Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?
Starting in kindergarten, the students in the Union Public Schools district in Tulsa, Okla., get a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering and math. Credit Andrea Morales for The New York Times
TULSA, Okla. — The class assignment: Design an iPad video game. For the player to win, a cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, “Aw.”
“Let me show you my notebook where I wrote the algorithm. An algorithm is like a recipe,” Leila, one of the students in the class, explained to the school official who described the scene to me.
You might assume these were gifted students at an elite school. Instead they were 7-year-olds, second graders in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Okla., where more than a third of the students are Latino, many of them English language learners, and 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. From kindergarten through high school, they get a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM subjects. When they’re in high school, these students will design web pages and mobile apps, as well as tackle cybersecurity and artificial intelligence projects. And STEM-for-all is only one of the eye-opening opportunities in this district of around 16,000 students.
Betsy DeVos, book your plane ticket now.
Ms. DeVos, the new secretary of education, dismisses public schools as too slow-moving and difficult to reform. She’s calling for the expansion of supposedly nimbler charters and vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private or parochial schools. But Union shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.
Union has accomplished all this despite operating on a miserly budget. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in cutting funds for education, three years running, and Union spends just $7,605 a year in state and local funds on each student. That’s about a third less than the national average; New York State spends three times more. Although contributions from the community modestly augment the budget, a Union teacher with two decades’ experience and a doctorate earns less than $50,000. Her counterpart in Scarsdale, N.Y., earns more than $120,000.
“Our motto is: ‘We are here for all the kids,’ ” Cathy Burden, who retired in 2013 after 19 years as superintendent, told me. That’s not just a feel-good slogan. “About a decade ago I called a special principals’ meeting — the schools were closed that day because of an ice storm — and ran down the list of student dropouts, name by name,” she said. “No one knew the story of any kid on that list. It was humiliating — we hadn’t done our job.” It was also a wake-up call. “Since then,” she adds, “we tell the students, ‘We’re going to be the parent who shows you how you can go to college.’ ”
Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’tWho Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These? - The New York Times: