Aspasia Carlson: Transforming Troubled Schools

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Aspasia Carlson has been principal at Oklahoma City’s John Marshall Mid-High School for seven years, far longer than most of her predecessors at a school with a history of difficulties dating back to the early years of busing.

Carlson’s leadership at John Marshall won her recognition as Oklahoma high school principal of the year for 2018. In this video, she discusses the challenges she faced upon her arrival and the steps she took to address them.

“Conversations” is a series of video interviews with Oklahomans about subjects that relate to some of the state’s important issues. The 2016-2017 series is sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation and is made possible by a grant from the Institute for Nonprofit News.


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John Marshall has slightly more than 700 students in grades 7 through 12. It is designated as an “enterprise” school by the Oklahoma City Public Schools system, with some of the flexibility of a charter school but more traditional employment contracts with its staff.

The school, which was relocated about a decade ago, serves a geographic area of northwest Oklahoma City that is about half white. But the racial turmoil triggered by busing in the 1970s caused many white families to enroll their children in private schools. John Marshall’s current student population is predominantly black. Most students’ families are considered poor and qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

Carlson grew up in Seattle, Wash.,  and decided to become an educator after being inspired by a third-grade teacher. She and her husband moved to Dallas, where she taught English language arts and trained advanced placement teachers. When her husband’s career brought them to Oklahoma City, she became assistant principal at John Marshall. A year later, she was named principal.

Her achievements there include creation of a Finance Academy featuring courses in accounting, economics, business law and ethics. Its participants work at an in-school branch of the Tinker Federal Credit Union and help adults from the community fill out and file their tax returns as part of an IRS-certified program.

John Marshall seniors participate in etiquette training that includes a formal luncheon atop the Devon Tower in downtown Oklahoma City, funded by donations from local supporters and donors.

Carlson expanded John Marshall’s Advanced Placement program from one course to 13. She arranged paid internships for all finance academy students between their junior and senior years. She established partnerships with community organizations including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Nichols Hills United Methodist Church.

She recently was awarded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship for Women in School Leadership and will attend its international leadership conference in Rio de Janeiro in July.

Carlson was chosen as high school principal of the year by the Oklahoma Association of Secondary School Principals and is a contender for a national principal of the year award to be announced in October 2018.

 

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