoops inherited was as wayward as the one Tatum did, with a revolving door of coaches and ideas that clouded players’ heads and infuriated loyalists.

“I came in my freshman year in ’98 and I definitely remember being booed by our own fans running into the tunnel,” says Jay Hunt, an OU running back at the time.

“You’re at Oklahoma and everyone says you’re horrible,” says Bubba Burcham, an offensive lineman then.

“Morale was low. I don’t know if it was so much morale but expectations,” says Jeremy Wilson-Guest, a defensive lineman. “We didn’t expect to win. We talked like we wanted to win, but we didn’t know how. We didn’t know how to prepare to win. We didn’t know how to work every day to prepare to win.”

Stoops arrived Dec. 1, 1998. He sicced strength and conditioning coordinator Jerry Schmidt on the players after that Christmas break, while he put in 20-hour recruiting days with the new staff.

“When they announced Coach Stoops, right at the very beginning you could see a change behind the scenes, the attitude, the way things were going to be run, the process of building up the players to believing they could win,” recalls Mike Prusinski, OU’s sports information director at the time. “That roster was full of talent. Even the last two years Coach Blake was there, the talent was there.”

It’s just nobody knew how to tap into it.

“Guys just wanted to be coached hard,” says Brandon Daniels, who went from ill-used quarterback under Blake to scene-stealing receiver/kick returner in ’99. “We responded well to it. We knew we had the ability. We just needed the right guy to get it out of us.”

It was a strenuous transition. Players used to being coaches’ buddies were now coaches’ projects. They were torn down so they could be rebuilt, first by Schmidt over the winter of ’99.

“It’s tough,” Schmidt acknowledges today, “but I enjoy people that are embarrassed and want to change it.”

The players who gutted out Schmidt’s regimen wanted to change the program desperately. So they rode out the conditioning, yielded to the new coaching and, sure enough, things began to change.

“I used to tell friends on the team like J.T. Thatcher and Ontei Jones, ‘Look, if we just get to a bowl game, we’ll be the group that turns this thing around,’” recalls Rocky Bright, an OU defensive end then. “‘Just a bowl game.’”

The ’99 Sooners lost to Ole Miss in the Independence Bowl to close out a season that was frustrating, rewarding and promising all at once.

They blew a few games they should have won. They also developed a steady identity and an unwavering camaraderie. They learned about accepting coaching and finishing games.

They built a foundation.

“I tell people we were probably the reason they won it all next year,” says Mike Woods, a senior cornerback in ’99.

There’s no “probably” about it.

“That ’99 season was the turning point of ‘You come to OU because you want to win championships,’ ” says Ryan Fisher, a ’99 defensive tackle. “ ‘There’s something special going on there.’ ”

“Belief is a heck of a thing. Proper coaching is a heck of a thing. That’s what all came together in 1999,” Bright says. “That was the breeding ground, the catapult for where we are.”

“You look at what’s happening today, it’s all from that season,” says ’99 defensive lineman Jeremy Wilson-Guest.

With Stoops staying another 17 years to build on that foundation, before passing the torch to assistant Lincoln Riley? That isn’t hyperbole.

This is fact: The 2000 season, OU’s last national championship, was a direct result of ’99. The ’99 Sooners had a feeling before anyone else possibly could.

“I can remember going fishing that summer between ’99 and 2000, me and Seth Littrell,” Wilson-Guest recalls.

“Out in Pink, Oklahoma. Catfishing,” says Littrell, a Sooners fullback then. “Yep. I know exactly what he’s talking about.”

“We would always go fishing in the afternoons after workouts,” Wilson-Guest continues. “I remember him and I sitting in the boat, talking ... ‘Y’know, we can win this thing ...’”

Why is diversity within the Tulsa Police Department important? Police, experts and researchers explain

Through multiple discussions examining ways in which the racial and gender makeup of the Tulsa Police Department could be improved to reflect the demographics of the city, many elements were learned through the two-week public review.

What’s known, based on internal 2019 data produced by TPD, is that the force is overwhelmingly white and male. Statistics also point out that significant under-representation exists among African American, Asian and Hispanic sworn officers compared to Tulsa’s racial population of those groups. The gulf between active sworn women officers in relation to the city’s adult female population is a 39-percentage point gap.

During the most recent City Council special meeting on the city’s Equality Indicators, the public also was informed about varying strategies implemented and attempted by TPD to recruit more women and ethnic minorities.

The careful inspection of the Police Department’s demographic hiring and retention practices ultimately leads to natural inquiries of why so much is made of TPD — or any other police force for that matter — needing to be represented by certain groups.

Research shows, according to Equality Indicators project manager Melanie Poulter, that a diverse workforce that reflects the community across all spectrums benefits everyone.

“This just isn’t a workforce equity issue,” said Poulter. “When community members feel that law enforcement understands them and relates to them because they actually represent them, police and community relations improve overall.”

Further investigation suggests that increased diversity can make law enforcement agencies more open to reform, more willing to initiate cultural and systemic changes, and more responsive to the residents they serve.

A Gallup-Tulsa Citivoice Index survey, the first of its kind, revealed that only 36% of African Americans felt police had “a positive or very positive impact on the area where they live.” Similarly, only 39% percent of Hispanics said they trusted the police, according to the survey, which was released in January.

The latest Equality Indicators meeting included discussions about why women tend to shy away from police work (despite female officers using less force and communicating in a way that tempers potential violence). Reasons cited included the physical nature of the job, the impact the profession would have on starting a family and concerns about functioning in a male-dominated industry.

One of the most effective recent strategies employed to recruit women has been the department’s Women in Policing days. Deputy Police Chief Eric Dalgleish said participants spend an entire day at the Tulsa Police Academy getting a comprehensive look at what it takes to be an officer.

Poulter explained that citizens ultimately gain more trust in their local police force when it is aligned with a city’s racial and gender makeup. Another impact of diversity is that residents acquire belief in local government itself, she said.

“(Diversity) instills public confidence in government in general because you feel like you are part of (it) because you see people like you in that role,” Poulter said. “It diminishes the us-versus-them mentality. It comes down to seeing people like you in those positions.”

Maj. Ryan Perkins, the Tulsa Police Department’s training director, explained its leadership — just like many other agencies across the country — has grown to value diversity as beneficial to the institution as a whole.

It is why Perkins and the department’s recruiting officers have traveled to colleges, career fairs and to neighboring states in search of potential female and minority police officers.

“Citizens report they are more comfortable to see their own culture represented on the department,” he said. “A department that is diverse in any way can help give perspective to officers that maybe don’t have an understanding of cultures and certain people who don’t have a similar experience as them.

“We want our agency to have a broad cultural perspective and a broad life experience perspective. That’s why we are striving to have officers that have those different perspectives.”

Even though TPD has made efforts to become more diverse, Perkins said, the department still maintains its qualification standards for those interested in joining the force regardless of race or gender.

He also wanted to dispel the notion that TPD was intentionally refusing to hire qualified minorities or that it was passing over qualified white candidates to fulfill a demographic representation requirement.

“The idea that we’re passing up qualified candidates for unqualified candidates, we don’t do that. We don’t hire unqualified candidates just because they meet a certain demographic,” Perkins said. “We only hire qualified candidates. In an environment where we have qualified candidates that could help diversify our police department, we are going to strive to do that.”