POSTED ON APRIL 27, 2011:
Making a Dinosaur Dance
How to reanimate Tulsa Public Schools
Making a dinosaur dance: that's how Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, has described his team's spectacularly successful turnaround of Big Blue.
Gerstner and team re-invented the giant company -- a Firm that made a feckless transition from '70s mainframe computing to the PC/Internet era. Under Gerstner team, IBM became leaner, more agile and a hugely powerful player in advanced services and technology consulting.
IBM didn't abandon its frontier role either: it continues with "Watson" -- the Jeopardy supercomputer (and a family of associated breakout technologies and software) that beats world-class human players and "understands" the tricky queries that make Jeopardy a tough game.
Tulsa Public School (TPS) superintendent Keith Ballard, chief of staff Robert Burton and a volunteer citizen team have a local, if no less daunting hill climb: how to spark and fully fund a metro school system that powerfully engages kids; one that routinely creates superb college prep or career ready kiddos; one that seamlessly recruits, motivates and retains superior teachers and exceptional principals.
TPS's leadership is trying to transform Tulsa's public schools using a wild combo play -- a voter-sanctioned physical improvement package (last year's huge $354 million school bond), a politically risky gambit to conjure up additional school funds via re-crafting the way "school" is delivered and consolidating kids, teachers and physical plant.
The effort to re-engineer TPS is driven not just by an ambitious desire to create a superior school system but by looming federal funding declines and a possible drop in state dollars. But there is a big bang prospect as well: TPS has a signal opportunity to do what a handful of big school systems, often in fascinating joint ventures with city governments, are pursuing: using school closings as a catalyst for firing up fragile neighborhoods in North Tulsa and anemic parts of West and East Tulsa.
National analytics on job growth, quality of life and the genesis of high-yield startup firms are stark: places with great public schools are golden; those without aren't too shiny. This increasing entanglement erodes the historic firewall between city governments and urban school systems everywhere.
Voters never really cared about this disjuncture anyway -- a raft of public surveys from Tulsa's '80s and '90s always found that "good schools" were a priority topped only by "fix the streets."
The Bad Legacy Reality
Opposition in Tulsa and elsewhere is often lead by anxious parents.
In Tulsa, fierce parental opposition to transforming schools is frequently coupled with deep anxieties from minorities -- concerns rightly based on the vestiges of segregation and past patterns of anemic funding.
Sometimes these conflicts spring from a corrosive history of unfulfilled promises by past TPS administrators or backlash to feckless efforts to carry out improvements.
Ballard's team has the heavy managerial and strategic work of piloting school transformation in Tulsa and a tougher task: crafting a coalition of school board members, community leaders and parents who will embrace one of the consolidation options in play this month.
Sockets and Savings
The TPS management team sees their giant school transformation project -- they call it the Project Schoolhouse -- as a surgical pathway to sizable savings, via closing up to 17 unnecessary or not needed schools, pooling students and teachers and mitigating the logistical challenges of sparsely enrolled schools.
Dropping the scale and scope of Tulsa's system -- one that no longer needs dozens of buildings required when student enrollment was over 80,000 kids -- and the big dollars required to heat, maintain and power these assets when fewer than 43,000 kids come to school in 2011.
The big picture: reinvest these operational cost savings into performance-driven compensation for teachers and a passel of touchstone projects that could dramatically improve the school district's capacity to improve outcomes for all students -- especially kids with real educational challenges.
The Big Bang Tether
If you've ever been at the Lincoln Park site at the southwest corner of 15th & Peoria in Tulsa (Chimis and other shops) you've experienced a maturing example of a repurposed school site.
In this instance, a mixed-use project and a spur for the entire Cherry Street corridor. The old Central High site in downtown Tulsa is another, if less interesting example: It has been an admin center for electric utility giant PSO/AEP for years.
Think about it. On the ground matrix of re-positioned public school assets, adjacent land already in the city's land inventory and imaginative deals with developers or inventive nonprofits -- a tonic that could repower neighborhoods in North and West Tulsa. Once TPS management has a consensus on surplus school assets, the school district could launch an open, transparent competition with nonprofits, community associations, private firms and inventive partnerships of all these parties submitting re-use proposals.
The effort could turn the pain of school closings into a shining path for struggling neighborhoods in T-Town. The competition could also mobilize jumpstart balanced growth in Tulsa - and be an emotionally potent waypoint for TPS to re-engage relevant neighborhoods.
Many of these ex-school sites, could become engines for improved health care, used for retail/grocery outlets or even novel pilot school projects.
My conversations with high sources at TPS strongly suggest that this may be a part of the way forward once the actual consolidation plan is completed.
A place half school/half urban farm where kids learn math, literature, science and health through an agricultural vantage -- a space that also sells fresh produce and vegetables to folks who need them;
A public safety high school that offers an accelerated path to regular employment as a community cop, a paramedic or a firefighter;
A mobile systems academy -- a sandbox where kids learn how to design and build smartphone and tablet software, master ciphering, communications and civics via an immersion in the hottest technologies.
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