Tulsa Public Schools is hindered in its ability to teach students and retain talented teachers, in part by staff members’ belief in a lack of support from administration and policy, district planning documents reveal.

Those documents show that only 23 percent of Tulsa Public Schools’ teachers and principals surveyed said they “agree” that the district’s administration shows concern for the needs of its schools and that only a third of the district’s teaching staff would recommend that a friend or family member work at TPS.

But Paula Shannon, TPS deputy superintendent, said the connections among students’ performance, teacher retention, and how principals and teachers feel about the district administration’s performance “is much more complicated” than those numbers would indicate.

Shannon said the 23 percent agreement with the statement that the district supports its schools doesn’t mean 77 percent of more than 800 principals and teachers surveyed believe the district administration is not concerned about meeting schools’ needs. She pointed out that some respondents could have somewhat agreed, been neutral or disagreed with the statement.

Further district data provided to the World shows some nuance to how teachers feel about working at TPS and whether they would recommend it. While 33 percent of teachers surveyed would “agree” or “strongly agree” that they would recommend that a friend or family member work for the district, another 29 percent of those surveyed would “somewhat agree.” Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed responded negatively.

The documents obtained by the Tulsa World are three presentations that district administrators gave to principals and other senior staff members in early June as part of the planning process for the coming school year. They deal with setting priorities, streamlining hiring practices and improving customer service. The information contained in the documents was compiled from University of Oklahoma-Tulsa surveys of district staff at school sites and internal TPS data.

TPS officials say the information, which wasn’t intended for public consumption, is a snapshot and that analyzing what effect the district’s culture has on academic performance is complicated. The same documents show that about 55 percent of district staff surveyed think TPS has a healthy organizational culture.

“Does teacher retention — or I should say attrition — have an impact on our school communities? Absolutely,” Shannon said. “That’s why we are working very hard to stabilize our school communities.

“We’re not saying that we’re perfect by any means or trying to say that this information isn’t compelling. We have a lot of work to do, and we are taking steps forward, and it is going to take time in an organization that is large,” Shannon said.

The concerns contained in district planning documents are concerns the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association has shared with administrators during Superintendent Deborah Gist’s tenure.

Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the association, said her organization has “heard some of those same concerns from teachers.”

“We have shared those concerns with the superintendent,” she said. “Until we can work together to improve the way teachers and people are treated, we will have difficulty retaining people and filling open positions,” she said.

The district has received “continued feedback from school leaders and teachers regarding timely response to support requests, enrollment needs, and engagement in decision-making — (which) delays (the) school’s ability to support students and families,” the documents state.

Some staffers believe that the administration is “siloed,” “privileged,” and “disconnected from teachers and principals.”

School leaders have been increasingly dissatisfied with both the quality and the quantity of the candidates provided to them by the district’s talent management department. Another document, titled “Streamlining Hiring Practices,” shows declining satisfaction with the talent management (human resources) staff and the candidates they provide.

In the fall of 2017, 56 percent of principals believed that talent management is helpful at staffing schools with quality teachers. That’s a marked decline from the previous school year, when 75 percent of principals thought they were getting the right kind of candidates.

Amid the climate of discontent and high teacher turnover is the district’s lack of academic results. Only 27 percent of students are proficient at math and reading, and 77 percent of students failed to meet district growth goals in math and reading. Less than half of students felt safe or that they belonged, the goal-setting documents show.

Shannon said she wasn’t sure whether the student growth figure provided in the planning document was accurate. The documents weren’t intended for public consumption, she said, and thus the district hadn’t had time to verify the figure.

“In 2017, barely ⅓ of our seniors were academically prepared for college and with that ⅓, vast disparities exist. 67 percent of Booker T. Washington students and 2 percent of McLain students were college-ready in ELA and math,” the goal-setting document says.

The district has touted its growth in graduation rates over Gist’s tenure. She and other TPS officials have often acknowledged that the district needs to do a better job of preparing students for the workforce.

“Our students don’t believe that high school is preparing them for the future. Employers and educators overwhelmingly agree,” the priority-setting document says.

Educators noted that lack of academic achievement wasn’t just the responsibility of the school district.

“This isn’t just a problem at school. This is a societal problem. These are kids that are coming to school with great deficits before they even enter a school,” said Linda Hendrix, the local Oklahoma Education Association advocate. “It’s time to stop faulting the schools; it’s time for all of us to work together as Tulsans.”

Shannon noted that one of the district’s core beliefs is “all kids can.”

“We have tremendous work to do in our district at all levels to realize the belief that ‘all kids can,’” she said. “That’s not just about trust between school leaders, teachers and district office.

“The results that we see for students, it’s complicated. It’s about the access to opportunity that our students have. It’s about how prepared our teachers are. It’s about the level of support that students receive every day. Is culture a factor in that? Yes. Is that the only thing that matters? No,” Shannon said.

Samuel Hardiman 918-581-8466


Twitter: @samhardiman

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