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TPS finds success in reinventing high school experience through Tulsa Beyond project

Last year Breonna Bells was the smart-but-shy kid who sat in the back of class and kept to herself. This year she’s a mentor to her classmates and feels like she belongs.

The ninth-grader had no idea what she was stepping into when she arrived at Webster High School in August. Bells and the rest of her freshman class are the first to participate in Webster’s adaptation of Tulsa Beyond, the Tulsa Public Schools project aimed at re-imagining how high schools operate.

Design teams at the Tulsa Beyond schools — Webster, Hale, Tulsa Learning Academy and McLain — spent several months creating personalized school models tailored to the unique needs of their communities. Three schools began piloting their Tulsa Beyond models this year. McLain delayed its implementation but incorporated some elements on a smaller scale.

Webster’s model focuses on personalized learning and relationship-building. Students are divided into “houses” based on common and shared interests. The small learning groups meet regularly and craft identities by choosing their own house colors, uniforms, projects and rituals. Like in Harry Potter, they even compete against one another through special house games.

The goal is to make school feel like a second home for students and encourage them to push their classmates to succeed.

That’s exactly what happened to Bells, who soon found herself with a long list of friends.

“As soon as I walk into the classroom people are talking to me and asking me to sit by them,” she said. “I became known.”

Another major change for Bells has been adjusting to the Summit Learning Program, an online educational tool that lets students work at their own pace. The approximately 100 students in Webster Beyond, as it’s known there, are loaned laptops and hot spots. They decide where and how quickly they complete lessons, giving them more control over their learning.

Bells said previous teachers would move on from a lesson before making sure students understood the material. Summit Learning allows her to stick with a particularly troublesome subject for as long as she needs.

And then there’s Expedition Fridays, which provide monthly out-of-school learning opportunities. Students spend part of the day visiting places that help connect their studies to the real world. A recent expedition involved volunteering at a food bank to better understand food insecurity.

”It gives us the chance to push ourselves further academically and to also have a good high school experience,” Bells said. “Instead of just being stuck in class reading textbooks and doing stuff you don’t want to do, we’re going out into the real world and learning about stuff that can actually help you when you become an adult and leave high school.”

Webster Beyond project manager Tarsha Guillory said the first half of the school year proved to be difficult as she tried to help freshmen adapt to a new style of learning while still trying to understand it all herself. She believes the transition could be the hardest challenge her students and staff have faced.

But Guillory also called it the most rewarding experience in an extensive education career that includes leading the now-defunct McLain 7th Grade Academy. She accepted the Webster Beyond job because the program offered the means to engage students in a way that’s never been done.

“The whole idea is changing the way schooling is done so that kids want to come to school and want to achieve and want to better themselves,” she said. “I got into education because I wanted to be a part of that. But 23 years in, you’re like, ‘Is there anything more?’ Now I’m at a place where I can say yes, there is more, and we are doing good work.”

Tulsa Public Schools pitched Tulsa Beyond last year as designing a system of high schools that prepare and inspire youths for the “economic, cultural and environmental realities of a radically different and rapidly changing future.”

District officials secured about $3.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies and XQ Super Schools to fund the expansive project. They became the first in Oklahoma to successfully apply for Empowered Schools Act status, which provides the same exemptions from statutory requirements afforded to charters.

TPS Chief Design and Innovation Officer Andrea Castaneda said implementing change of this magnitude is messy. Although the Tulsa Beyond schools have seen a lot of success with their pilot models, they’ve also endured several setbacks and roadblocks.

The challenges will continue to multiply as the high schools refine and expand their models to every grade level over the next four years.

“Things are going to go right. Things are going to go wrong. It’s going to be an uneven path upward,” Castaneda said. “I say this to my schools all the time because they expect so much from themselves. This is a wildly ambitious project, as it should be. And it’s going to require the stamina of a marathon, which we have.”

At Hale High School, 246 students, about a quarter of the total student body, is participating in the Hale Beyond program.

“The kids are great. They’ve done an awesome job,” Principal Sheila Riley said.

They had to adjust, but they are “starting to realize now: ‘If I don’t do it, it’s my fault. I have all the resources, I have all the teachers, I have all the time. So if I don’t do it, it’s because of me.’ Which is really changing the way that kids are thinking about school.”

Hale Beyond students each have their own Chromebook, which they use to receive their class assignments and access other helpful resources.

