Teaching mostly black children from desperately impoverished circumstances, north Tulsa educator Deborah Brown is succeeding where the Tulsa Public Schools fail. With the right school-choice policies, she could help even more children.
Brown shared gripping stories from her involvement in both private and charter schools about kids from north Tulsa whose educational prospects have been transformed over the past two decades. She says if the resources were created to support her approach to schooling, she could double the number of children who benefit.
Brown is a controversial figure among fans of Tulsa Public Schools. But controversy is not the subject of this article. Here are some facts: In 2006, Brown's school full of poor and challenged black children scored 1500 on the Oklahoma Academic Performance Index. The state average is 1180. The school is 97 percent black, with 77 percent of the students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program.
What Could Be
Brown says she could essentially double her number of "good news" stories, if Oklahoma embraced more robust forms of school choice to empower students, parents and teachers to be more creative and innovative in delivery of educational services.
While Brown now has decades of experience in public school classrooms, including her current management of an acclaimed charter school on the north edge of downtown Tulsa, she advocates bolder choices, especially in the pre-K and elementary years.
She told me, "That's where and when I think we can save these kids. In my experience, waiting and working with older kids makes the situation next to impossible unless the individual child simply overwhelmingly desires to do better, really desires it. Some of the high school kids I've worked with were in the bottom one percent of achievement for English and math, plus their behavior and other problems, other issues, made it almost impossible to help them.
"My experience has led me to use a certain curriculum and to aim at the younger children. I've found that by doing that we can be proactive, preventative if you will, instead of trying to follow an intervention strategy that comes too late to save or redirect these kids. I am concentrating now on a quality pre-K experience to get children going in the right direction. We have found that working with two- to four-year-olds makes a difference. With a good curriculum, they can learn to read, write, spell, and recite poetry and do a lot of memorization."
Her private pre-K is the "Smart Kids" school. Brown works with three dozen youngsters presently, and channels them into her charter school for early elementary grades, where she and her team serve 221 students.
She explained, "College preparatory learning really begins in the early years. That's the focus of our private school. As we move these kids through our affiliated charter school, we are having success.
We integrate our Smart Kids graduates into our charter school," which now runs through fifth grade. "We have been considering slowly taking the program back to the 8th grade because when they leave us before then, the quality in the public school system is simply not there. The drop-off is really pronounced at the fifth grade and thereafter. ... They are not given homework. The schools they go to, the teachers are intimidated; they are inundated with misbehavior, disrespect, and lack of learning."
I asked Brown how many more youngsters she could help if tax credits, vouchers, or a scholarship program empowered more youngsters to come her way. She answered, "I've said we could do a good job and could find the teachers to help us, for 550 kids, compared to the roughly 250 we have now. I'd like to have 550 students in those grades because I know we could handle that."
She continued, "I believe that number is realistic because I'd like to still have the kind of personal relationships that I have developed with the kids. I like to be hands-on with the kids and their teachers. The personal relationships with the children feed the quality of the education.
"For these kids, language arts are the crux of the program. That begins in preschool with reading, writing, and spelling. After the second grade, from that foundation, you can move strongly into analytical and critical skills. The kids will falter if their basis is wobbly, if the language skills are not strong as they move into the mid-elementary and the middle school years."
A woman in her prime of beauty and intellectual curiosity, Brown says that, despite the challenges, life is good: "I appreciate the opportunities I've had in life, and in my work. I am grateful to have started a private school with meager means, then to get the chance to enter the public school arena and have some success there. I am grateful to have been able to help masses of children, hundreds who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to succeed."
Why not, as a matter of public policy, give Deborah Brown the chance to help even more kids to succeed?
OCPA research fellow Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is an editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven. A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative school.
Share this article: