Andrew McRae knows the influence of great teachers. That's because several of them drove him, literally, to achieve his academic goals.
As the principal of a charter middle school called the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) at 1661 E. Virgin St., McRae relates to the kids who come through his doors because, "I was one of them."
With charter schools popping up around the country in recent years, the ongoing debate continues as to whether this educational model is really making much of an impact.
For McRae, the answer is an overwhelming yes. His career as an educator started with the teachers who impacted him. "It was those people, the (Ms.) Whitters, the Ms. Frasiers, the Dr. Youngbloods, the Ms. Dawsons that changed the trajectory of my life," emphasized McRae. "They were the people for a kid who grew up in a low-income community with absent parents and a background of poverty and drugs... who helped me with my applications. They were the people who drove me to college my freshman year because my mom couldn't make it. They were the people who when I didn't have, they gave. They extended themselves in a way that I will be forever grateful for. So for me, it's personal."
KIPP is a national network of 109 college preparatory tuition-free schools gaining popularity around the country. These charters are providing opportunities to over 32,000 students, many of whom are low-income or underserved in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Charter schools are public schools created through a contract or "charter." The Oklahoma Charter Schools Act gives these schools freedom from state rules and regulations, except for those listed in the Act, in exchange for having greater accountability for the results. Charter schools accept all students who reside within school district boundaries. However, with their increasing popularity, schools often need to use a lottery system when there are more applicants than space allows.
According to the Tulsa Public Schools information office, there are currently three TPS-affiliated charter schools: KIPP, Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences and Lighthouse Academy.
Tony Morrison is one of Principal McRae's eighth graders at KIPP. The "Kippster" dreams of playing basketball at Duke one day.
"KIPP has made me actually learn on my own and figure out that I can do it," Morrison said. "This whole year was the first time I ever got good grades on my own without my mother helping me. When you get that achievement..., it warms your heart to know that you can actually be somebody, and you can change the future, and get into a good high school and college."
Morrison was recently awarded a scholarship to Cascia Hall High School, proving that his hard work -- along with the perseverance of the heavily-invested teachers who helped him -- is paying off.
Olivia Hankins is another KIPP charter student. She plans to pursue a career in Chemical Engineering and knows that her time at KIPP has given her the tools and opportunity to get into college and make that professional path a reality.
Hankins said that attending KIPP has given her more opportunities because, "you have teachers that care, they'll go an extra mile to make you more successful in class, and I just really like the environment."
Morrison and Hankins are among a growing number of local students attending publicly funded charter and magnet schools.
"Prior to the mid '90s, it was believed your zip code determined whether you went to college or not," said McRae. "Our goal is to go into communities and prove what is possible for kids. To provide the opportunities and the support for low-income communities and communities of color (to see them) to -- and through -- college."
Students from all walks of life come into these programs from various levels of academic achievement or lack thereof. McRae said that the average kid comes into KIPP 2.6 years behind grade level in 5th grade and by 8th grade, over 80 percent are on grade level in reading, and math.
"You don't close that gap through magic. You do it by having very structured intervention hours and times to address those learning gaps," he said.
COURTESY OF KIPP
KIPP schools strive to help students overcome and excel through data driven instruction, authentic literacy and math instruction intervention.
John Wolfkill, Tulsa KIPP's executive director, believes KIPP students are "becoming the CEO of their education. We set very high expectations for ourselves and our students. But our students always rise even above those expectations when given the opportunity, the support, the right tools.
"There is nothing magic about what we do here. But it is a magical place," Wolfkill added, pointing out that the success of their program starts with the passion and commitment of their staff. "They don't just believe in what we are doing, but they live it."
Wolfkill said that by the time the students reach the eighth grade, many want to become leaders themselves by passing along what they have learned to the 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-graders as mentors. "With a strong culture," Wolfkill said, "it will drive strong academic performance. With a very weak culture, you will always struggle academically no matter how hard you push."
Nationally, the numbers make a statement with more than 90% of KIPP middle school students going on to college preparatory high schools, and more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni having gone on to college. Of those numbers, 80 percent are low-income students.
"Charter schools have become a way to bridge this gap between rich and poor in education," said Eric Doss, the director of the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences (TSAS) at 3441 E. Archer St. with a current enrollment of 300. Doss said that TSAS started when four high school teachers sat around a kitchen table and began envisioning a different type of high school. TSAS opened up a year later in 2001 in some rented office space as the city's first charter high school.
Doss feels that TSAS attracts kids who are really interested in learning and like the small school aspect. "They want to read a novel and talk about it. They want to delve deeply in things," he said. One aspect that makes TSAS different is the use of a trimester system, which means students take only five 70-minute classes per session, allowing students to more fully explore each subject. TSAS also places heavy emphasis on writing skills and annotative journaling. The idea was inspired by one of their teachers and has become a very successful part of their student's college preparatory experience, since it better prepares students for writing college papers, research, and processing thought.
"We have a very different culture from most high schools," Doss said, referring to heavy parental involvement, creative methods and the work of dedicated teachers. "We (have) smaller class sizes, (and give our teachers) the freedom to set up their own curriculum and say, "This is how I am going to teach this."
