The Union Public Schools: Choosing to be Excellent
A school classroom, somewhere in Oklahoma:
The students in this class are to design and build a video game in which the player must guide a cow across a busy highway. A successful program will result in either the cow successfully crossing the road resulting in the player being rewarded with a hand clap while if the cow is hit, the feedback to the player is an “Aw.”
That this is a high school coding class would be a good guess but it is actually a class of first graders engaging in their school’s STEM for all curriculum that begins in kindergarten and continues through high school where the students design mobile apps and web pages, while tackling cybersecurity and artificial intelligence projects. (Kirp, 2017)
Although the vignette suggests an affluent district, it comes from the Union Public School District that hosts 16,000 K-12 students located on the economically challenged east side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 70% of the students qualify for reduced lunch ( 65.5% white, 31.3% Hispanic, 14.9% AfricanAmerican, 7.9% multi-racial, 6.9% Asian, and 4.9% American Indian). (Union Public Schools Annual Report)
Among other challenges is the fact that 2,700 of the children are English Language Learners (ELL) representing 50 different languages.
Oklahoma has not been generous in support of its schools, and thus Union has about one-third fewer dollars per student ($7,605) than the national average.
A teacher in Union with twenty years experience and a doctoral degree will earn a bit less than $50,000 per year. For a comparison, Kirp notes that teacher with similar qualifications in Scarsdale, New York, would earn $120,000.
Despite its challenges Union does better than the national high school graduation average with an 88% graduation rate with 100% of those off to further education. The district’s accomplishments are the results of a decade of serious effort triggered by a meeting in which the superintendent reviewed by name a list of dropouts and was humiliated when none of the district principals were able to account for any of the kids.
Over the decade of rebuilding, the faculty and administration worked at making their schools responsive to the community’s children and youth. (Kirp, 2017)
In an affluent middle-class community, parents provide their children with an abundance of out of school activities: art and music lessons, visits to science museums, summer science camps, sports camps, academic tutoring and enrichment like SAT preparation courses.
In east Tulsa where most families are economically stressed, the Union schools have picked up the role filled by affluent middle class families by transforming themselves into “community schools” that provide enrichment activities for their students and their families by opening early, so parents can drop their children off on the way to work and staying open late and during summers. “They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.” (Kirp, 2017).
Professor Kirp’s question “Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?” challenges the assumption that public schools are unable to meet the needs of students and their families.
The power of that assumption provides the rationale for the President’s 2018 budget recommendation that while cutting the federal Department of Education’s overall budget by $9 billion, there would be “an additional $1.4 billion into school choice programs.”
School choice is a policy, which is a tool that is used to accomplish a task, and policy “work best when its actually tailored to the task at hand.” (Williams, 2017)
School choice programs can be connected to equitable access and better outcomes for the traditionally underserved populations when they are well-crafted.
For example, Louisiana rebuilt its hurricane ravaged schools based on the creation of charter schools after Katrina. A painful learning curve made it clear that the new system would not work without an aggresive accountability system that would ensure that unsuccessful charters were closed. The result is that New Orleans system of public charters is thriving.
Michigan invests heavily in charter schools. Its policies are based on the idea that the more charters the better, and accountability is weak. The result is that “the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops,…and bicycles…fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”
State policy permits unsuccessful schools to shop around for new authorizing agencies and be back in business under a new name. (Zernike, 2016)
Instead of raising all schools the charter movement has resulted in “a total and complete collapse of education in this city,” according to Scott Romney, a board member of the civic organization New Detroit. ( Zernike, 2016)
Kirp, David (2017). Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These? New York Times, April 1, 2017 Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/opinion/sunday/who-needs-charters-when-you-have-public-schools-like-these.html
Williams, Conor P. (2017). School choice is great… Washington Post, January 19, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/01/19/school-choice-is-great-betsy-devoss-vision-for-school-choice-is-not/?utm_term=.bac9773ce27e
Zernike, Kate (2016). A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift. New York Times, June 28, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/for-detroits-children-more-school-choice-but-not-better-schools.html
accountability, STEM, school choice, public schools, U.S. Department of Education, Louisiana, Michigan, vouchers, charter schools