Karen Pittman checked off a list of names belonging to children who are supposed to attend the revamped Monroe Demonstration Academy as she searched for families at a low-income apartment complex in north Tulsa.
As facilitator of the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force, she and other volunteers recently tracked down parents to verify enrollment and invite them to a school preparation event in August.
Volunteer groups met with nearly 200 families in a two-day bid to assuage concerns about foundational changes to Monroe that could quadruple the school’s enrollment as it becomes the destination for all middle-schoolers in the McLain feeder pattern.
“As you can very well imagine, some of the students as well as the parents are probably anxious hearing that the school enrollment is going from about 200 or so to possibly 900 students,” Pittman said. “So I think us going there could possibly alleviate some of that anxiety the parents and students were having.”
Compounding the concerns, the task force’s work has been shrouded in secrecy. Even after the visit from Pittman’s group, many parents at Apache Manor say they had no idea of the enrollment spike. Nor were they aware of the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force.
Tulsa Public Schools closed the task force meetings to the Tulsa World and public alike. And several teachers felt left out of the plan’s development and implementation.
Superintendent Deborah Gist defended the privacy as necessary for brainstorming and to avoid spreading misinformation. But she also acknowledged working to improve communication based on feedback.
The school district created the group last year to find a solution for a rapidly shrinking McLain 7th Grade Academy. Its formation stemmed from considerable backlash regarding the possibility of shuttering the academy and moving its students to McLain Junior and Senior High School after the 2017-18 school year.
Gist and board member Jennettie Marshall helped select 22 community leaders to serve on the task force.
The superintendent called the “radical collaboration” a historic moment for Tulsa, saying she’s confident no school district in the country has ever approved a plan by a community group.
“The board and I were committed to the implementation of their recommendation, and we made that commitment before we knew what their recommendation was,” she said.
The board’s approval in February meant that Monroe, 2010 E. 48th St. North, will lose its magnet status as it transforms into a neighborhood school complex and the feeder pattern’s only middle school.
McLain Junior High and McLain 7th Grade Academy were shuttered. All elementary schools in the feeder pattern will no longer serve sixth grade.
Penn Elementary, which was located next to Monroe, closed to make room for the influx of new students. Monroe’s enrollment is expected to climb from 250 to 950.
The task force didn’t dissolve after the board approved its recommendation. Its elaborate request involved serving in an advisory capacity to ensure the district carries out its vision, with members and district officials still meeting at least once a month.
Response from families
Despite the ongoing collaboration between this group and TPS, many parents living in Apache Manor have felt in the dark about what’s happening.
Sheka Washington, whose daughter will attend sixth grade at Monroe, said she knew the school would be offering more programs. But she was unaware that Monroe will serve all middle-schoolers in the feeder pattern until being approached by a reporter following Pittman’s group.
Washington said she wasn’t surprised by a “huge” lack of communication, adding that her area doesn’t receive much information. Many who live there are single parents who can’t make it to school meetings and open houses. She believes the district should have done more to explain the changes to families in the spring.
“I don’t really agree with all the students going to one school like that,” Washington said. “I don’t know what’s the purpose. I don’t know if they just didn’t have enough funds and they wanted to put everybody in one school so they can all get the extracurriculars.”
Tasha Smith has two children attending Monroe in 2019-20. Her son attended the McLain 7th Grade Academy before it closed this summer. She also didn’t know about the extent of the changes, but she hopes they’ll make the school better.
Kanaadra Brown received a mail invitation for her to come see the new Monroe before it opens. The letter didn’t mention enrollment, she said, and now she and her husband have many questions.
Brown said she had been looking forward to her sixth-grader having access to the school’s unique curriculum. Now she’s worried about potentially enlarged classes and her son’s learning difficulties in bigger group settings.
“My son kind of needed the smaller class because he’s a little bit more challenged than the other kids and it helps him,” Brown said. “So now there might be even more kids in his class? Normally he shuts down, and that’s not going to be a good thing.”
Getting community buy-in
Task force member Marcia Bruno-Todd, who is a parent of a student in the McLain feeder pattern, said she’s heard from several people, including neighbors, who initially were upset.
They wanted to know how the task force could orchestrate such a plan and whether it’s actually representative of the community.
Bruno-Todd said they usually changed their minds after she explained factors that drove the recommendation and how all students need to experience a rigorous curriculum. The buy-in comes with her explanation that the task force aims to hold the district accountable during implementation of the changes.
A lot of misconception surrounds the group’s work, in part due to its closed meetings. Bruno-Todd said the group wants to include more voices in its discussions but is unable to because of the district’s strict control of communication.
When task force leaders invited a Tulsa World reporter to attend a July meeting, a TPS spokeswoman rescinded the invitation.
“All of these community elders, their intention has always been to include community voice and continuing to extend the table so that the community is always involved in the process,” Bruno-Todd said. “I don’t think, unfortunately, that’s how things crumbled. Limitations perceived from the district side of things, TPS, have not really played out that way.”
Bruno-Todd said TPS officials haven’t always accurately portrayed concerns during task force meetings that she’s heard from parents and teachers regarding Monroe’s operations.
She described it as a system trying to preserve itself through resistance to critical feedback.
“I think right now we’re caught up in Tulsa niceties,” Bruno-Todd said. “And instead of being very clear about issues and transparency, there’s communication gaps about controlling just what is being shared with us, and then there’s also communication gaps in how it’s being shared even with the schools and the teachers and the staff.” Bruno-Todd said TPS and the task force have engaged in collaborative efforts in an attempt increase communication within the community within the last few months.
During a school board meeting July 15, a prominent north Tulsa education activist addressed concerns “regarding critical issues” facing Monroe. He also sent a letter to Gist and board members.
In it, he laid out those concerns on behalf of the Community Coalition for Academic Excellence, which collected more than 600 signatures last year for a petition to convert the McLain 7th Grade Academy into a school for seventh- and eighth-graders.
Darryl Bright, president of Citizens United for a Better Educational System, alleged several teachers resigned from the demonstration academy this summer because they did not feel engaged in the plan’s development and implementation.
Bright said these teachers and other stakeholders told him Monroe lacked the vision needed to establish the school’s culture and achieve real academic success.
“The reality is evident to us as advocates and expressed by teachers who have resigned that we are experiencing the same things over and over again — Monroe will be mired in a cycle of low performance and indeed, the miseducation (of) our children,” he wrote.
Bright’s letter also listed several concerns and inquiries about whether Monroe and its staff will be prepared to handle the hundreds of new students, including those with special needs, when school starts.
Gist responded to the letter via email on Tuesday, telling Bright she will continue to keep the school board updated on Monroe at both August meetings. The superintendent told him she was confident her updates will answer his questions.
In an interview with the Tulsa World, Gist said the task force gatherings are closed because they aren’t designed to inform people. Rather, they are about brainstorming ideas and methods, she said.
“In fact, part of it could be very misleading,” she said. “If you have someone come to a meeting and you’re saying, ‘Well we might do this and we might do this and we might do this,’ then someone walks away, they’re not leaving with information. They’re leaving with possibilities. Now what you want to be sharing with the public is, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ ”
Gist said Monroe provided teachers with several opportunities in the spring to be involved in the transition.
She said the school hosted multiple open houses and sent fliers home with students to keep families informed about the changes. The details of the recommendation were discussed during a handful of public school board meetings in the spring.
Gist said she and Monroe Principal Rex Langley have worked to address concerns raised about Monroe by teachers and parents.
“We got some feedback about communication and some things we can do better,” she said. “He and I have both used that feedback to make some improvements.”
‘We knew it was going to happen regardless’
Langley, who is entering his third year as principal at Monroe, confirmed seven teachers resigned during the summer, including Shaniqua Ray — the district’s teacher of the year in 2018.
However, Langley said Monroe’s teacher-retention rate was the highest it’s been in six years. Last year the demonstration academy employed about 20 teachers and 30 total staff.
The school has hired 60 people this summer, and many other TPS teachers voluntarily transferred there. This year there will be about 60 teachers and more than 80 total staff.
Langley expects class sizes to stay below 30 students, and every teacher should have a second employee — whether a teacher’s assistant or paraprofessional — assisting them.
Only one of the seven teachers who resigned spoke to the Tulsa World on the record about leaving due to perceived issues with the school’s operations.
A. Huang, who asked to not be identified by her full name, taught special education at Monroe for two years until quitting at the end of the school year. She now teaches in Dallas.
Huang blamed faulty leadership from Langley and poor communication for driving her and other teachers out of the school. She accused the principal of not making himself available to teachers nor doing enough to involve them in the redesign.
She was blindsided when the recommendation was first proposed in January. She said it later felt like her teacher friends at other schools knew more about the Monroe changes than she did.
“If anything, a lot of us were not for it because we don’t even have a lot of success here now,” Huang said. “We can’t replicate it on a larger scale. Over time, we tried to be more understanding and open to the idea just because we knew it was going to happen regardless of whether we wanted it to or not.”
Langley said he’s heard a lot of teachers wish they could have been part of the conversation when the task force developed its recommendation.
The principal noted he can understand why, but he also said it’s important to look at the reason TPS was left out of the recommendation process.
“I would have loved to have been at the table, but I understand the need for this to be a decision made by outside of TPS because the whole point of this recommendation was to hear from the community,” Langley said. “So when the task force was assembled, it was representative of the community so that the recommendation would be made without outside influence from Tulsa Public Schools.”
Once the recommendation was made, he said staff had several input opportunities to share ideas about its implementation. Every suggestion went into the planning process, he added.
The task force heard from Huang and other teachers about their complaints in June — about four months after the recommendation’s approval.
The Rev. Andrea Chambers, vice chairwoman of the task force, said some educators and community members shared concerns about the school’s leadership that existed before her group was formed.
Task force leaders worried about the departure of quality teachers and brought these concerns to the superintendent.
They asked Gist about Langley and whether he was the right person to lead Monroe through the momentous process. Chambers and other members said the superintendent maintained Langley is a suitable fit for that position.
Chambers noted that Gist was limited in her response to avoid violating the principal’s privacy.
When asked what task force members thought of Gist’s response, Chambers laughed and said it’s “something that we’re working through.”
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