Educate Oklahoma: Hugo To Duncan To Jenks

Monday, August 29th 2016, 10:43 am
By: News On 6

With nearly 1,800 schools in our diverse state, the issues in one part of Oklahoma are very different than in others.

From the panhandle to Green Country, Oklahoma's more than 500 school districts serve more than 680,000 students. No matter the size or the socioeconomics, each district is graded on the same scale.

Heather Samis is a teacher at Hugo Public Schools.

"They're not qualifying that there are different districts with different needs and different problems," says Samis.

One National assessment found when students were given the same test, an "A" student in a high-poverty school would be about a "C" student in a low-poverty school. The National Center for Education Statistics warns the actual percentage of students in poverty shouldn't be confused with the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches. However, the center states the two can provide some information on poverty in the classroom.

First implemented in 2012, the state's A through F Report Card is made up of two distinct factors: student performance and student growth. The state education department says it is "merely a communication tool that lets parents and communities know how local schools are performing."

A high grade could mean grants from the state. A low grade equates to professional development, improvement plans and likely more state oversight.

Superintendent of Jenks Public Schools Stacey Butterfield says she thinks there needs to be less government involvement.

“There are times that the government gets in the way of educators," says Butterfield.

Butterfield's Tulsa area district is often seen as the top in the state, often ranked above Edmond and Union. With more than 11,500 students, 37 percent are on free or reduced lunches. Well below the state average of 62 percent.

The state report card gives Jenks High School an A-. The Middle School a B-.

"All in all, if our community wasn't happy or didn't feel like they had a voice or didn't feel like they have an opportunity to contribute then i don't think we would be producing the results that our students and staff produce in Jenks,” says Butterfield.

So Butterfield and staff members, like elementary principal Suzanna Lair, want to do away with state tests and create their own tests; ones that meet their district's needs.

"We'd like to be able to do more with district assessments versus standardized assessments. The testing itself just takes enormous amount of time away from teaching and learning," says Lair.

Jenks, like most in the state, administers 35 state mandated tests in one school year, grades kindergarten through 12.

"It's stressful and we teach kids how to bubble in on a bubble sheet and that’s not how we do school every day," says Lair.  "Let’s allow districts to have local control to determine if students are making growth. Not that we don’t want to be held accountable.We need to be accountable for every single student making growth and learning and it’s just about how we do it."

The Jenks staff isn't alone. Melonie Hau is heading into her second year as superintendent for Duncan Public Schools.

"When we have mandates and accountability that’s coming from people who don't understand our particular needs, it's not helpful to us, in fact it's detrimental. This is Americana and people are very proud of that," says Hau.

That pride often trickles down to school involvement. Hay says her district has a strong mentorship program, but the time to have those guest speakers is now harder to find.

"Instead of innovation, we've turned to compliance,” said Hau.

On the state's report card, Duncan High School has a C. The middle school receives a D-.

More than 3,700 students make up the Duncan district. 55 percent are on free or reduced lunches.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows at least a 40 percent difference in average reading scores and math scores with child poverty rates.

“Our schools that have a higher number of free and reduced lunch we struggle on our report card grade," says Hau.

Hau points to one Duncan elementary school as an example. 95 percent of students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary are on free or reduced lunches. That school's grade is a D-, just recently raised from an F.

"They have a lot of challenges there and they have kids that come to school and aren't ready to learn," says Hau.

Woodrow Wilson Principal Lisha Elroy sees many of her students come to school hungry and tired.

"Often times we are just trying to meet basic needs for kids before we can begin the academic side of things," says Elroy.

So to comply with the state's assessment, Elroy and the district have taken unwanted measures.

"We have implemented at Woodrow Wilson some benchmark assessments to prepare our kids. So then we feel like our kids are being tested to death. We are playing the state's game."

While that game is being played for at least one school in Duncan, one entire district has to use nearly the same playbook

Just minutes from the Texas line in the Southeast pocket of the state sits Hugo. A small town with a diverse culture. With 1,100 students, only 103 are NOT on free or reduced lunches. That means 91 percent of students in Hugo are in the program.

In the classroom, both the high school and middle school are failing the state's report card. English teacher Heather Samis has been in the district for six years.

"And they’re wanting one solution for everybody and that solution doesn't fit everybody. It might fit certain school districts within our state but it doesn't fit everybody," says Samis. 

Samis says the report cards do not reflect a student’s circumstances outside of the classroom that teachers cannot control..

"Maybe we need some extra professional development, but I’m not blaming it on the teachers,” says Samis. “We have kids coming in hungry because they haven’t eaten. We're fighting kids that have missed a week because they had to stay with an aunt over the weekend and the parents left them there and they can't find their way to Hugo. We're fighting kids not having anywhere to sleep at night. We're fighting a lot of things the legislature doesn't see."

Even State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister sees the reports cards as a flawed system. In 2014, she ran a campaign on getting rid of the report cards.

In one report she's quoted as saying "We are meeting our obligation and are looking forward to a time when we have a better system, but it will require a legislative change."