Why I’m Optimistic about Education in Oklahoma

Emily Davis News


By Dr. Keith Ballard, Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools

I am optimistic about education in Oklahoma. In my seven years at Tulsa Public Schools, we have made great progress. In 2008, I joined a district that had, in many respects, lost its way. We had buildings in poor repair and classrooms that had fallen behind the times. Our children were not getting the education they deserved – but I believe we have done a lot to remedy that.

Our district’s relationship with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – one of only eight districts nationally – paved the way for our successful Teacher & Leader Effectiveness initiative. With this work, we have proven that the secret to success is having an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective leader in every building. Another outcome was the development of the Tulsa Model, our teacher evaluation system, which has been adopted by more than 500 school districts and career tech centers in Oklahoma. This has helped us to exit ineffective teachers and improved quality in the classroom.

Project Schoolhouse, which resulted in the closing of 14 schools in 2011, demonstrated we had the strength and fortitude to shutter buildings that were under capacity and under-utilized. We collaborated with the community to make hard choices that helped restore equity in programming for our students. Not only did we find nearly $5 million in savings, but we were able to add 22 art, music and P.E. teachers in order to give our children more. We also reorganized middle schools and reformulated Will Rogers as a College High School, enabling students to earn college credit at TCC while in high school.

Along the way, we passed three significant bond issues, two of which were the largest ever in the state’s history, at $354 million (in 2010), and the most recent at $415 million. The triumphant passage of the latest bond in March was a resounding victory, with all four propositions passing by 85 percent approval. This greatly exceeded the supermajority required by law, and is proof positive that Tulsans believe that TPS is moving in the right direction.

With this support, we will provide every student with a laptop, desktop or tablet. This will level economic disparities and close the technology gap for all students.

We will construct storm shelters in all future building additions that will double as libraries or classroom space.

We will create a centralized Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Center to ensure all students have the skills critical to participating in tomorrow’s workforce.

Last, we will reimagine Emerson Elementary as a downtown-serving school, doubling it in size and providing another option for families living and working in our city center.

We’ve formed amazing partnerships along the way, enabling us to better serve children. Our partnership with Teach For America has enabled us to get these young people into our classrooms who want to make a difference. TFA has helped us to vastly improve participation and results in our summer program. They have been critical in helping us to fill teacher vacancies during the teacher shortage.

Other great partnerships include the Growing Together initiative in the Kendall-Whittier community, City Year, Reading Partners and our many active corporate helpers in Partners in Education. (I have personally witnessed the power of Reading Partners through my own tutoring, and would encourage everyone to do it!) Thanks, also, to our supportive donor community. I am humbled to serve in such an extraordinary, generous community.

There have been many other successes, and I cannot possibly name them all. As I get ready to leave this job, which has been one of the most fulfilling in my life, I feel like I am leaving things in good hands. I have had the pleasure of working with one of the most supportive boards a superintendent could ever have. My thanks to all who have given so generously of their time.

I would like to leave you with one passing thought. Please help TPS to stay the course as we continue to fight the good fight. Ignore the naysayers and those intent on doing harm to the public school system.

In spite of my optimism, I have many concerns: Concerns about the inadequate funding of public education, the teacher shortage and teacher pay. I share parent concerns about over-testing of our students and the high-stakes testing that determines a student’s fate with a single test.

Let’s give our students at public schools our very best. If we have the political will to give them our very best, then public schools will not only succeed, but flourish.

Thank you!