11/30/2010 03:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How My Old School Became the Lowest Performing in the State

The front page article on my old high school, "Oklahoma Centennial High School, Succeeding in a Place of Failure," tells a story of national importance. Our district inadvertently created a social science experiment when it combined the poorest half of a struggling high school with the poorest half of a middle school that was even more troubled. A $26 million building was built for a new school that became 82 percent low-income, and 81 percent black, Hispanic, and American Indian. Centennial, however, was provided a $20 million remodeled building on the "wrong side" of the railroad tracks, and we became 97 percent low-income. Now, the city is fighting over the reason why Centennial is the lowest performing school in the state with an API rating of 264 on a scale of 1500.

"Teachers, who weathered the transition with the students, have lost track of how many are in prison or in the grave," it was reported. The article then listed the recent body count. "If I ever want to have a good cry," explained my good friend, Lynn Green, "I just assign a personal essay about an adversity a student had to overcome."

The article, and the student comments, do a good job of explaining the students' perspectives. "This year they say 'y'all was at the bottom of the list," Ronesha Johnson, a 14-year-old honor roll student says matter-of-factly, after listing all the things she loves about Centennial.

And that is what citizens should do -- look at education from the kids' eyes, not as a political battleground. A central office administrator argued that Centennial "wasn't cheated," while a school administrator argued that overcrowding keeps teachers from keeping their "word walls" up-to-date.

The implication of both statements is that a focus on classroom instruction can overcome intense concentrations of generational poverty. The implication is that the poor children of color who attend Centennial should score at least as well as their friends who attend the new school that has an API which is nearly twice as high.

Those students, however, mostly attended feeder schools with low-income rates that ranged from 16 percent to 72 percent. The percentage of black, Hispanic, and American Indian students in those schools ranged from 16 percent to 80 percent. Their elementary schools posted Reading APIs that ranged from 790 to 1459 on a 1500 scale.

Our kids mostly came from elementary schools with low-income rates that ranged from 96 percent to 97 percent, and where the percentage of black, Hispanic, and American Indian students ranged from 93 percent to 96 percent. Last year's seniors came from elementary schools with Reading APIs as low as 235, and this year's seniors graduated from elementary schools where the Reading API was as low as 307.

To get out of this mess, we also need to remember the reason why Centennial was established; the plan was to stimulate economic growth in the traditionally black northeast quadrant. The original idea for our district was investing in high-quality pre-school, diagnostic assessments so that children could read for comprehension by third grade, and backing away from standardized testing as the ultimate measure of student performance. The next year, however, NCLB became law, and those goals were rejected as examples of "the benign racism of low expectations." NCLB caused plenty of damage to our run-of-the mill, low-income neighborhood schools. To see the true devastation caused by NCLB, look at our poorest schools with the children that the law was most designed to help.