(Also see part 2 in this blog post series, “Discussing ClassenSAS Future at Northeast Academy in OKCPS.”)
This past Tuesday evening, January 22, 2019, the superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools gave an important and divisive presentation to the OKCPS board and community. I was not able to attend in person, but did view the livestream on YouTube along with our middle daughter, who just graduated from ClassenSAS last year in 2018. Our son is a 2016 graduate of ClassenSAS. Our youngest daughter attended ClassenSAS as a sixth grader in 2015-16. There are (and now “were”) many “ClassenSAS families,” and the Fryers were one of them. Sadly, Tuesday evening’s board announcement (if voted on as presented) means there won’t be any more of those ClassenSAS families in Oklahoma City – at least none from the “ClassenSAS mid-high experience” as it was and as it SHOULD continue to be. This blog post, therefore, is partly a personal OKCPS family history lesson, and partly a tragic tale of successful urban educational innovation gone bad. I write with both happy memories and sad frustration on my mind and in my heart. Classen School of Advanced Studies, we loved thee and supported thee, but now you are gone. Fleeting can be the dreams of urban educational innovators, particularly when they stand to be crushed by the overwhelming pressures of an enormous public school district too large to sustain creative innovation.
We moved from Edmond Public Schools into Oklahoma City Public Schools in the summer of 2011 to insure our older daughter could attend ClassenSAS as an in-district student. At the time, the rumor was new transfer requests from out-of-district would be denied. In all, our family’s three children attended schools in Oklahoma City Public Schools for 9 consecutive years. From one perspective, the move of our family from Edmond into Oklahoma City (including our purchase of a home within OKCPS boundaries) was a success story for the application-based, magnet public school model ClassenSAS followed. We moved from a wealthier suburb into the city, and chose to send all our children to a wonderfully diverse and creative school within the urban core. Our children thrived as International Baccalaureate (our son and youngest daughter) and drama majors (our middle child) at ClassenSAS.
We not only chose to send our children to ClassenSAS in OKCPS because of the outstanding academic and arts programs available there, but also because of the wonderful diversity. Every fine arts performance at ClassenSAS was a celebration of the diversity which makes our city and our nation great. Kids from all parts of the city, representing the gamut of cultures and ethnicities which comprise our communities, were there performing and cheering on the performers. Of course there were challenges, and of course no school is perfect, but we loved ClassenSAS. The experiences and relationships ClassenSAS afforded our children and our family were like no other in the wider Oklahoma City metro area, and that’s why we relocated our family and bought a house in the district so we could become and remain “a ClassenSAS family.”
The year our son was a senior at ClassenSAS, our middle daughter was a 10th grader at Classen, and our youngest daughter was just starting as a 6th grader at Classen. That was the year I started working as the director of technology at Casady School, and my wife was continuing to teach 3rd and 4th grade at Positive Tomorrows school, also located in downtown OKCPS. That was a very special year, when the other 4 members of our family carpooled downtown each day to attend ClassenSAS and work at Positive Tomorrows. We alternated weeks of responsibility making lunches for the downtown commuters, and I vividly remember making 4 ham and cheese sandwiches side-by-side when it was my turn. That year went by quickly, but it was, in many ways, a magical one, especially for my wife who got to spend a significant amount of time (in aggregate) in the car with all three of our children together… driving to and from school and work each day. I don’t have any photos of those special moments, but I know they were… As we get older, time truly does start to move much faster.
“Sunrise OKC” (CC BY 2.0) by Wesley Fryer
During those 9 years of family investment in Oklahoma City Public Schools and ClassenSAS, I served on the board of the ClassenSAS Parent Teacher Organization one year, and helped multiple years with PTO communications, establishing and maintaining the website classensas.com and also helping facilitate other communication channels with parents and families. All together, our children attended Oklahoma City Public Schools for 15 years of their lives. That was a huge and significant investment. So when I say, “the leaders of Oklahoma City Public Schools have made a decision to kill Classen School of Advanced Studies,” I make that assertion from the perspective of a parent with extensive experiences in OKCPS as well as ClassenSAS. The board decision on January 22nd is “a final nail” in the coffin of an incredible dream and school which was ClassenSAS. Sadly, some district officials and community leaders have been working to “kill ClassenSAS” for years. Unfortunately, I think some leaders in OKC have suffered from “urban education guilt” because of the remarkable academic and fine arts successes of ClassenSAS… a literal shining star in the midst of so much urban poverty and generally declining school enrollment.
The pending action of the OKCPS board to split ClassenSAS into a separate middle school and high school, and move the high school to a different part of the city, represents a tragedy for the students and families of Oklahoma City. This situation also offers a bigger lesson about larger public school districts like Oklahoma City too: It’s extremely difficult to support innovation and creativity in public schools when your district is so large. I’m convinced OKCPS should be broken up (eventually) into smaller districts, so community leaders can more effectively champion the needs of their constituents and better support the innovation and excellence our students and communities both deserve and crave.
Before elaborating a little more in support of those contentions, however, I need to share a couple special memories. One of the best traditions of ClassenSAS, sadly discontinued because of teacher cuts and different administration priorities, was the 6th grade field trip to the YMCA Camp Classen in the Arbuckle Mountains of south-central Oklahoma each year in the fall. I went as a sponsor when Alexander was a 6th grader, but by the time Sarah entered Classen (and later Rachel) the trip had been discontinued.
That trip offered such great opportunities for the students in the ClassenSAS Class of 2016 to have fun, make new friends, bond over exciting experiences in the outdoors, and learn about science in a beautiful classroom without walls. The loss of that trip happened primarily because the 6th grade science teacher who organized it for years left the school… And then his daughter who was hired to take his place was only able to stay at the school one year. She led the trip when Alex and I went in October 2009. A mandatory cutback in teacher headcount in the district and the school meant (at the time, we were told) “last in, first out…” and so the magical experience which was the fall 6th grade outdoor education trip to Camp Classen was over. For good, as far as I know.
The other story I need to tell involves our son’s best friend from Classen, who has become like a member of our family and we dearly love. He was born in Vietnam, and moved to the United States in the 1st grade. He grew up on the southside of OKC, and attended Arthur Elementary. One of his 4th grade teachers saw his aptitude, and told him about ClassenSAS. He applied and was accepted, and is now the first person in his family to attend college. He’s continuing his studies at The University of Oklahoma, but has also joined the Oklahoma National Guard and is finishing up school on his GI bill scholarship. I share this story because some of the resentment people in Oklahoma City have felt in the past over ClassenSAS was based on a perception that all the students there were wealthy transfer kids from the suburbs. Certainly there have been plenty of kids who would fit that description at ClassenSAS, but there have also been LOTS of kids from less affluent communities in Oklahoma City, who found in ClassenSAS a special culture of high achieving, passionate peers who both challenged and supported them to “become all they could be.” I know many past and present board members of OKCPS as well as community members yearn for diverse academic excellence in our city… at all schools… and I do too! However, with respect to the way board members have been slowing killing ClassenSAS for years… and now are poised to hammer in the final nail in the coffin… What I have to say is this, “ClassenSAS was that school.” It was a school of dreams for many… not perfect, but incredibly special. Not a school with always phenomenal facilities… but definitely a school with passionate students and teachers… a special mix of quirky uniqueness and a drive to excel which produced amazing results. ClassenSAS was a school of dreams for many, including students from all socio-economic levels. That’s one of the big reasons we chose to send all our children (who successfully applied / got in) to ClassenSAS. It was our “school of dreams,” and the school of dreams for many other remarkable human beings.
I’d like to close by reflecting on and trying to articulate my perception about OKCPS leaders having “guilt” over the success of ClassenSAS in the urban core of Oklahoma City. I am aware of some of the incredible discrepancies which exist today between our public schools, as well as our public and private schools in Oklahoma City. There are discrepancies between outlying suburban districts and OKCPS, and even within OKCPS. It’s absolutely terrible. I’ve walked though schools both close to our house in northwest OKC and across town, on the east side and on the south side of our city. Programs like MAPS have definitely led to much-needed infrastructure improvements, but true educational equity is about much more than facilities. ClassenSAS wasn’t a phenomenal school because it had the best facilities in the district. It was amazing because of the people, not only the students, but also and so-importantly THE TEACHERS.
Over time my wife and I noticed a decline in the quality of the new teachers who were hired at ClassenSAS… not in all departments, but definitely in some of them. In two cases, we had to intervene and demand a change in our daughter’s teacher assignment… In one case because the brand new teacher simply wasn’t competent in his abilities as a mathematics instructor, and we were risking “losing” our daughter to math altogether if a change wasn’t made. In another case, a teacher was a flagrant bully not only to his students but also to parents, attending “back to school night.” Both of these cases were extreme, and they were outliers… but they reflected a sad decrease in teacher quality that should NOT have happened at school like ClassenSAS. If ClassenSAS had to “settle” for sub-par teachers like these (and let me be clear, our kids had many AMAZING and FANTASTIC teachers at ClassenSAS through the years… those I’m describing here were exceptions to the norm) then what about “other schools” in the district and in our state? It’s not politically correct or a happy thing to discuss with others… but the quality of our public school teacher cadre in Oklahoma is in a free-fall decline. This breaks our hearts, it frustrates our spirits, and it challenges our natural optimism as both educators and parents. It should be a fundamental concern of every civic leader in Oklahoma City and around our state.
I have read some of the comments of other parents, elected leaders, and recent high school graduates concerning the decision to breakup ClassenSAS and move the high school. I understand “the logic” of doing away with a mid-high school model in the district, and “making all schools the same” for parents and families in our OKC community.
There are important times when things do NOT need to be standardized, however. Innovation and creativity rarely (if ever) result from factory-model thinking. The closure of ClassenSAS as a unified, mid-high school for 6th through 12th graders represents a colossal failure of leadership by OKCPS board members and administrators. Sadly, ClassenSAS lost its advocates “in high places” over the years in OKCPS, and its founding vision which proved to be so transformative and beneficial for so many students as well as teachers became a “non-standardized school model” for adult outsiders who, sadly, JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND.
If you are lucky enough to live in a community with a remarkable and unique school like Classen School of Advanced Studies was, please strive to UNDERSTAND the special ingredients which combine to make the school amazing… rather than try to close or support those who would kill it and “standardize it.”
Our public schools absolutely need and deserve much more robust funding, to support educational excellence and equity. Equally important, however, is our need to support INNOVATION and school leaders who are willing to THINK, ACT, and LEAD DIFFERENTLY. Innovation is not the product of a widget factory, or of widget thinking. Support creativity and innovation in your local schools.
Long live the dream which was ClassenSAS.
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