When Jean Hendrickson discovered A+ Schools back in 2001, her eyes were opened to a new kind of framework she knew could dramatically change the state of education in Oklahoma. She had traveled to North Carolina to learn more about the program that was transforming campuses by adding a creativity to the classroom. Hendrickson has been in education since 1979 and A+ was the first model that really ignited something in her.
"I wake up every morning thinking about what would happen to this world if every school could be A+," said Hendrickson, director emeritus of OKA+. "It's the best chance we have to engage all children, all families, in a rich and full education."
OKA+ coaches schools through a process to create an educational environment to get kids more excited about learning by preparing teachers and administrators to think more creatively. The program provides schools with ongoing professional development, a network of support and an active research component.
There are about 80 schools in Oklahoma currently using the A+ model. In Oklahoma City, there are 15 public schools and seven charters in the program. The program is free for schools and Hendrickson is always trying to expand the number of campuses using it. She believes Oklahoma City would have a much different education system if more schools took part in A+.
"What you would see if they were fully functioning A+ schools in the city," she said, "every school you walk in, you would feel the excitement of learning happening. You would still have kids for whom English is not their first language. You would still have poverty as a factor to consider. You're still going to have challenges, it's not a magic pill. But it is a way of thinking about how schools should be that will produce a school community where kids are there more often, tardiness is not a problem, discipline problems would diminish beyond our wildest expectations. Teachers would feel valued, parents would be in every building every day in some capacity, understanding they're part of the team."
So why isn't every Oklahoma school an A+ School? Hendrickson said that while she realizes people understand the broad need for arts in the classroom, there is a perceived lack of time to take on one more thing with all the demands already being placed on schools.
"But we're not asking them to do one more thing, we're asking them to do things differently," she said. "The things they're already doing, if we can provide those things in a different way, kids will learn things the first time without remediation."
She hopes to someday see every school in Oklahoma and beyond implementing the A+ program. Schools would be working together with community arts agencies and parents to give kids the best education possible. That's something she's seen first-hand at Quail Creek Elementary and Mark Twain Elementary right here in the metro. She wrote recently in Education Week about her experience at the two campuses.
She acknowledged in her writing there that there's been a lot of discussion about arts integration in schools lately and said if art is pursued for children's sake then schools could closer reflect real life and help prepare all children for their next successful steps.
A+ Schools in Oklahoma have higher student achievement, fewer disciplinary referrals, better attendance and higher levels of parental involvement compared with other schools in the state. Hendrickson took the A+ program to Oklahoma City's Mark Twain Elementary and saw the campus, students and teachers be totally transformed.
"Students are there and willing to risk everything every day. They come to us willing to be a part of something. They want to be excited, they want to be engaged. They are not the hard part," she said. "The hard part is the adults."
At the Mark Twain campus, Hendrickson managed to rally a group of adults to start thinking creatively. Teachers, parents and community members got together with the mission to better serve students and be more involved.
"It is a framework that allows each community to show its strengths, its own cultures, reflect what the community is made up of, but with non-negotiables," she said of A+. "Quail Creek is an A+ School, Mark Twain is an A+ School. Different communities but no one is excused from providing the very best education they can for the kids."
Jean's comments here are part of a broader conversation about arts in the classroom in our series about introducing kids to the arts. Also read about introducing your kids to museums and stage performances.