TSAS' curricula tend to extend to a whole-person approach. Learning art, math, science, and music are part of the education for TSAS students.
"You have to teach a student how to learn," Doss said. "We are being mandated (as educators), unfortunately, to teach our kids to fill in bubbles on tests. And what we are looking for them to do is read something long, think about it really heavily and come back with a synthesis of what's happening here, (to have) deep thinking, deep understanding."
That concept seems to show up in how TSAS students score in their college entrance exams. TSAS's 2012 State Grade was a 4.0, one of only two high schools in Tulsa to receive an A. The school's ACT average composite score for the same year is 25.5, the third-highest of any Oklahoma public school.
The TSAS community has seen its shares of ups and downs of late, relocating last summer to a new school only to be forced to evacuate after a fire demolished their building just a few months later. TSAS made an emergency move in September of 2012 to its current location.
But where students study is less important than why they study. Doss said that through all of the challenges, "the kids have hope... that maybe they will be in a better situation because of education. In our society now, it gets harder every year to do anything without that college education. I was not a good student. If it hadn't been for band and music, I probably would not have finished high school. I see myself in these kids and think, 'Look what my education has done for me.'"
Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) believes that the teachers make the most significant difference, not alternative schools like charters.
"The greatest determining factor of a student's success is a highly-qualified teacher in every classroom equipped with resources to do his/her job," Hampton said in an email.
She explained that one of the biggest problems she sees with charters is a lack of teacher support.
COURTESY OF TSAS
"Charter school employees are 'at-will' and can be wrongfully terminated for a false allegation from a student or parent or any disagreement with the administration," she said. "This limits teacher input in the education process and creates an unsupportive working environment."
Pointing to research, Hampton backed up her view on why charter students don't outperform their peers who attend traditional public schools.
"Test scores analyzed by the National Council on Educational Statistics (NCES) show charter school students have scores that are lower or not statistically different from those of traditional public schools," she said. "There is no credible research to suggest charter schools are creating a better learning environment than what already exists in good public schools."
For students wanting a more specialized environment, magnet schools and magnet programs offer classes designed to attract students with specific interests and disciplines providing a college preparatory experience that rivals many private schools, all while remaining tuition--free. Students are accepted to most TPS magnet programs based on specific criteria, and those schools' graduates are often heavily recruited by Ivy League schools, giving achieving scholars more choices in their college selection.
There are currently 14 TPS-affiliated magnet schools and magnet-focused programs according to the TPS Public Information Office. These schools range from elementary to high school levels and feature everything from Fine Arts to Language Immersion to Engineering.
Booker T. Washington High School at 1514 E. Zion St. is a world-class example of a magnet school, according to some. Newsweek has ranked BTW as one of the top 100 high schools in the nation for the past five years. Founded in 1913, the school serves students from richly diverse backgrounds from all across the city of Tulsa. It became a magnet school in 1973 as part of an effort to desegregate education in the city.
Washington principal James Furch promotes his school at events where private schools are endorsing their programs. Furch said he tells the parents who attend, "I don't charge $18,000 a year for tuition. We charge zero. We still give you a better education because we have an International Baccalaureate program, Advanced Placement classes, and teachers who really make you work."
The school offers around 40 AP and IB classes. It was the first public high school in Tulsa to offer AP classes and only one of two high schools in Oklahoma to offer the IB Diploma, as well as the internationally-focused Middle Years Programme. While one might think that a student would have to be exceptionally smart to attend, among other requirements, the school only requires a minimum GPA of 2.5.
After 42 years as an educator, Furch relates to many of the students who walk through his doors.
"I came from a real poor family," he said. "And I tell people that I never had lunch all during the time I was in school until I went to college. And I didn't want to be that way the rest of my life, so I decided, 'I want to go to school.'"
He joins opportunity with work ethic.
"You don't have to be smart to be a good student. You are a good student because you work hard. Here (teachers make you) work for an A," he said.
Furch also said his reward is in seeing kids who have struggled turn around and go on to achieve their career goals.
"It's rewarding to see that. There was a young lady who was in my homeroom," he recalled. "She said, 'Mr. Furch, I passed my boards. I am a doctor now.' She is on my PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) and has a daughter here now. I had no idea this young lady was going to be a doctor."
From their 2012 class, 72 percent of BTW graduates are attending four-year colleges, and 24 percent are attending two-year schools. The student body boasts championship basketball, football, soccer and volleyball teams, as well as a nationally ranked academic bowl, physics, and a forensics teams.
The Tulsa Engineering Academy at Memorial High School(TEAM) at 5840 S. Hudson is a stellar example of a magnet program that is gaining momentum. The award-winning program was started in the fall of 2000 and is directed by Lane Matheson, a Rice graduate with an impressive engineering and aerospace background.
COURTESY OF KIPP
With 15 AP courses and 10 Pre-AP classes already in place, Memorial offers many options for its nearly 1,100 students to prepare for college. TEAM currently has 100 students in the program with plans for new class offerings such as Aerospace and Computer Science.
Matheson stated that the most successful program by far is robotics.
