With Schools as Great as Tulsa Union, Who Needs To Despair?

11/20/2017 11:12 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2017

Being a Baby Boomer born in the middle of “Pax Americana,” I used to assume that classroom education would naturally continue to improve. How could I be so wrong?

So, my visit to the Tulsa Union Public School System was a welcome jolt. Wow!, I kept thinking. Tulsa Union embodies the educational greatness that I’d thought would become the norm in 21st century America!

Volunteers from my neighborhood’s community school, Edgemere Elementary, joined other educators from under-funded school systems, and community leaders from Oklahoma City on a field trip to Tulsa Union. We immediately understood why the New York Times’ David Kirp was so effusive in praising Tulsa Union’s community schools.

In Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?, Kirp described high-poverty, diverse schools that open early and stay open late, offering students STEM, art, music, science, sports, tutoring, career apprenticeships, virtual learning, dual enrollment with higher education, and a determination to coax former students to graduate.

Community schools are neighborhood hubs that provide families with access to a health care clinic in the school, connect parents to job-training opportunities, offer day care for teenage mothers, and provide inter-generational help in providing mental health and social services. The 70% low-income district accomplishes all of the above with $7,605 in state and local funding, which is 1/3rd of the money invested in New York schools.

Kirp described a 2nd grader creating an algorithm. He also visited Rosa Parks Elementary School, and wrote about a 4th-grader who had trouble reading and writing, and “felt like a failure and sometimes vented his frustration with his fists.” But when his STEM class designed vehicles to safely transport an egg, “he went further than anybody else by giving his car doors that opened upward, turning it into a little Lamborghini.” Thriving in STEM has carried over into the rest of his education.

Over 90% of Rosa Parks’ students are low-income. The majority are Hispanic, and 65% of the students are “on the cusp of bilingual,” which is Union’s term for English Language Learners. Our group’s visit to Rosa Parks began in the “Tinker Lab” for hands-on learning. The principal said she had recently made a student mad and she had to track him down. She found the once-angry kid in the lab, calming himself by building with Legos.

We next visited the “Global Gardens,” which are organic gardens built around the theme of “Peace.” The key is teamwork. The students chose to build a kiln in the garden. A teacher created “Wind Wonders” to teach aeronautics. Kids select the crops they want to grow. (The Times’ Kirp was impressed by the kale that students harvested for lunch.)

My favorite story at Rosa Parks was about the teacher who rushed out of the building, saying she had to go to Jiffy Lube. The teacher had been trying to track down a parent for a conference and she’d just learned that the mom was about to take her lunch break.

Given the extreme financial crisis, Union has had to cultivate partnerships. The two gardening teachers are funded by a grant. When a high school student coaches young children’s soccer, a teacher must be present, but donations reduced the cost to the district for that school’s soccer program to $300.

Tulsa Union is now working on a multi-million dollar, 32-acre health and education complex which will be the closest thing outside of New York City to the Harlem Children’s Zone. But the first clinic was enabled by a partnership with the OU-Tulsa School of Community Health, and the district just had to pay for the remodeling the faculty lounge.

When I was a kid, our schools were even more underfunded, but it would have never occurred to me that today’s schools must survive on the kindness of donors. Neither have I been able to fully comprehend why we’ve allowed twenty years of corporate school reform to turn back the clock, and transform schools into sped-up versions of a Model T assembly line.

I’ve always known that our democracy could create school systems like Tulsa Union that respect all types over learning desired by all kinds of children. In partnership, I know we can spread the Tulsa Union vision across America.

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