October 1, 2014

The Turnaround Challenge for Oklahoma City Public Schools

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Rob Neu

Rob Neu

By any measure, Oklahoma City Public Schools is struggling.

Many schools are underperforming. Thousands of students are falling short in reading or math. Teachers are stressed and say they are underpaid, leading to constant turnover.

Superintendent Rob Neu and Associate Superintendent Aurora Lora spoke to those issues and others at an “Oklahoma Watch-Out” community forum on Tuesday near downtown Oklahoma City.

Neu, who has been on the job for three months, previously was superintendent of schools in Federal Way, Wash., a Seattle-area district with 23,000 students. Lora, who is in charge of student achievement and curriculum, arrived from the Dallas Independent School District, where she was an assistant superintendent.

Aurora Lora

Aurora Lora

About 90 people attended the forum, sponsored by Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit investigative journalism organization that covers public-policy issues. It was held at Kamps 1910 Café.

Some highlights:

Teachers and Principals

The dilemma: How to fill and prevent teacher vacancies and up teacher and principal quality even as the district’s salaries remain relatively low.

For Neu, the most important puzzle piece for improving Oklahoma City schools is ending the teacher shortage and finding the best teachers for each classroom.

Neu said the district needs to continue looking for teachers outside the continental United States who speak multiple languages and better reflect the district’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

The district hired teachers from Spain for the current school year, and is also looking to hire teachers from Puerto Rico.

The district also needs to recruit from states like Wisconsin and Michigan that have great education programs but not enough jobs for graduates, Neu said.

That includes finding ways to help new teachers relocate to Oklahoma. It also means finding ways to increase pay, which includes creating partnerships and raising money from Oklahoma City-area private organizations.

Recruiting needs to be a yearlong effort, he added.

“This is one of those issues I said about raising expectations,” Neu said. “For whatever reason, we’ve come to accept vacancies every year.”

For Lora, having a strong teaching corps also means finding and training high-quality principals.

Changes in education policy have pushed principals from focusing on running a building to focusing on helping teachers succeed, but the district has failed to support principals in their new role, Lora said.

The district is taking steps to change that.

“We are teaching principals how to be strong instructional leaders,” Lora said. “Our job is to help make sure they have they skills they need to help move student achievement.”

The change means removing other bureaucratic duties, Neu said. That includes tasking district administrators, as opposed to principals, with school-level hiring duties.

“We need to take some things off their plate,” Lora said. “When that happens, I think we are going to see some amazing results in our community.”

Pushing More Rigor

The dilemma: How to improve student performance even as many students fail to meet proficiency, many schools are rated “F,” and the state is in political turmoil over implementing new, tougher standards.

With Oklahoma dropping Common Core State Standards earlier this year, Lora said she is looking for ways to strengthen the state’s old Priority Academic Student Skills standards.

PASS will remain in place until new standards are developed and implemented in the next two years.

Lora said the district plans to implement more rigorous content in the classroom while abiding by PASS. She said her goal is to make sure students are prepared when more rigorous standards are approved by the state.

Many critics have said PASS standards are not rigorous enough to ensure students are prepared for college or the workforce.

“What we are trying to do is up the game for our kids,” Lora said.

Neu also called for higher standards, adding that parents and the community need to help decide what students should learn, then hold the district and superintendent accountable for students meeting those goals.

Neu said Common Core was a step in the right direction, even though he believes it had too many standards.

“I welcome accountability. I think it’s a conversation we need to have,” he said.

Neu wants to see more Oklahoma City students taking Advanced Placement courses as part of the effort to increase rigor.

The district is offering the PSAT to all sophomores and juniors for free this year to get more students thinking about college, and into AP classes.

Making Connections

The dilemma: How to connect the schools’ function with the needs and strengths of students and teachers even as turnover, testing pressures and low-income family stresses cause disruption.

Neu said repeatedly that teachers and the district should learn the hopes, dreams and strengths of each student in order to meet their individual needs in the classroom.

That process includes talking to parents, who can tell teachers what their children need.

Neu said parents want to be involved.

“Parents, they want a voice, they want to feel they’ve been heard,” he said.

Neu said the district will see immediate results with some initiatives in targeted schools this year, but it could take up to five years for district-wide changes to occur.

The district also must do a better job of reaching out to teachers and providing them opportunities for professional development, Lora said.

Lora said a recent professional development workshop, held on a Saturday, quickly filled up. That showed teachers are hungry to learn even if it means giving up part of a weekend.

The district also needs to find out what is already working in Oklahoma City’s classrooms and find a way to expand those practices.

Lora highlighted a recent example of teachers and principals visiting classrooms in one of the district’s charter schools.

“It’s not just about charter schools. It’s about high-performing schools that are in our district,” Lora said. “We’ve got principals and teachers in our district who are doing amazing work.”

A Different Approach

The dilemma: How to implement changes in the face of tradition and the fact that students, parents and personnel have already experienced many changes in education policy and leadership.

Neu said he does not plan to implement the same reforms in Oklahoma City that he used in Federal Way.

Those included a new grading system, which was reversed after many parents objected, and an “academic acceleration” approach that lets students advance according to their mastery of specific skills.

Neu said that forcing the wrong reforms would be a distraction. Instead, his focus will be on putting the right resources in place to ensure students, teachers and principals have the tools to succeed.

He drew on an anecdote of his experience as a basketball coach to show why he believes the district’s new efforts will lead to better schools.

“I never emphasized winning on my teams,” he said. “I always felt winning was a byproduct of doing the right things every day.”


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  • Charles Barb

    Your report that you were creating an expanded data site, an article I couldn’t readily find so I’m responding in some ignorance. My suggestion is that if you are going to provide city or county statistical data that you complement any table with a shade (choroplethic) map of the standing of each location within the state. From my experience this adds about 90% more information and raises many more questions about the distribution of the statistic beyond a mere tabular list. Of particular interest is the spatial discontinuity of a phenomena, one county high on a list adjacent to a county low on the list — why? There is software readily available free on the internet to do such mapping. See: knoema.com

    Of similar personal interest is the statistical standing of the State of Oklahoma within the nation with associated shade maps of the country. And, the statistical/rank standing of the country within the world with associated shade maps.

    This goes back to my early involvement in the research into computer geographic mapping and analysis and my observations of the meaning and power of the mapping.