Keith Ballard, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, and Dave Lopez, interm superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, answer questions from the audience on a range of education issues at an Oklahoma Watch-Out forum Thursday evening. Credit: Carmen Forman / Oklahoma Watch

Third-grade reading, new education standards, teacher pay and the arts were among key issues addressed by superintendents from Oklahoma’s two largest public school systems during an education forum Thursday.

Dave Lopez, interim superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, and Keith Ballard, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, fielded questions from an audience of more than 50 during the forum, held at Kamp’s 1910 Café in Oklahoma City. The forum was sponsored by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization.

The questions gave visitors a chance to learn about the superintendents’ stances on education issues and about some of the programs going on inside the districts.

Read-or-Fail Law

Ballard was a vocal opponent of the state’s third grade read-or-fail provision that kicks in this year.

Oklahoma third graders could be forced to repeat the grade if they score at the lowest level on the state’s reading assessment and don’t qualify for one of six exemptions. The reading portion of the state’s standardized test is in April.

Ballard said the biggest challenge in getting students to read better is that many do not have someone who reads or talks with them at home before entering school. Students who lack that experience at an early age often come to school academically lagging their peers.

“It may not be until fourth or fifth grade we see results,” Ballard said of efforts to help students catch up with peers.

Any decision to hold those students back a grade needs to be made by teachers, principals and parents, not the state, Ballard said. Legislation has been proposed that would eliminate being able to use the test alone to decide to hold back a student. Asked about Florida’s increase in test scores a decade ago after it introduced a third-grade retention law, Ballard replied that Florida spent tens of millions of dollars on intervention.

Lopez said the Oklahoma City is working to pool resources to provide summer programs to students, which would allow students to read better and advance to fourth grade.

Lopez said those programs are crucial since the district expects more than 1,000 students to be at risk of failing this year.

“We’ll have a variety of ways to minimize the number of students that didn’t pass in order to keep them with their cohort,” Lopez said.

About 22 percent of Oklahoma City third graders, or 767 students, would have been at risk of being retained in 2012 if the Reading Sufficiency Act’s retention requirement had been in place then, according to state test results. Nearly 25 percent of Tulsa third graders, or 803, would have been at risk.

Career and College Readiness

Both men agreed their districts need to do more to get students ready for life after high school. That means being ready to enroll in college or immediately enter the workforce.

Ballard said he believes sticking with Common Core State Standards, approved by the state for reading and math, will ensure students are prepared for work or college. Those standards are intended to be more rigorous and require students to show a deeper knowledge of course material.

“We need to make sure every student is college and career ready,” Ballard said.

Oklahoma’s have come under fire from teachers and parents who believe the state has not provided the resources teachers need to ensure students are prepared.

Legislation has been submitted to the House to repeal common core standards.

Lopez pointed out Oklahoma City is also pushing its career academies program to get students ready.

The district has academies that focus on fields such as law, engineering, finance and health.

The experience can help students prepare for a career right after high school, or hone in on a pathway heading into college.

A primary focus of the academies is to give students hands-on experience in particular fields.

“We need to make sure what we’re teaching every day has applications,” Lopez said.

The Arts and Sports

When asked about where the arts and extracurricular activities fit in today’s classroom, both men said Oklahoma school districts need to find the money to keep such programs.

Drawing on his business experience, Lopez said many leaders have benefited from a rich background that included arts, in addition to traditional core classes.

Lopez previously served as Secretary of Commerce for the State of Oklahoma, and spent 22 years with AT&T.

“Education is handing off values to the next generation,” Lopez said. “I think as Americans, we see the value the arts have.”

When asked whether Tulsa should drop sports and focus purely on academics, similar to approaches by Kipp Public Charter Schools and other countries, Ballard said no. He said students need sports, music and the arts.

“I think extracurricular activities of all things are important for a well rounded student,” he said.

The Rally for Funding

Lopez and Ballard disagreed on the value of giving teachers a day off on March 31 so they can come to the State Capitol for a rally seeking more funding for common education. The Oklahoma City district will have classes that day, while Tulsa Public Schools board voted to close schools the day of the event.

Lopez said he understood the importance of the issues, but didn’t think closing schools was wise, especially since testing will occur weeks later and schools have already been closed often this year because of weather.

“No, we will not participate. It’s not the best use of resources,” Lopez said.

Ballard said he thinks the rally is worthwhile because the issues are so serious. He pointed to lack of funding for schools that could be exacerbated by a proposed income tax cut.

“I believe we need to come to the Capitol and say, ‘There needs to be more funding for services,’” he said.

Ballard and Lopez support a pay raise for teachers.

Nate Robson can be reached at

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