The Tulsa school board on Monday approved requests by three of its charters to expand to additional grades.
Board members voted for the charters — Tulsa School for Arts and Sciences, the Tulsa Honor Academy and Collegiate Hall — to proceed with the expansions in front of more than 100 supporters.
The charters, which are sponsored by Tulsa Public Schools, explained why they wanted to add more grades during a November board meeting. Several students, parents and teachers spoke in support of expanding.
Monday’s meeting also had close to 20 speakers who explained why they believed their schools should be expanded. The packed room filled with applause and shouts of joy as the board approved each of their requests.
The Tulsa School for Arts and Sciences, located at 1202 W. Easton St., will add sixth-grade classes at the start of the 2020-21 school year, in addition to a five-year contract renewal.
The charter was created in 2001 to serve high school students and expanded to the seventh and eighth grades several years later. Administrators wanted to add sixth-grade classes to give incoming students a more streamlined transition from the start of middle school to the end of high school.
The new grade will reportedly bring in up to 75 students at TSAS for a total of 525 students and will be housed in the same building.
Collegiate Hall, at 1142 E. 56th St., currently serves fourth- through eighth-graders but will begin including prekindergarten to third grades during the 2020-21 school year. The expansion will add two grade levels per year at 60 students per grade, ending with a total addition of 300 students.
The charter school still is talking with TPS to determine where the new grades will be housed.
Nikhil Kawlra, founder and head of schools at Collegiate Hall, said the school board’s approval means its teachers will be able to educate students using the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum starting at a younger age.
“We have always been a STEM-focused middle school,” Kawlra said. “Our sixth-graders learn to code in JAVA-script. Our seventh-graders learn engineering. It means we get to start that work way sooner. We’re excited to see kindergarteners learning to code. Being able to provide a unique opportunity for Tulsa students means the world to us.”
The Tulsa Honor Academy, at 209 S. Lakewood Ave., will implement a high school program that will begin with the 2019-20 school year and continue for five years.
THA opened a few years ago with only fifth-grade students but now consists of sixth-eighth grades as well. Administrators sought to add high-school grades so that the founding students can continue their schooling there.
During its first year, the high school will serve 125 students in the ninth grade and will grow one grade level per year, with a total of 500 students in the 2022-23 school year.
THA is working to secure space for the high school in east Tulsa. District officials will ensure the new campus meets state and local standards for safety and accreditation before it opens.
Shawna Keller, whose district presides over the area, was the only board member to vote against THA’s expansion. The other schools were unanimously approved.
“It’s no surprise … that I am not a charter school fan,” Keller said. “I’ve never made that a secret. That’s just how I feel. But I do believe in innovation. I believe in outside-the-box thinking, and I do believe students should be afforded the best possible opportunities. I just strongly believe TPS should be the one who does that in our neighborhood schools.”
Keller said there’s no denying the success that’s been achieved at THA, such as outperforming the state average on every math assessment last year. But she believes the charter has failed to maintain a good partnership with the nearby East Central High School, which she says has a “top-notch” program that prepares kids for success in college and beyond.
Additionally, she said THA administrators have insinuated that East Central doesn’t provide opportunities that are as good as the charter school’s.
“I struggle every time a charter (issue) comes up, and at the end of the day I always tell myself that I have to do what’s best for kids,” Keller said. “In this case, I’m not sure that this is what’s best for kids or fulfills the needs that the district has.”
THA founder and executive director Elsie Urueta Pollock said she agrees that East Central has made significant strides in improving education for students. But she believes the THA high school provides families with a second choice for parents wanting to give their children academic success.
“I also believe that just because there are great neighborhood schools, that doesn’t mean that we can’t also have great choices and options for students,” she said. “… I hope that we can work with East Central and collaborate with them more. Ultimately, I just want to provide the best education for all of our kids.”
Tulsa School board vice president Cindy Decker said she doesn’t believe charter schools are inherently good or bad, and she added each must be reviewed independently to understand its teaching model, staffing and professional development as well as student success.
“I do feel it’s beneficial to offer parents a choice in their child’s education,” Decker said. “Charters offer choice, as do all the TPS schools that require an application.”
She also said it’s important to understand how charters impact other schools nearby and whether they offer something different to enhance existing options.
These three schools, she said, have demonstrated a strong positive impact on student outcomes and offer different models complementing those at TPS schools.
“I believe our system can support these options, and it’s clear there’s a lot of demand for them,” Decker said.
School board member Jania Wester said Monday’s vote was difficult, describing the idea of having both school choice and excellent neighborhood schools as complex.
On one hand, Wester said the district wants families to have options available to them that ensure their children will receive the best opportunities. On the other hand, she said it’s clear families would prefer that choice to be the school across the street from their homes.
“I know that our district administration is working tirelessly with our school staffs to move forward and move toward academic excellence for all, and this road is long and at times very difficult to accelerate,” she said. “I cannot choose to have parents’ concerns be put on hold until we get to our destination of excellence. I cannot look at a child’s eyes and tell them they are not worth the opportunity.”
That being said, Wester said it’s important for the district to be clear that it is advancing the opportunities for children in their neighborhoods. She also said TPS needs to be clear as to what the plan is for its charter schools within Destination Excellence and how to maximize their impact while also “providing excellence” in neighborhood schools.