POSTED ON MARCH 18, 2009:
What Is and What Could Be
Is TPS the choice of a new generation?
One of the more interesting responses to last week's column about the community garden ordinance came from Michael Vogt.
Michael sent me photos of the Crosbie Heights community garden, just across Phoenix Ave. from the Blue Jackalope grocery.
While I was impressed at the scale of the undertaking, what really caught my eye was the presence of young men and women working on the garden.
It's a positive sign of life when young people move into an older neighborhood, and young adults are finding their way back to many of central Tulsa's long-overlooked districts. For some it's the possibility of buying something bigger than they could otherwise afford, something they can fix up. Others like living close to work, maybe close enough to walk or ride a bike. The tree-lined streets and front porches of traditional neighborhoods are a draw as well.
I wonder, however, whether these young families will stick around once they have school-age children.
Back in the mid '90s, my wife and I were part of a church group of young couples, all of us childless to that point. A few of the couples lived in older neighborhoods, buying and fixing up cute little craftsman bungalows and Tudor revival cottages.
During the course of a single year, nearly all of us had our first child. And during the next five years, nearly all of these urban pioneer couples had moved out to the suburbs, specifically to Owasso, to a school district with a good reputation, a district that was large enough, but not too large.
I was curious whether the Crosbie Heights gardeners and other young adults who chose to live in central Tulsa planned to stick around when their children reach school age, so I "tweeted" the question (twitter.com/BatesLine). I asked whether they planned to have their children attend Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) or a private school, homeschool their kids, or move out to the suburbs.
The responses were varied: A few said TPS, without qualification. Others were just as emphatic -- private or homeschool; TPS, no way. One new mom said she's working on affording private school; otherwise she'll have to hope her child can get into the "one good TPS school." Another mom said the neighborhood TPS elementary was fine, but it would be private school after that.
Almost no one confessed to contemplating a move to the 'burbs. One new mom said they'd skip over the inner-ring suburban districts like Jenks and Union and head further out to a smaller district. Anecdotally, I've heard that some parents are choosing districts like Sapulpa and Claremore -- big enough to offer a wide selection of courses and activities, but not yet big enough to be bureaucratic.
I refined and posted the question on my blog. For those who plan to put their children in TPS, I asked whether that was contingent on winning admission to a magnet elementary school like Eisenhower or Zarrow or into one of the more highly-ranked neighborhood elementaries, like Carnegie, or whether they'd be content with their assigned neighborhood school.
Someone once defended the general quality of TPS, saying its problems were a matter of perception, not reality, but in the next breath he compared getting his child into a magnet school to winning the lottery.
You have to be possessed of a certain amount of pioneer spirit to be willing to move to an older neighborhood like Crosbie Heights or Brady Heights that has not yet become fashionable. Even so, I've never heard one of these young urban pioneers express excitement about sending their children to the public schools assigned to their neighborhoods.
I had a chance recently to talk to some of those pioneers. Last Sunday afternoon at the Blue Jackalope, I sat with a group that gathers each week for discussion over coffee and sandwiches. (Owner Scott Smith makes a terrific avocado, hummus and Muenster cheese sandwich.)
Represented around the table were two Crosbie Heights families with school-age children. Neither family had children in the neighborhood schools.
One family had a child at a charter high school, taxpayer-funded but independent of the TPS district administration; the rest were homeschooled. Another family was in their first year of homeschooling middle school children; in trying to meet the educational needs of their children, they ran into TPS's bureaucratic ways, and they had safety concerns about the local middle school.
Unusual for Tulsa, neither family was motivated to homeschool for religious reasons. They told me that a number of other new families to Crosbie Heights were homeschooling as well.
One reader who answered my online query, a father with a 2-year-old son and another on the way, took an almost missionary approach to the question. The problem he sees is that parents who care about the quality of their children's education pull them out of the neighborhood schools, either to put them into a magnet school, a private school or the suburbs. He writes:
"While the system is undoubtedly messed up, it's perpetuated by an ongoing exodus of the very people who have the means to make it better.
"If all that is left behind in the neighborhood schools of TPS are the children of parents who simply couldn't afford to live somewhere else and who are too busy or disinterested to involve themselves in the education of their child, the effects on our city and the majority of its children will be (has already been) devastating."
So he and his wife plan to stay in Midtown, send their children to Kendall-Whittier Elementary School, and involve themselves deeply in the school. He acknowledges, however, "There's a fine line between naïveté and optimism, and I'm standing on it."
Could a critical mass of involved parents turn a school around? If enough parents in a given school shared this dad's drive, it might be enough to tip the scales, but there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. Few parents who are that intentional about their children's education would be likely to put up with a poorly performing school in hopes of making it better.
Those parents who do deliberately invest their time in a school that needs improvement may find themselves running into the brick wall that is the state's largest school district, with all the bureaucracy and inflexibility that implies. Or they may find that principals and teachers who are accustomed to dealing with indifferent parents feel uncomfortable, even threatened, by parents with a high level of energy and interest.
This is the point in the column where I, the staunch conservative Republican that I am, should be waving the flag for school choice. I won't disappoint: I believe that city officials should be promoting the educational choices that already exist and working to expand the affordability of those choices in order to encourage young families to return to our city's oldest neighborhoods.
Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a Democrat who now heads the Congress for New Urbanism, saw tuition vouchers as essential to making his city a more attractive place to live. As a mayor, he made school choice a priority, working with his city council, school board and legislators to make it happen.
Norquist pointed out that people are attracted to cities because they offer more choices in jobs, homes, neighborhoods, shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Why shouldn't cities also offer a wider range of educational choices?
But I admit that my knowledge of problems in TPS is anecdotal. My wife and I have chosen private school and homeschooling for our children, and that choice has given us the freedom to choose a place to live without regard to the quality of the neighborhood public schools.
I have my theories about TPS shortcomings, based on news stories, reports from friends with children in TPS, and a general sense of the state of public education in America, but I don't know the specifics. Some people tell me that TPS is beyond help; others say its only problems are negative perceptions.
So don't consider this column my final word, but rather an invitation to you, the reader, to educate me. I'd particularly like to hear from parents: If you had your children in TPS, but took them out, I'd like to know what led you to that decision. If you're happy with TPS, I'd like to hear about that, too. Comments from administrators and teachers, either current or recent, are welcome, too.
We need to move beyond vague notions to a specific understanding of the situation we're in, and how we got here, so we can figure out how best to make Tulsa the choice of a new generation of families.
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