Oklahoma Board Votes To Oversee 8 At-Risk Schools

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Armed for the first time with the legal option of shutting down eight chronically at-risk schools, the Oklahoma Board of Education has decided instead to keep them open while mandating reforms and increased oversight.

The beard last month ordered the reforms, which include a detailed list of curricular and parent-involvement initiatives, to be implemented in three rural schools, three schools in Tulsa, and two in Oklahoma City.

In its action, the six-member state beard recognized two preemptive efforts at restructuring put forth by the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts this summer.

The Oklahoma City effort, which garnered the board's full backing, will attempt an overhaul of its seven most academically troubled schools, which include two elementary schools that the state beard had the authority to close.

Known as Project Phoenix, the Oklahoma City plan has "all of the ingredients for a great beginning to address the needs" of at-risk students, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett said in an interview.

The beard also applauded a plan by the Tulsa district to improve its three critically low-achieving schools. But while praising the city's proposed Operation Outreach as "a step toward addressing the needs of children at risk," the panel said the plan was not substantial enough to fully address the problem.

The Tulsa proposal "just seemed to be a collection of programs that had started in the past," Ms. Garrett said, adding: "We wanted the community and parents and teachers involved."

The Tulsa beard voted last week to go ahead with Operation Outreach. Its resolution also said that while "many elements" of the state beard's plan were already part of Operation Outreach, others were too vague or "may not be feasible."

Rex Daugherty, a spokesman for the Tulsa public schools, said the local beard's action was not a rejection of the state beard's position, and that the district would continue to be "open to suggestions" from the state.

The state board's actions last month were the first to use authority provided by a 1989 law, under which schools whose students score in the bottom half nationally on standardized tests and rank in the lowest quarter statewide on state mandated tests are labeled "low performing," according to Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the state education department.

Once a school has spent two years as a low performer, it is placed on the at-risk list. A school that has been on the at-risk list for three consecutive years is considered "terminally at-risk" and is subject to closure by the state board, Mr. Dahlander said.

Checklist of Reforms

In its requirements for Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the state beard ordered the creation of "community oversight" committees to be appointed by Ms. Garrett.

In the three rural schools, the board made itself the oversight body.

The community-oversight committees will be responsible for ensuring that the local boards develop a "comprehensive education-improvement plan" over the next year.

That plan is to include the state board's checklist of reforms for each at-risk site, governing all aspects of school life from administration to student activities.

Among other measures, the board mandated that:

  • The district plan and implement a comprehensive parent-education program, including a parent-teacher conference each semester;
  • A committee for each site review curriculum and instruction;
  • The school "maintain a diversified and balanced program of co-curricular and extracurricular student activities"; and
  • The school site, along with the state department, seek proposals from the business community to implement a computer-learning system.

In addition, the board endorsed a proposal offered by one of the rural schools, Langston Elementary School, to become the first public school in the state to require students to wear uniforms.

Each of the eight schools covered by the recent beard action has until the end of the new school year to improve student scores or again face closure, Ms. Garrett said.

'Something Was Wrong'

Anticipating action by the state board, Superintendent Arthur Steller of Oklahoma City had already moved to "take over" the district's seven academically troubled elementary schools and outfit them with new staffs and programs.

The schools were closed from late July until last week, when they reopened with new principals and staffs.

Former teachers at the schools were reassigned, according to Michael Camer, a district spokesman.

The district is also offering a package of incentives and disincentives in conjunction with Project Phoenix, Mr. Carrier said. Each of the 121 teachers at the seven schools could garner annual incentives totaling about $10,000, and the schools' 75 support-staff members could collect $4,000 each, Mr. Carrier said.

Oklahoma City and the other reform sites are expected to raise their own funds to pay for the restructuring, Ms. Garrett noted, either by redistributing existing funds, raising taxes, or seeking private help.

Each of the 43 at-risk or low-performing schools in Oklahoma has already received a $10,000 grant from the state this year, Ms. Garrett said.

Project Phoenix has attracted little criticism, Mr. Carrier said, and it has the support of local teachers' unions. "I think everybody realizes that something was wrong in those schools," he said.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 12

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Oklahoma Board Votes To Oversee 8 At-Risk Schools
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