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Tulsa Public Schools may have different reasons for confronting the difficult issue of school consolidation now, but key players from the last citywide effort say the past holds some important lessons for the district's future.
Schools couldn't be built fast enough to keep pace with the city's surging population in the 1950s and '60s. But no sooner had student enrollment in TPS reached 85,000 in 1968, then the bottom dropped out.
"The declining birthrate in the mid-'60s began to affect school enrollment nationally five years later. Secondly, the growth of the suburbs here began in the '70s and continued throughout the '80s. We were averaging a 3,000-student loss every year. That's rather convulsive," remembers Jerry Roger, a retired, longtime TPS administrator.
The district's first response was to shutter some of its most antiquated schoolhouses. Beyond that, great consideration had to be paid to desegregation and balancing the loss of students in the city's center with rapid growth on the east side.
In spring 1979, TPS shuttered the 5-year-old Mason High School because of declining student enrollment and Roosevelt Junior High to "further desegregation."
"The closure of those two schools proved very traumatic for the community," said Bob Burton, a longtime TPS administrator who currently serves as chief of staff.
Rachel Maze, who had three children in TPS at the time, served on a citizens task force on declining enrollment.
"We had meetings with 300 and 400 people crying and screaming," Maze said. "People would drive by our house and yell obscenities. Honest to Pete, people act like the people a mile away from them are from another country - like they have nothing in common. It was astonishing."
As a result of the community backlash, a formal plan was developed, and parents and other district patrons were given more opportunities for direct involvement in the planning process.
The hallmark of the TPS Master Plan for School Consolidations in August 1979 was the establishment of minimum student enrollment as a criteria - 225 for elementary, 450 for junior highs and 835 for senior highs. Schools had to meet those minimums to be considered "economically viable."
"They weren't just pulled out of a hat," said Roger, one of the architects of the plan. "By adding up the cost of a building including salaries, utilities, transportation, etc., we determined the per-pupil cost of operating a school. We found that the cost per pupil started to accelerate dramatically if it dropped below those minimum numbers."
Area planning councils comprising parents, teachers and school leaders from the feeder patterns of each of the city's nine high schools were formed. Their recommendations closely guided then-Superintendent Larry Zenke's recommendations on more than 10 school closures through the mid-'80s.
"There came a time in fall of 1987 when the area councils came to Dr. Zenke and said, 'We have gone as far as we can go. We know we need to close more schools, but there is too much bickering among the councils, and we cannot agree on how to do it. We need you to take the bull by the horns and finish the job,' " Roger said.
So in June 1988, TPS closed 11 elementary schools - Bunche, Burbank, Eisenhower, Franklin, Frost, Fulton, Mayo, Owen, Reed, Riley and Woods. It converted three middle schools - Anderson, Bell and Skelly - into elementary schools.
Roger said there were only a few cases in which student enrollment minimums were not the sole criterion for closing schools.
Sandburg Elementary School, 18580 E. Third St., was spared because its nearest neighboring school, Kerr Elementary, was a full six miles away. And Eisenhower was closed despite having a higher student enrollment than nearby Phillips Elementary because it had a much higher percentage of transfer students.
"It's not always clear-cut which of two schools you should close," Roger said.
Maze, who is now in the process of retiring from the Foundation for Tulsa Schools, said the toll that declining enrollment was taking on educational quality and course and program variety was obvious to anyone with school-age children at the time.
But while Tulsans generally understood the need for TPS to consolidate, patrons opposed it being done to their own schools.
"Nothing upsets people like this," she said. "Even today, with all of the criticism you hear about public schools, nearly everyone I talk to loves their own school. It's really intriguing to me."
Anna America, who was elected to the Tulsa school board earlier this year, covered school consolidation in the 1980s as a reporter for The Tulsa Tribune newspaper.
"As an outside observer, you see it more as a process, rather than the real human elements. I saw it more as something we're just having to go through," America said. "Now as a parent with kids in school, I see how these kids and the families really connect to their school and how important it is to them."
A new advisory group will work through the winter studying student transfer patterns, academic performance and discipline problems, proximity to other schools, facility capacity and building conditions before issuing recommendations to Superintendent Keith Ballard and the school board.
"We are in so much more of a dire shape financially, and I think we are going to have to make much more drastic decisions and we are going to be pushed to make them faster," America said.
She hopes individual schools and the district as a whole will emerge stronger.
"We've got a lot more data now about what schools are successful, and we know and are more specifically focused on the challenges that we have," she said. "I hope one thing that comes from this process is that we make a decision that really addresses things that we know are problems."
Tulsa school closures in the 1970s and '80s
Student enrollment topped out at 85,261 in 1968-69 and quickly declined, leading Tulsa Public Schools to steadily close schools through 1989.
1970s - Longfellow, Revere, Hearst, Riverview, Jefferson, Irving, Lombard, Johnson, Taft, Lynn Lane, Lowell, Douglass and Pershing elementary schools; Lowell, Horace Mann and Roosevelt junior high schools; and Mason High School.
1980s - Dunbar, Porter, Stevenson, Holmes, Bates, Jones, Post, Ross, Audubon, Bunche, Burbank, Eisenhower, Franklin, Frost, Fulton, Mayo, Owen, Reed, Riley and Woods elementary schools; and Wright, Thoreau, Anderson, Bell and Skelly junior high schools.
Source: Tulsa Public Schools
News researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.
Andrea Eger 581-8470
email@example.com SUBHEAD: Plunging enrollment, desegregation and a shift to the east side played a part in consolidationsin the 1970s and '80s.
Original Print Headline: Past seen as lessonon school closings