“We have the assignments coming at us and the lessons,” senior Valerie Jones said. “From there, it’s up to me. I can always ask for help. It’s always available for me. But I can work at my own pace and actually learn.”

Instead of meeting in a classroom at a designated time and place, the students complete their work for each course where they want — whether the library, a classroom or other site on campus — and at their own pace, checking in with their teacher as needed, and working on their own or with other students.

To help them on this “bold journey,” Riley added, every student has a mentor with whom they meet regularly.

One of those mentors is Hale Athletic Director Shane Keim, who said he appreciates the program’s relationship-focus.

“A lot of kids feel like nobody cares about them. And this makes it easier for them to open up and actually have a real relationship,” he said, adding that it has reduced “negative interactions” with adults that for too many students had characterized their school experience.

“There’s a young man who last year was suspended left and right,” Keim said. “He had no positive relationships with any of the adults here. I had to kick him out of my room.”

This year, under Hale Beyond, the student has experienced a complete turnaround.

“He shows up every day and he works hard, and he’s doing it his way and he’s thriving,” Keim said. “Just this morning he comes up, gives me a hug and asked me how my break was.”

Riley said there are still kinks to work out as the program goes forward, such as how to best measure where students are in their courses and when to intervene. “How much time do you let a student work on something and struggle with it before you step in and provide that support? These are things we’re still figuring out,” Riley said.

Summing up his impressions so far of the program, Keim added: “I like to compare it to when you get your first car. It can be the biggest hunk of junk you’ve ever seen. But it’s yours now. You love it. And you take care of it. We’ve done the same thing here, but with their education. It’s theirs.”

Tulsa Learning Academy is the most unconventional of the Tulsa Beyond schools, primarily serving at-risk kids who struggle in traditional classroom settings. The alternative school offers full-time and blended virtual options for students in grades six through 12.

TLA Beyond presents a third option for those who don’t respond well to virtual education. The model centers on project-based, flexible learning and prioritizes reshaping interactions between students and adults to encourage better behavior and increase school engagement.

”TLA’s been offering a really great online experience for kids for 10 years,” Principal Dixie Speer said. “But we weren’t catching them all. We knew some of these kids needed something different. So that was where the passion from the staff came in designing this new school.”

About 32 freshmen participate in the pilot program, which also includes adult mentors and emphasizes real-world learning.

Students work on numerous projects meant to give them a deeper understanding of what they’re learning. For lessons about density and volume, they designed boats with limited supplies and tried to make them float at the local YMCA pool. If they failed, they’d rework their designs until they got it right.

“We’ve created an environment of failing forward,” Speer said. “Like, if this didn’t work, what can I do now?”

Freshman Kjaveus Carter’s favorite project involved portraying and presenting a historical figure. He picked his hero, Frederick Douglass, and dressed up as the slave-turned-abolitionist.

The assignment was nothing like what Carter experienced at his former school, where he felt disengaged and unmotivated.

“Last year, the teachers weren’t the same,” he said. “The teachers here, they greet you and let you know you’re special. So I enjoy coming to school. Like during the break, I wanted to come back to school.”

Rosalinda Esquivel transferred here this semester after school officials told her mom she’d be a good fit for TLA Beyond. She was having problems with other kids and her grades were slipping, leading her to want to drop out of school.

Esquivel remembers feeling nervous about how different her new school seemed, but it didn’t take long to find her footing. She no longer felt lonely because she was surrounded by teens with similar experiences. They motivate one another to succeed.

Although the projects are difficult, she said they make her and her classmates “feel like we’re worth something.”

“We’re all learning not to give up and to keep pushing forward,” Esquivel said. “Finding these kids just like me makes me feel comfortable, and it makes me happy to see them want to learn.”

McLain was supposed to be the fourth Tulsa Beyond site this year, but Principal Renee Rabovsky said the high school needed more time to ensure its model succeeds.

Instead of launching a full pilot, McLain implemented a single component focused on the existing adult culture at the school. Rabovsky said the objective is to eliminate the school’s chronic turnover issues and better prepare teachers to help students academically and emotionally.

“McLain is taking some extra time to make sure that what we do is done well,” she said. “We have a history of having programs and models done for a year without any kind of follow-through, and we didn’t want to do that. Our kids are too important to just do another failed thing.”

