Correction: This story originally contained an incorrect description of grade improvements at two schools in Sapulpa. It has been corrected.
SAPULPA — Freedom Elementary Principal Alison Owens has a lot to be thankful for as her school continues to be showered with recognition and accolades this year.
First, Freedom became one of two elementary schools in northeast Oklahoma to earn an overall A grade on the 2018-19 state report card. The Sapulpa school received a B in 2017-18, when the Oklahoma State Department of Education released its revamped grading system after a brief hiatus.
The accomplishment goes against a statewide trend in which 33% of Oklahoma schools saw their grade decrease by at least one letter. Only 16% of schools saw improved grades. In the Tulsa metro, 11% of nearly 140 traditional schools increased at least one letter grade, while another 26% had decreasing scores.
Owens credits Freedom’s success to an increased emphasis on helping kids who were narrowly underperforming on the state’s grading measures. The elementary received B’s in academic achievement and academic growth two years ago but aced both indicators this time.
Additionally, Freedom improved its English language proficiency grade from a C to a B and its chronic absenteeism grade from a D to a B.
“It was just a lot of hard work,” she said. “We kind of refocused a couple of things where we were targeting specific students that were right on the bubble on the proficiency rating. We started a before-school tutoring program with those kiddos, and we saw great gains.”
Owens also credits a culture of high expectations and the drive of teachers to push their kids to achieve. One of her educators, Natalie Fielden, was a finalist for 2019 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.
To show her appreciation for her staff and students, Owens led the school in celebrating the rare feat during a special ceremony Friday morning. That was when State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister announced Freedom is being nominated for the prestigious National Blue Ribbon School award, which recognizes schools across the country based on their overall academic excellence or success in closing achievement gaps.
Hofmeister said the significant headway in English language proficiency and chronic absenteeism at Freedom caught the attention of the state education department. She said she hopes that success will inspire schools of similar size and demography to overcome the same challenges.
“I think they’re a great model of what happens when you take a more holistic approach of engaging families, having conversations around character, and you can feel the difference when you walk in the school,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of the similar struggles that other Oklahoma schools have, but they have really studied their students’ needs and looked at the data and developed a plan. It’s working, and we’ve seen really great gains happen in a year’s time.”
Sapulpa Public Schools Superintendent Rob Armstrong also aims to re-create Freedom’s progress at the three other elementary schools in the district. Holmes Park has maintained an overall B grade during the past two years, while Liberty s improved from a D to a C.
The biggest overall gain was at Jefferson Heights, which raised its grade from a D to a B. The school, like many in Oklahoma, continues to struggle with the state report card’s English language proficiency progress indicator.
Now that Freedom seems to have cracked the code, Armstrong said he wishes to see the rest follow suit.
“We just want to be able to continue to grow this and manifest itself in our other schools in the district,” he said. “Teaching is not a mystery. We know what we need to do. It’s just a matter of getting the right people together to do it, and you blend that in and create a culture where a lot of things can be successful.”
If the U.S. Department of Education names Freedom one of its 2020 National Blue Ribbon Schools, the elementary will be honored during a recognition ceremony in Washington, D.C., in the fall.