News coverage of public education issues in Oklahoma reached a fever pitch during 2018’s statewide teacher walkout, but 2019 brought with it plenty of fodder for the news cycle.
Epic Charter Schools became a household name amid the revelation that the state’s online school juggernaut was under investigation by state and federal law enforcement officials.
Tulsa Public Schools closed a handful of north Tulsa schools and replaced them with two new schools in the first half of the year, and then turned around in the second half of the year and announced a $20 million budget right-sizing campaign that promises more school closures in the new year.
The 2019 calendar also saw the Oklahoma State Board of Education taking the rare measures of forcing the closure of a charter school and forcing the consolidation of an entire school district.
It was also the year Oklahoma broke its longtime, rock-bottom teacher pay ranking and moved up to 34th nationally.
Here’s a look back at some of the other headline-grabbing education stories in 2019.
Forced closure of a Tulsa charter school
In January, the state Board of Education ordered that Langston Hughes Academy for Arts and Technology, 1821 E. 66th St. North, be closed by June 30, citing ongoing compliance issues and new student safety concerns.
The charter school, sponsored by Langston University, had been on probation since summer 2018. State accreditation officers raised new questions about the truthfulness of the school’s student counts, its compliance with federal laws that dictate how special education students must be served and corroboration of a school resource officer’s claims about the school not completing required criminal background checks on employees.
Epic Charter Schools investigation
In February, Tulsa World reporting revealed to the public for the first time that state and federal law enforcement officials have been probing student enrollment practices and finances at Epic Charter Schools.
Epic’s advertising and marketing efforts to children, parents and potential new hires persisted and the school’s overall enrollment was up to a record 28,070, as of the official state count on Oct. 1.
Epic recently sued a state senator for slander and libel over statements he reportedly made while questioning the school’s student attendance practices.
A state investigative audit of Epic was also launched, which, along with the law enforcement investigations, are still underway as 2019 closes.
VIP visit to Tulsa school
A snow day for most schools across the area in early March saw a Tulsa charter school persist and open its doors for a surprise visit by first lady Melania Trump.
Trump brought her “Be Best” initiative against cyberbullying and opioid abuse to Dove School of Discovery, 4821 S. 72nd East Ave.
Complaint leads officials to special education deficiencies at TPS
In April, a public records inquiry by the World revealed that Tulsa Public Schools was being required to conduct a sweeping review of its case management for all 7,000-plus special education students in response to a parent’s formal complaint to the state of Oklahoma.
The state’s finding that TPS was in “noncompliance” with basic, federal requirements for how students with disabilities must be served meant that TPS had to complete a series of corrective actions dictated and monitored by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Oklahoma breaks longtime, rock-bottom teacher pay ranking
Statewide pay raises for 2018-19 lifted Oklahoma’s average teacher salary from its longtime ranking of 49th in the nation to 34th overall, according to the annual state-by-state comparison released in April by the National Education Association.
State’s reliance on nonaccredited teachers continues upward trend
In June, the World’s analysis of state data for 2018-19 found that the approval of emergency certifications for 3,038 teachers in districts throughout Oklahoma represented a one year increase of 54%.
As of December, Oklahoma’s new school year total reached a record 3,092, with several months remaining for additional nonaccredited teachers to be hired.
Forced consolidation of a rural Oklahoma school district
In late July, the lone remaining board member of a rural school district facing forced consolidation told the World that the co-founder of Epic Charter Schools offered to rescue the district in an unorthodox move.
The state Board of Education went ahead and consolidated Swink Public Schools, located between Hugo and Idabel and serving 140 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, with the neighboring district of Fort Towson.
Flooding recovery in northeast Oklahoma schools
Devastating floods in May swamped Webbers Falls, but students and school employees worked alongside community volunteers and received donated supplies from educators in Krebs, Haileyville, Muskogee, Broken Arrow, Tulsa and even Weatherford, to reopen local schools in September.
North Tulsa school closures, consolidation
2019 saw many changes in Tulsa Public Schools and many more are in store in 2020. In the spring, the Tulsa school board voted to consolidate Gilcrease Elementary and Early Childhood Development Center-Bunche and later renamed the new, consolidated school John Hope Franklin Elementary School.
Also, the spring saw a proposal from the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force with sweeping changes adopted for the McLain feeder pattern. Shuttered were Penn Elementary School, McLain 7th Grade Academy and McLain Junior High School, and the magnet school Monroe Demonstration Academy was revamped into a new neighborhood school to serve students in grades 6-8.
Enrollment declines necessitate deep budget cutting process at Tulsa Public Schools
Amid a budget right-sizing campaign at TPS, a Tulsa World data analysis found thousands of students leaving Tulsa Public Schools for other options in the most recent six years, with the top five recipients being Union, Broken Arrow, Epic Charter Schools, Jenks and Sand Springs.
Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation