Last Friday was a holiday for students and staff in Yukon Public Schools, where I teach 4th and 5th grade STEM full time. Thanks to Andre Daughty, Friday afternoon I was able to visit three of our local, neighborhood schools in Oklahoma City Public Schools near our house. Prior to Friday, I had visited John Marshall High School twice for “PLAYDATE PD events” on Saturdays, and once for an evening spelling bee our 5th grader competed in, but I’d never visited during school hours or visited Greystone Upper Elementary or Greystone Lower Elementary. I have “heard” a lot of things about these schools, but I’d never even set foot myself in any of them during school hours. Life for a classroom teacher is busy and full. I am SO appreciative of Andre’s time and the opportunity to visit each of these schools for a little bit. It was MUCH more enlightening and beneficial to visit together with him, rather than just “show up” alone. It’s impossible to get a full picture and sense of a school during such a short visit, but a little on-site, face-to-face visitation time is better than none. In this post I’ll share some of my observations and reflections on these experiences.
Coincidentally, the same day I was visiting three northwest OKCPS schools, U.S. Senator James Lankford visited my wife’s 3rd and 4th grade classroom at Positive Tomorrows in downtown OKC. Shelly said Senator Lankford was a fantastic listener to her students at PT. I want to be a good listener too, when it comes to the realities, needs, and dreams of our Oklahoma students, teachers and families. A little time to visit a school and talk with staff as well as students may seem like a small thing, but it can be a big thing when it helps shape perceptions and ideas with “facts on the ground” rather than just “rumors in the wind.”
— Shelly Fryer (@sfryer) April 3, 2015
I will preface my reflections with a couple comments about “what I’d heard” about Greystone Upper Elementary before visiting. The dire teacher shortage we face in Oklahoma is being amplified consistently by educators and educational advocates in our state, but many parents and taxpayers are uninformed about just how bad it is. Latest statistics I’ve read indicate we have around 1200 teacher positions in Oklahoma public schools NOW which are unfilled by certified teachers. Uncertified substitutes are filling these spots, or the classrooms are without teachers entirely.
Does #oklaed know there are almost 1200 classrooms with emergency certification or no certification at all?
— Dr. Jason James (@James409Jason) March 23, 2015
Upper Greystone had 21 (yes that is TWENTY ONE) teacher vacancies at the start of the 2014-2015 school year, and I’d heard they are all STILL not filled. Consider this: It’s April. School ends in May. And there are classrooms in an Oklahoma elementary school that haven’t had a certified teacher in them all year long. This is a crisis. This is an EMERGENCY. Unfortunately, however, many Oklahomans are either uninformed or don’t seem concerned.
— okeducationtruths (@okeducation) March 20, 2015
I’d also heard second-hand about bullying and the overall climate at Greystone being really tough. A good friend of mine has a grandchild who attends there, and he told me “It’s just terrible, you’d never want your kids to go there.” My own 5th grade daughter has classmates this year who transferred from Greystone, and they have told her stories that strongly shaped her own negative perceptions. “It’s a bad school, Dad,” she’s told me. “There’s a lot of bullying there.” Those are a few of the things I’d heard about Greystone before visiting this past Friday. Every bit of news was negative and bad: I hadn’t heard anything positive about the school from anyone.
The issues at play here go beyond money, teacher salaries, and the inequitable ways education dollars are distributed in our state, however. The issues also have to do with prejudice, segregated demographics in our neighborhoods, and racism. I titled this post “Cognitive Dissonance and Segregated Oklahoma Schools” because it’s mind boggling to experience the racial differences between my elementary school in Yukon and either Greystone Upper or Greystone Lower Elementary. Although the neighborhood around both of these OKCPS schools isn’t visibly segregated from what I can observe, the school student body certainly is. The students are about 99% African American. At my school in Yukon we have about 610 students. I don’t know the exact number, but I’d guess we have fewer than 10 black students. This difference is stark and it’s troubling, and it’s the story of urban education here in Oklahoma City as well as in (I suspect) many other cities of our nation.
The demise of urban public schools has little w the quality of teachers. It is prejudice–they don't want to go to school with those kids.
— Karl Springer (@Karl_Springer) March 30, 2015
I can’t help but think about this through the lens of my faith. Several weeks ago at the Google Summit in Oklahoma City at Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School, I participated in a great after-lunch discussion with members of the OKCPS Educational Technology team. Working in Oklahoma City Public Schools or having your own children attend public schools in OKCPS (as we do) you can’t help but have a serious case of cognitive dissonance when you visit one of our private schools in the city. The facilities are so beautiful, so new, so clean, so (apparently) free of needed repairs, that it’s jarring when you’ve spent hours in the comparatively dilapidated school buildings of OKCPS. Parent funded tuition is the reason for this, and its effects are visibly dramatic in these schools.
McGuinness tuition =$12,400 Heritage Hall =$13,925 Cascia Hall =$12,840 Casady =$18,525 OCS =$9,325 90% wt ADM for ESA = $2,150 #oklaed
— Dr. Jason James (@James409Jason) February 16, 2015
My faith lens kicks in this way: Our evening pastor a couple of weeks ago (Brian Wagner) preached the Sunday after the Google Summit, and directly addressed the poverty gaps in our community. “If you won’t go, who will go?” His message struck me hard. We send mission teams to Kenya and Uganda on the other side of the world, but what about sending church members to the elementary schools that are five minutes from our house in Oklahoma City? Yes, my wife teaches at Positive Tomorrows in OKC and makes a positive difference every day in the lives of those kids and families, but what about me? My STEM teaching job is certainly challenging, and I have schedule this year I never want to have again, but compared to the challenges faced by my wife and many other urban school teachers, my situation seems pretty rosy.
I was thinking about these ideas on February 23rd, and had been thinking about them a lot as I prepared a special sermon I shared at our church on Ash Wednesday. Why won’t I go volunteer to teach 4th grade at Greystone Upper Elementary? Their needs are dire. The pay is low, but I actually think OKCPS pays a little more than my current suburban school district does. The challenges there would be huge, but so are the needs. These are not abstract and distant ideas with which I’m wrestling: I know schools like Greystone need dedicated, passionate, and smart classroom teachers, and I could make a positive difference there as a classroom teacher just as I am now as a classroom STEM teacher in Yukon. But facing the prospect of all the challenges there, it looks a bit like staring into the jaws of lion. I should be willing to follow wherever God leads me and calls me to serve Him. I admit it: I’m scared by the prospects of this. I’m also convicted of the needs which are present. How to best serve God and serve my family, who need me more than ever (with college starting soon for our oldest) to be a more productive breadwinner than I ever have been before? This is a challenging puzzle to say the least.
In addition to the financial and racial challenges of this situation, there’s also testing and digital literacy.
This year particularly at my school, it’s been very disheartening to see how test-focused our learning culture is. This isn’t unique to our school, of course, it’s a product of the test-focused educational policy environment we’ve been living in since NCLB became the law of the land. It’s also a function of leadership: How local administrators and school principals choose to respond to testing pressure, and communicate that response to teachers. It’s hard to imagine how much MORE pressured and stressful it would be to teach in a school labeled as an “F” or low performing by the state, however. There were literal signs of this in the hallways of the schools we toured on Friday.
While there were some visible signs of testing focus and testing pressure, I also saw well mannered students guided by caring adults when I visited on Friday. At the elementary schools, I saw classrooms mostly devoid of digital technologies (besides an occasional SmartBoard) but teachers who were “bringing their best” to their classroom. I thought of how I’ve decorated my own classroom, and how I’ve used my own funds to bring experiences and technology to my students… like Green Screen videography and Sphero robotic balls.
I thought so many things. It’s really overwhelming to see these needs, to experience the cognitive dissonance of how different situations are just five minutes apart, and to also think about my own role and choices in these situations.
I don’t have any clear answers to offer as I close this post, and I don’t have anything to announce in terms of my own job directions in the coming months. The best suggestion so far came from my wife as we discussed this on our drive up to Kansas for the Easter weekend: We ought to start by doubling the number of teachers in schools like Upper Greystone Elementary, so all the class sizes can be lower and everyone can simply have more human resources to draw on to meet student needs. Is that going to happen this year in OKCPS? No. Should it happen in the future? Absolutely.
I’ll close with a personal challenge. If you haven’t already, take some time in upcoming months to visit your neighborhood public schools. Tour around with someone who is knowledgeable about their history and current situation. Talk with others about your observations and experiences. If you have a blog, write about it. Let me know about it. Let’s listen to each other, and grapple together with these issues. They are tough, but we have more resources at our disposal today than any previous generation in human history. We can and will make a positive difference as we work together to improve learning opportunities for students and families in the communities where we live.
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