Rabovsky said there’s no time frame for implementing McLain Beyond because she doesn’t want it to be rushed.


Blowback: Iran abandons nuclear limits after US killing

TEHRAN, Iran — The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iran announced it will no longer abide by the limits contained in the 2015 nuclear deal and Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.

The twin developments could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

Iranian state television cited a statement by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration saying the country would not observe the deal’s restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran no longer faces any limitations in operations,” a state TV broadcaster said.

In Iraq, meanwhile, lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the foreign military presence in the country, including the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops stationed to help fight Islamic State extremists. The bill is subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.

In yet another sign of rising tensions and threats of retaliation over the deadly airstrike, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said it is putting the battle against IS on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.

The string of developments capped a day of mass mourning over Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in the cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to walk alongside the casket of Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in suicide bombings and other attacks.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment on Iran’s announcement.

As for the troop-withdrawal vote in Iraq, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. is awaiting clarification on its legal meaning but was “disappointed” by the move and strongly urged Iraq to reconsider.

“We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together,” Ortagus said.

The leaders of Germany, France and Britain issued a joint statement on Sunday calling on Iran to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal and refrain from conducting or supporting further “violent acts.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson specifically urged Iran to “withdraw all measures” not in line with the 2015 agreement that was intended to stop Tehran from pursuing its atomic weapons program.

Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already broken some of the deal’s limits as part of a step-by-step pressure campaign to get sanctions relief. It has increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.

While it does not possess uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year “breakout time” needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran’s program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Iran said that its cooperation with the IAEA “will continue as before.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi earlier told journalists that Soleimani’s killing would prompt Iranian officials to take a bigger step away from the nuclear deal.

“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected,” Mousavi said.

In Iraq, where the airstrike has been denounced as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for the first option.

The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favor of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.

A U.S. pullout could not only undermine the fight against the Islamic State but could also enable Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority-Shiite country.

Soleimani’s killing has escalated the crisis between Tehran and Washington after months of back-and-forth attacks and threats that have put the wider Middle East on edge. Iran has promised “harsh revenge” for the U.S. attack, while Trump has vowed on Twitter that the U.S. will strike back at 52 targets “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks. A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and centers like Tel Aviv could be targeted should the U.S. attack Iran.

Iranian state TV estimated that millions of mourners came out in Ahvaz and Mashhad to pay their respects to Soleimani.

The casket moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani’s portrait. Demonstrators also carried red Shiite flags, which traditionally symbolize both the spilled blood of someone unjustly killed and a call for vengeance.

The processions marked the first time Iran honored a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in state at Tehran’s famed Musalla mosque as the revolutionary leader did before him.

Soleimani’s remains will go to Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions. He will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.

Mayor seeking public input on new police chief

Mayor G.T. Bynum has said he wants to hear from all interested parties before he selects the city’s next police chief.

That dialogue continues this week when he plays host to three public meetings intended to give Tulsa citizens a say in the process.

“The ideal for community policing is that citizens and their police are empowered to work together in making a community safer,” Bynum said. “While I know this kind of public engagement during a hiring process is different from the way things have always been done at the city of Tulsa, I think it is in keeping with our new approach to community policing, especially when it concerns selecting the person who will guide that approach for years to come.”

Police Chief Chuck Jordan announced last month that he plans to retire, effective Feb. 1.

Seven internal candidates have applied for the job. They include Maj. Luther Breashears, Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks, Deputy Chief Eric Dalgleish, Maj. Wendell Franklin, 911 Center Director Matthew Kirkland, Deputy Chief Dennis Larsen, and Maj. Laurel Roberts.

The public meetings will be co-hosted by the Crime Prevention Network. Bynum has said previously that he plans to begin the meetings by outlining what his administration has done in relation to policing and what qualities he is looking for in the next police chief.

“Then I want to open it up, and (I’m) hopeful people tell me what they hope to see for our next chief of police,” Bynum said.

Bynum said he hopes to finish interviewing internal candidates by the end of January, though he has not set a deadline for selecting a new chief.

The mayor has described the internal candidates as “incredibly strong” but has not ruled out looking outside the department for a new chief.

Herman F. Newblock was named Tulsa’s first police chief in 1907 and served for slightly more than a year. In all, the city has had 40 police chiefs.

Jordan became police chief Jan. 29, 2010.