To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Observercast

The Genius Of Community Schools

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Last In A Four-Part Series

BY JOHN THOMPSON

This is the last in a series on SB 68, which would allow Oklahoma City to compete with the Oklahoma City Public Schools by authorizing charter schools. This bill is an extreme version of corporate reform and its effort to use the stress of high-stakes testing to overcome the stress of poverty. It would increase segregation in order to reverse the education legacies of segregation. It is an example of the latest market-driven school reform scheme which, supposedly, would save Oklahoma City’s schools by defeating or destroying the OKCPS.

In my Central Park Neighborhood, an influx of young urban professionals means the otherwise heavy lifting of creating socio-economic integration has been made much easier. As long as our neighborhood doesn’t become too hoity-toity, we should be thankful for our in-migration.

The closing of the dysfunctional Harding Middle School created a hardship for other schools when the children who had endured generational poverty and unconscionable trauma at Harding were combined with equally disadvantaged children at Moon and Hoover middle schools. So, we must mourn the costs of the closure, as we acknowledge the benefits to the neighborhood that came from opening two low-poverty, high-performing charter schools in the old building.

Middle class families face a slightly more complicated dilemma when seeking high-quality elementary schools. Still, my young neighbors have plenty of other choices.

The outstanding Wilson Elementary School is less than a 10-minute drive away, and the highly-regarded Putnam Heights and Horace Mann are even closer. We are also hopeful that the Holy Grail of urban education can be achieved in our neighborhood, and that it can be scaled up.

Edgemere Elementary is now a full-service community school. Students are provided a panoply of health services, and parents and neighborhood volunteers are welcome in the school. We hope that Edgemere can further enhance the lives of its children by introducing them to the neighborhood’s community gardens and the Paseo Art District. And if – no, when – Edgemere pulls it off, the OKCPS should scale this model up for all high-poverty elementary schools.

The jury is in. The claim that teachers, alone, and better classroom instruction can systematically overcome the effects of extreme poverty has been proven to be false. Perhaps the toughest challenge in education is providing truly high-quality early education, focusing on the socio-emotional and teaching children to read for comprehension by third grade. That task truly is “rocket science.”

Moreover, the best early education programs create a seamless web between pre-school and the early grades, with pre-school reading teachers embedded in the primary grade classrooms. In other words, the only reason to have attempted such a quick fix is that tackling the real problems of poverty and trauma was seen as too hard.

Similarly, the key to the most successful full-service community schools is the careful alignment of curriculum and instruction with high-quality early education, socio-emotional, and family supports. Teachers, counselors, medical professionals, social workers, and volunteers must come together as a tight-knit team to provide “wraparound services.”

Oklahoma City can no longer afford to separate pre-school, K-12 education, health, and social services into separate silos. We risk bankruptcy if schools continue to focus primarily on a narrow portion of our children’s brains.

The problem is not just the money and energy spent on standardized tests. We cannot afford the “opportunity costs” of not treating kids as full human beings.

The big opportunity cost for Oklahoma, as is true in the rest of the Sunbelt, is the price of ignoring health costs.

In 2011, City Councilman Ed Shadid estimated that obesity will cost Oklahoma City an additional $1.1 billion dollars by 2018. Similarly, it would be hard to read the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “F as in Fat” without wishing the effort devoted during the last two decades to test scores had been directed towards teaching healthy lifestyles.

Obesity kills more than 110,000 Americans every year. Our nation’s annual bill for obesity-related health costs is $150 billion. We will be paying $450 billion in additional Medicare costs in the next decade due to obesity. But only 10% of elementary school children have daily physical education.

Teaching children nutrition and healthful practices, however, is not some simple task that can be checked off educators’ “to do” lists in their spare time. As with other community school functions, we must devote far more time to planning and implementing coordinated solutions.

The first step would be affirming that there are other aligned investments, including pre-natal care, the teaching of better parenting practices, teen pregnancy prevention, and drug education, that should take precedence over test score growth.

Schools, alone, cannot solve those problems. Full-service community schools would be the natural home base for the team effort to address those challenges.

The difficulty of the challenge is another potential virtue. Think of the benefits if we could compete with other cities, welcoming Millennials to come to Oklahoma City and to send their children to socio-economically integrated community schools.

Even better, we could invite young people to help create the village it takes to raise a child.

To bring this discussion full circle, participatory democracy is hard. It would be much easier to contract out governance to corporate elites. But cities are supposed to be laboratories for democracy.

Think what it would mean for Oklahoma City if our schools also became known a community institutions and laboratories for prospering in our 21st Century democracy.

Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.

Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.