Two best friends haven’t backed down from trying to save their dream classroom and beloved school since learning about the proposal to merge Gilcrease Elementary with ECDC Bunche.
After attending community meetings and pleading their case to the district’s chief executive, Hanna Al-Jibouri and Nicole Powell are hopeful for the future of the unconventional multigrade class they teach at Gilcrease.
The school’s future, however, is a different story. Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist stands by her plan to consolidate Gilcrease and Bunche, which sit next to each other at 56th Street North and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The combined school would be located at Bunche and serve students from prekindergarten through fifth grade beginning in August.
Gist will formally introduce her proposal at Monday night’s school board meeting.
“When I first found out about Gilcrease closing, I was just heartbroken and had some time to be upset about it,” said Powell, who is a finalist for TPS teacher of the year. “And then I decided that I can either continue to be upset and just accept things for how they are, or I can fight to change things to make this move the best it can be.
“Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that a consolidation is going to happen. But if we can save our classroom, it will be an important piece of Gilcrease that we can carry with us.”
Al-Jibouri’s and Powell’s classroom consists of third-graders who have been retained and their peers who advanced to the fourth grade. The co-teachers designed their own reading and writing curriculum and raised money to install a slide for the enjoyment of the students, many of whom have developed a distaste for schooling.
They came up with the idea after years of watching third-graders fail their reading tests. Al-Jibouri said it became clear that giving these kids the same curriculum for a second year wasn’t working.
“We have a very holistic approach to how we teach reading,” she said. “Rather than teaching isolated skills like how to find a main idea in a story, we just read books. All day long, we’re reading and writing. It’s really a more organic way of teaching.”
So far, it’s been working.
All but two third-graders in the inaugural class passed at the end of last year. Most of the current group is on track to move on to fourth grade. Their success has attracted significant attention from administrators, including the superintendent.
Al-Jibouri feared losing that progress after learning of the district’s intentions to close Gilcrease and move its teachers and students to ECDC Bunche.
“When talk of this move came, selfishly one of my first questions was whether ECDC could accommodate our classroom the same way,” she said.
District officials hosted multiple community meetings in February to discuss their reasons for consolidating.
Gist said she wants to consolidate Gilcrease and ECDC Bunche to ensure grade consistency across the district.
Right now, there are 14 grade configurations among TPS schools, which she says causes “tremendous confusion” for families about when and how students transition to the next grade.
If board members approve the proposal later this month, it would be the final step in making all McLain feeder elementary schools end at fifth grade. The first step involved accepting a community task force’s recommendation to create a single middle school complex for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
“One of the things we know in education is that it’s very much proven that limiting the number of times that students transition is positive for their school experience,” Gist said.
She also said it’s the responsibility of the district and school board to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and the low student enrollment at both schools is not a smart use of resources. Gilcrease currently is at 53% capacity with about 320 students enrolled. Bunche is at 26% capacity with about 140 students enrolled.
Al-Jibouri became a vocal critic of the proposal after attending the February meetings. In an open letter published by the Black Wall Street Times, she urged board members to vote against closing Gilcrease.
“Great things are happening here, and I believe we are on the precipice of more greatness,” she wrote. “But a move and shift right now would cause more of an upheaval than it would a step in the right direction for this greatness to continue.”
The letter gained considerable traction and led the way to multiple phone conversations with Gist about Al-Jibouri’s numerous concerns, including a lack of space at the much-smaller Bunche building to house her multigrade classroom. She also believes there isn’t enough time to make this kind of transition before August and asked the superintendent to delay the proposal.
Although Gist plans to move forward with her plan, she has maintained the new school will be able to accommodate the class by the time school starts. Officials are working on a plan to heighten the ceiling to make room for the slide.
“I feel very confident that this is the right recommendation for the board,” Gist told the Tulsa World, “but we’re going to do everything we need to do to make sure that they’re able to carry out their co-teaching classroom in the way they do now.”