Tulsa Public Schools Back To Being Largest Public School District In Oklahoma

Wednesday, April 13th 2022, 9:35 pm

TULSA, Oklahoma -

Tulsa Public Schools is back to being the largest public school district in Oklahoma. TPS superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist, said it is not a competition to be bigger than Oklahoma City Public Schools. She said rather, it is important for all districts to grow to help the state thrive. TPS is also Tulsa County’s third largest employer.

"Well, I'm proud,” said Christen Lindstrom, a Booker T. Washington High School teacher. “I think when I started, we were the largest district then, and I'm glad to see it return. I think it means that the community really supports us and trusts us, and that's a big deal." Lindstrom teaches psychology, and her three sons are TPS students.

"I'm really excited about the challenges,” said Lindstrom. “I mean, I think, like, having more diverse groups of students, I think having a bigger population really serves Tulsa well. It just makes Tulsa better."

Despite student numbers growing again, TPS said its enrollment is down from just a few years ago. There were more than 3,700 students in the 2017-2018 school year before a steady drop until this school year, in which numbers grew to more than 3,300.

Tulsa Public Schools enrollment:

2021-2022: 33,211 

2020-2021: 32,569    

2019-2020: 35,675    

2018-2019: 36,512    

2017-2018: 37,433    

Note: Prior to SY21-22, the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported numbers including Tulsa Public Schools district-authorized charters.

Gist said districts around the country have also seen a drop in enrollment. "We made an intentional effort to go out and find our students and get them back to school,” explained Gist. “We know that our students need to be in our school buildings and engaging with our students there and learning."

Gist graduated from TPS and said since becoming superintendent in 2015, her goal has been to grow enrollment by making the process easier and giving families more options. Gist said the district grew its programs, such as dual-language programs, career and technical education and college course offerings. TPS will soon have three Montessori schools, the only public Montessori schools in the state.

With growth comes the challenge of staffing to keep up. "Just like we have difficulty finding bus drivers or custodians or teachers or teachers' assistants, we also have to make sure that we are fully staffed in our offices to be able to do the work,” said Gist.

Looking at the number of district team members, you can see a steady drop: From 7,000 in 2017 to about 5,500 last year.

Tulsa Public Schools team members:

2021: 5,520

2020: 5,931

2019: 6,441

2018: 6,200

2017: 7,000

TPS Board of Education vice president, Suzanne Schreiber, said she thinks not enough people apply for teaching jobs because they do not feel valued or paid enough. “We need to think creatively about how to get teachers in the classroom,” said Schreiber. “We need to think about new and modern things we may have learned from the pandemic. You know, live instruction for maybe the older kids, more people from different classrooms across schools can Zoom into one live instruction call on a very highly-specific curriculum."

Meanwhile, the school budget is a concern. The amended budget for fiscal year 2022 is $680 million, which is up from $611 million two years before. Some people question whether the budget could keep up with inflation and surrounding states paying teachers more.

TPS amended budgets:

Fiscal year 2022: $680.071 million

Fiscal year 2021: $629.565 million

Fiscal year 2020: $611.192 million

TPS parent and former TPS teacher Christina Byrne said she believes the district needs more money. "I think it really comes down to getting the support that schools need on a state and national level, that the funding needs to match the needs, and now more than ever, all of the students across the district need more funding and in order for them to have a successful experience," said Byrne.

When it comes to the education experience, Rogers Middle and High School principal, Nikki Dennis, said she hopes more people join the TPS family. "So, it's a great place to work, and it's a great place to send kids to school," said Dennis.

School leaders, teachers, and parents all agree: No matter the size of the district, every student should be a priority. "Really, it's just about having a positive attitude, making sure you have good, healthy boundaries to deal with all the things that come your way socially, politically, economically, and making sure you're there for the kids," said Lindstrom.

Schreiber said the TPS School Board is focused on student outcomes and using data to work on a new strategic plan.