This evening I attended a “community forum” hosted by the company helping Oklahoma City Public Schools recruit and search for a new superintendent. According to the representatives convening the meeting, this was the largest turnout so far, as the 3rd of 4 scheduled “town hall” meetings. In total tonight, 17 community members attended, including one current OKCPS board member, Ruth Veales. Given the size of our district (serving approximately 50,000 students) this was a paltry turnout, but such is our reality today in OKC. I am glad we broke past attendance records, even if our numbers were small.

The hour and a half we spent together provided important and welcome time to listen to other parents and teachers. In addition to sharing ideas about the qualities and characteristics members of our community want for our new superintendent, it also provided opportunities for attendees to discuss strengths as well as challenges facing our district. We need more opportunities like this to get together, share, listen, and brainstorm as parents and educators in our community.

OKCPS Town Hall / Community Forum

I tweeted a few of the comments and questions shared during the meeting, and compiled them into a Storify timeline.

A comment and challenge by Andrea Williams, one of the parents from Douglass Mid-High School in attendance tonight, resonated strongly with me. She observed that as parents, few of us take the time to actually visit other schools in our city and district. She challenged those in attendance to visit other schools, walk the hallways, and observe student behavior. She pointed out we’d likely be surprised by many things we’d see, and I’m sure she’s right.

Parent Challenge at Tonight's OKCPS Community Forum

I am SO glad I attended this event tonight for many reasons.

First of all, it’s both eye opening and shocking to hear other parents and teachers share what is “normal” today in their OKCPS schools. As you can read in the archived Storify of tweets above, several talked about long term subs that are now “permanent fixtures” in their children’s classrooms. The story of the two first grade teachers who quit the first week of school, and now have long term subs as their apparent replacement for the REST OF THE YEAR, was one of the most heartbreaking. When we lived in Edmond before moving into Oklahoma City, our middle daughter had a first-year, first grade teacher whose class almost become a train wreck for the year. First grade is SO important. No student should have a long term substitute teacher for their entire first grade year. The “survival mode” some of our schools in Oklahoma City are currently in with regard to teacher hiring should be a wake-up call to our community that we need to change course with respect to education reform. Rather than permitting our elected legislators to continue a declared war on public education and professional educators, tearing down both at every opportunity and continuing to focus on high stakes testing / accountability as a primary means to destroy supportive learning cultures in our schools, we need to choose a different path. We must find ways to better support our school teachers and administrators, bring more resources to our schools, and support both creative and innovative ways to engage our students in meaningful, constructive learning experiences. We need to both “think different” (to quote Steve) and act different when it comes to our schools and educational system.

The second reason it was great to attend tonight’s meeting was the opportunity it provided to simply listen to the concerns of other parents and teachers. We don’t do this enough in our society generally, and not enough in our schools specifically. I hope we can find ways to continue meetings like this where community dialog is both invited and welcomed. It was great Ruth Veales was present representing our school board, it would have been better to have even more representatives. Our school board members definitely have LOTS of meetings to attend, and they give selflessly of their time every month. Our meeting tonight had a very different tone, tempo, and focus from regular board meetings, however, and this was excellent. No one was cut off because “their time was up” for sharing, and Spanish language translations were even provided for two parents who came and needed/requested it.

The third reason it was great to attend was networking. I’ve been working quite a bit the last year and a half with our PTSA communications committee at ClassenSAS, and I know there are many ways we could be working with and assisting other school PTA / PTSA groups. Many of the challenges we face are similar in our schools, but some are different or more extreme. We live in the same community, yet we rarely meet outside our OWN school groups. I was not only glad to hear from other parents, teachers, and a local pastor who attended, but also meet some new folks (like Andrea) who are committed to finding ways to help our schools, our teachers, and our students get even better.

One thought I had during my post-meeting chat with Andrea was possibly organizing a joint PTSA parent visit day, when several parents from different schools around the district take a series of “field trips” to different schools. During and afterwards, we could interview each other with video and audio, and share our observations and reflections on the experience. This is something that’s been on my mind for years, ever since I heard about Oprah’s program in Chicago awhile back when she took camera crews to public schools just a few miles apart. There were huge differences in the facilities and learning conditions in the schools. We need to find more ways as parents and educators in our communities to build bridges of communication, and also amplify our voices as we advocate for improvement and change.

I was proud of my 4th grader daughter, Rachel, who also attended tonight’s meeting and at the end got up the courage to briefly share some thoughts with the group. She shared the story of the eBook she created in her 3rd grade class last year, but said how they didn’t have any access to wifi to publish the book at school and she thought they should have that access. After the meeting, Ruth Veales thanked Rachel and told her how appreciative she was for her input as a student. She encouraged Rachel to share that story and her ideas at the school board too, and I think she made an impression on her. It was great to have Rachel participate, and the reaction of several adults after the meeting to her words were VERY positive and (I think) memorable for her. Hopefully she’ll continue to speak out and share her perspectives in community forums like this. She was the only student who attended tonight, and we discussed afterward how potentially powerful her words are in situations like that where there aren’t any other (or very few) students sharing their ideas / participating.

Thank you, OKCPS, for providing tonight’s community forum / town hall meeting. We need more opportunities like this to meet, share, listen, and brainstorm. From meetings like this, I can foresee many good things happening down the road as we continue to seek ways to help our OKC teachers, administrators, students and schools get even better.

Historic Route 66 by dbking, on Flickr
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