Keith Ballard talks about Project Schoolhouse study

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard talks to community members during a Project Schoolhouse forum at McLain High School on Feb. 21, 2011. The meeting was the last of several about the study, which looks at topics ranging from under-enrolled schools to academic performance. Tulsa World file

About nine years ago, a public meeting in the Rogers High School library was so packed that former Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard had to shoulder his way to the front.

Alumni drove from out of state to attend. Neighborhood residents, students, parents and community leaders joined.

The outpouring didn’t line up with other measures that showed a waning interest in the school. It made a difference in the reforms being planned.

“You couldn’t fit one more person in there. I was stunned to see so many people,” Ballard said. “A person stopped me and said, ‘We want our high school to be great again.’ We did, too. This was an opportunity to hear what people had to say and for us to talk about changes in the high schools.”

That was just one evening in a year of developing the last TPS district-wide reform, known as Project Schoolhouse.

A similar process is beginning. TPS will be cutting $20 million from its budget in the next school year. School leaders say this is a chance for the public to shape how TPS serves students moving forward.

This is a massive undertaking in a short amount of time. The board is expected to approved a modified budget by Dec. 16.

Because TPS has been through such a re-design, it’s worth taking a look at how Project Schoolhouse worked.

The initiative was prompted by a long-overdue examination of inefficiencies. The district found 10,000 empty seats but had neglected for decades to adjust to the shifting demographics and enrollment declines.

Some elementary schools were so small that they had split classes, meaning a single teacher handled a mixed group of students in two grade levels, and weren’t able to hire teachers for physical education and the arts. The smallest middle and high schools were limited in elective class offerings and schedules.

The inequities meant not all TPS students were receiving the same quality of education.

Project Schoolhouse led to the closure of 14 buildings, changed all high school feeder patterns and converted the purpose of eight other buildings. It transformed Rogers High School into a college academy and opened Monroe to what ultimately became a middle school.

Overall, it saved about $5 million a year, showing how consolidation isn’t always a big savings.

At the time, districts nationally undergoing this level of change usually led to the ouster of its superintendent and elected board. But Ballard emerged just as popular, and all board members kept their seats.

Tulsans may not have liked all the changes but came to accept and even embrace parts of the result.

“First and foremost are relationships,” Ballard said. “I worked so hard at diligently establishing relationships and really listen to them. I spent a great deal of time sitting and listening to people knowing that in the end no one was going to get exactly what they wanted. …We had a strong communication plan, and communication is a two-way street.”

Those relationships spanned every corner of the city from faith-based groups to business leaders. Sometimes those conversations led to Ballard changing his opinions or considering new ideas.

It was never a Ballard-led initiative. Three groups were formed: a district team reporting to Ballard, a school board-appointed citizen advisory team and a think tank called the Blue Sky Group.

The district team provided data and vetted ideas. The Blue Sky Group came up with possible scenarios.

The citizens advisory team was part of each step and gave final approval to the recommendation.

The ringmaster was consultant Jim McCarthy. He came from a nonschool perspective with extensive experience in management reforms.

“I remember telling the board that every successful business does this a minimum of every five years,” McCarthy said. “They study the business environment and what comes out of that dictates a strategic plan. Academics don’t do that.”

“Change is constant,” McCarthy said. “If you’re not constantly looking at how business is evolving, it’s going to catch up with you.”

Data became the dominant theme. Every discussion and decision was couched in data.

But a person can drown under the weight of numbers and statistics education administrators can produce.

McCarthy received referrals from the Gates Foundation to about a dozen urban districts successfully realigning student populations. McCarthy then worked with the groups to identify 10 key factors, ranging from utility cost per student per building to police crime statistics in and around each school.

This data-driven approach helped when emotions ran high.

“It’s good people are emotionally involved with schools,” McCarthy said. “If they didn’t care, that would be worse. We decided to focus on the rational (thought) and data. But we need to acknowledge people’s emotions and listen. They know their school is wonderful, but is it because of the bricks or teachers who made the difference?

“We have to understand what people’s emotions are about. But we go back to the data because the criteria we agreed upon was to be data-driven.”

After initial input, the working groups came up with three proposals. Then another round of comments was held.

McCarthy made sure to check on court consent decrees, property deed restrictions and outstanding bond debt that could affect plans.

“The key on any large change management process is to overcommunicate,” McCarthy said. “The success rate goes up with clear goals and also have a structure on how to get there. Get buy-in up front.”

Early on, closed-door meetings were held by the working groups that created public pushback. Anytime public business is held in secret, seeds of mistrust are planted.

TPS was without a communications director. That’s when Chris Payne, from the Saxum public relations firm, was brought on to help.

“It was just not transparent, and it needed to be,” Payne said. “I remember Dr. Ballard’s level of commitment being so compelling and impressive, and Jim McCarthy’s ability to keep all the groups moving was nothing short of brilliant.”

In nine days, Payne developed a more comprehensive public outreach plan that included surveys, online outreach, web-based comment portals and public events. It won the national Silver Anvil Award in issues management from the Public Relations Society of America.

“The beauty is we really did work that plan as written, and it worked,” Payne said.

Revisions were made almost up to the moment of board approval. After going through that extensive outreach, the final recommendation didn’t look like any of the three proposals developed in secret.

It took elements of each with some new ideas generated by the public.

“Even at the 11th hour, at the last public meeting, a person made a suggestion that led to a change,” Payne said. “The concern was not about time but to do it right and better for schools.”

TPS faces a significant challenge needing the same level of public input.

School leaders need to be specific on where the money is being spent, present a framework of viable options and keep it all open — the good and the bad.

The three lead actors in Project Schoolhouse have moved on. Ballard is a professor at the University of Oklahoma in educational administration; McCarthy is the executive director at Community Health Connection; and Payne is the communications director at Union Public Schools.

“Public schools are so important to the community,” Ballard said. TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist “is in a tough spot, and I support what she is doing. I believe she has the best interest in our schools. I believe her record is clear that she listens to people and appreciates input. The numbers are there, and something has to happen now.”

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Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

Twitter: @GinnieGraham