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.