"It's the hook that gets (the students) excited. They get to... learn by doing," she said. "The Robotics TEAM is what kept kids coming back and wanting more classes."
Students become part of a group that builds a robot to compete in national competitions and have won several national awards. Matheson said these competitions teach students not only how to work as a team, but how to communicate and articulate their ideas and design to the judges.
When it comes to learning, Matheson asserted, "I'm tough on them here for the very purpose that they need to see that it is going to be hard. But then they build those skills. They decide they really want to go for it, and we see them make that transition to get to college. Our freshmen are coming in with no learning aptitude. They're in middle schools (that) are not teaching them how to learn. They are letting them slide by. They have got to figure out how to make that transition into an active learner, and not a passive learner."
Parent Greg Gordon said in an email that when his son began attending Memorial, his stress went down and his grades went up. "We saw his grades go from Ds and Fs to As and Bs (his) first semester ... and he was even enrolled in AP classes."
Matheson remarked that a memorable example for her of what makes it worth it was the story of graduate Eduardo Flores, the son of a Mexican immigrant.
"His parents weren't going to send him to college," she recalled. "His sister was the 'smart one,' and she was the one getting all of the money to go to college. We managed to put together a full ride package for (Flores) for OU."
At graduation, "his mom, (who) didn't speak any English at the time came up with this huge bouquet of roses, and we just stood there and cried together. She was basically saying thank you for everything you have done for my baby. No words necessary." Flores went on to take a petroleum engineering job out west for $95,000 annually.
Darin Schmidt, Memorial's principal, believes educators must have a passion for what they are doing.
"I've been in the suburbs," he said. "I have been in this (profession) 28 years now... and I started my career over at Jenks High School. Memorial has a very diverse population... (and) it is much more fulfilling in the last part of my career being at a Title I school. It's more mission work, service work. It really is." Title I refers to a designation given to schools with a large population of students from low-income families.
Memorial offers an advisory program to assist kids in reaching their academic goals.
"There is a path out there that kids need to see and understand. And more kids are understanding that they have to find a way to get on that path," Matheson said.
He also said that from the best numbers they have, 71 percent of their TEAM graduates have gone on into a stem field such as science, technology, engineering or math, and 61 percent of the graduates are specifically engineering.
While Tulsa's educational landscape may be changing, not everyone agrees that the charter and magnet school models really work better or are making a significant difference.
"I know of wonderfully successful people who didn't bloom and blossom until later in life, who repeated the sixth grade, who are millionaires today," pointed out Lisa Witcher, principal of Union High School. "So, in terms of how our country defines or measures success, I want to be really careful that we don't put a test score or... give kids a timeline and say, 'Okay, if you're not able to solve the Pythagorean Theorem by the time you're in fourth grade, you can't be an engineer. I don't want to do that. The human mind is too capable and too fascinating to be put in a box like that."
Witcher, a third-generation educator, said "there's merit to choice. When we give teenagers choice, we are on to something. But I don't think that we should be selective about who we enroll." She went on to explain, "If a child chooses to go into an engineering program and wants to work hard, (but gets) an average grade, he shouldn't be kept out of the program just because he is going to get Cs in math."
COURTESY OF TULSA ENGINEERING ACADEMY AT MEMORIAL
In agreement with OEA President Hampton's view, Witcher said teachers are the most valuable resource. "I think the most advantageous criteria for a classroom is a highly engaging teacher," she said.
"I'm all for however we can educate our populace in the most democratic way," Witcher said. "I am not for selective education. And I think when we go down the road of charter and magnets too far, we put too many eggs in that basket, and we run the risk of being an elite society where only the... chosen few are educated."
KIPP's Wolfkill believes there is sustainable change on the horizon for Tulsa with schools like KIPP.
"We're not a Los Angeles, not a Houston, not a New York, a D.C., or a Chicago. We're a community...with a very manageable number of students," he said. "Tulsa has the opportunity, we have the leadership in this community, we have the philanthropic support that if we chose as a city that the current state of education is not acceptable, there is nothing that would stop us from transforming and becoming the proof point of the entire nation."
Chris Payne, director of public information for Tulsa Public Schools, commended Teacher of the Year Lane Matheson in an email, not at all surprised that she represented one of the city's magnet programs.
"We are so pleased with the success of our magnet schools and areas of special interest.... It comes as no surprise that our Teacher of the Year, Lane Matheson, came out of the terrific engineering program at Memorial High School," he said.
Still, Witcher finds the perceived need for these specialty schools somewhat suspect.
"Every child, regardless of their circumstances, was born with an ability to learn," she said. "So, I don't believe necessarily that it takes a special school to engage something that is completely natural to all of us."
There is obviously no simple answer, no single solution. While Witcher's points are salient, so are McRae's.
"Professionally, I think about how different my life and my community would have been if there were 20 of those Ms. Frasiers, if there were 20 Ms. Dawsons, and that's what places like KIPP do," he said.
For kids in low-income areas like Tony Morrison and Olivia Hankins, it would seem that charter and magnet schools strive to level the playing field. But whether these types of alternative schools are succeeding will be the source of continued homework for parents and the spark for lively debate among educators and skeptics alike.
Share this article: