Aug. 24, 2017: We joined a crowd of almost 600 community leaders yesterday at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber's State of the Schools event. The room was buzzing with anticipation given the concerns regarding K-12 and higher education in the state.
Here are five things that stood out to us from the program:
1. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma Representative Leslie Osborn and Edmond Public Schools Superintendent Bret Towne formed a panel, primarily answering questions about school funding. Hofmeister made the point that even with education funding being kept fairly steady this past fiscal year, it really means a decrease as there are new students in the system. More than anything, the current fiscal situation has created a teacher crisis with teachers not getting a significant raise in many years despite dealing with less money for the classroom, more students in each classroom and more programs that are mandated but often not funded. And the cost of living in Oklahoma has gone up each year. This teacher crisis has resulted in many leaving the profession or moving to nearby states for better teacher pay.
According to Hofmeister, the number of emergency teaching certificates has gone up dramatically in recent years, with 32 being granted in 2011 and 1,160 being granted last year. This year, even more will be granted. New, inexperienced teachers often don’t have the training in important areas such as classroom management and with teachers also being needed as social workers with their students and their families, the learning curve is very steep. One shocking statistic about this crisis is that in the last six years, 46 percent of teachers have quit between years one and five of teaching.
2. The most positive news of the program came from Superintendent of OKCPS, Aurora Lora, including:
— The work of a community group comprised of the OKC Chamber, the City of OKC, OKCPS, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation and others has started to pay off. Two task forces from this group have formed and are concentrating on literacy and mental health wrap-around services for students and their families. The summer reading program called OKC Reads was launched to negate the typical “summer slide” that happens for many kids. Seventeen thousand elementary students participated, reading 650,000 books and logging 150,000 hours of reading. Although there is no formal tracking of the results of this program yet, already teachers report a positive difference in the readiness to learn in their students this semester.
— The second task force is being led by Debby Hampton of United Way of Central Oklahoma and Terri White, commissioner of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Department for Oklahoma. They are working on a survey of OKCPS students/families that will assess what the needs are in the anticipation that wrap-around family services will start as early as October.
— Eight OKCPS sites have now implemented the Summit Basecamp program which has been funded by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. At these schools, kids learn at their own pace using curriculum on computers, while leaning on teachers for when they have questions and need additional help. Lora reports that students are thriving in this model of learning. The school district plans to keep expanding this model.
— The recent bond issue passed for OKCPS by Oklahoma City voters has provided much-needed new air conditioners, buses and technology for students.
— This school year, every OKCPS student now enjoys free breakfast and lunch.
— A grant for $50,000 has helped reinstate the arts into a few schools that had taken the greatest hit with cuts to their arts programs.
— Programs such as Fields and Futures and other grant-funded projects have resulted in every OKC school’s athletic facilities being dramatically upgraded. More students involved in athletics has resulted in less disciplinary problems and more engagement in the classroom.
— Participation and pass rates in Advanced Placement (AP) classes throughout the system have increased and the programs to improve this area are just getting started.
3. Supt. Lora gave these suggestions on how the public and the business community can help the school system:
— Help coat a kid.
— Register to vote and contact your representative and senator at the state legislature with your opinion.
— Help share the good things that are going on in the OKCPS system.
4. Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis made the case for the importance of higher education to the future of Oklahoma. The number of college graduates directly impacts the amount of new businesses that can be recruited to the state and a big initiative of the state is to increase the number of college graduates but without the funding of programs to help this situation, goals will not be met. An example of how innovation can help provide the kind of graduates needed for the businesses in our state was explained by Hargis. He said the engineering program at OSU has doubled the number of graduates in recent years and one major factor that has helped is that they’ve helped students with calculus, providing tutoring and other programs to help students through that first hurdle that might have started with not having the proper instruction in high school.
5. Finally, the biggest applause of the luncheon came when Leslie Osborn who said in regards to the state’s budget crisis and therefore the education crisis, “We need to stop being Republicans and Democrats and fix this. If we want our children to thrive, we must roll up our sleeves and do what’s right.”
Are you concerned about the “state” of education in Oklahoma? We encourage our readers to make their opinions known, now, during the next legislative session and perhaps, if and when a special session is called this fall.