A choice, but for whom?
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Just as private schools have always done, Oklahoma City’s newest
public schools have become a haven for the wealthy and
well-educated, a study by The Oklahoman has found.
The numbers suggest that the district’s 5-year-old school choice
movement – which has coincided with the dismantling of
court-ordered desegregation – has produced a two-tiered system: one
academically elite, middle-class and disproportionately white; the
other struggling, poor and mostly minority.
No longer are paying expensive private school tuition or moving
to the suburbs the only options for those who want to escape
Oklahoma City’s beleaguered, poverty-ridden schools.
Today, they can choose public schools such as Classen School of
Advanced Studies, a school with top-notch orchestra, drama and
ballet programs, a college-caliber core curriculum and strict
From Boston to San Jose, Calif., the free-market approach is
immensely popular, but some here in Oklahoma City fear that the
school district is catering to the powerful and well-to-do while
leaving others behind.
“Personally, it seems like they’re trying to create a whole lot
of publicly funded private schools for their own personal use
instead of working to improve the schools they already had,” said
Rick Lane, a longtime art teacher at Harding Middle School, a north
Oklahoma City school that has lost hundreds of students to the
city’s choice schools.
Here is what The Oklahoman found:
- In 11 of Oklahoma City’s 13 neighborhood middle and high
school attendance zones, a disproportionately low number of
students in poorer areas – and a disproportionately high number
of students in wealthier areas – have left neighborhood schools
for choice schools.
- While choice schools such as Classen have boosted the
district’s reputation, neighborhood schools have struggled to
deal with falling test scores and increasingly impoverished
- At the same time, the regular schools have seen their
percentages of minority students climb, in part because choice
schools have drawn away white students.
Hoping to contain so-called white flight to private schools and
the suburbs – not to mention middle-class black flight – the
district increasingly has turned to school choice as a means of
improving the quality and perception of its educational offerings.
“There’s been no question that we pressed the right button with
our community,” said Assistant Superintendent Guy Sconzo, Oklahoma
City schools’ leading advocate and architect of choice.
In Superintendent Marvin Crawford’s view, choice schools have
infused enthusiasm into the 40,000-student district and the
As for the number of affluent students in choice schools,
Crawford said, “I don’t know that that should be considered a
detriment. It may simply be that parents in those neighborhoods
have taken advantage of the system.
“Maybe we need to do a better job of advertising the
possibilities and… the successes of those choices.”
Where ‘people care’
Five years ago, Oklahoma City had one public choice school: a
health careers magnet that was a part of Northeast High School.
Today, the district has choice programs at 20 schools – and the
number keeps growing – out of about 90 total schools. The choice
schools include selective specialty schools, enterprise schools run
by parents, community groups and corporations, and federally funded
Aspiring doctor Tim Wofford, 17, drives his Subaru about 16
miles from south Oklahoma City to attend Northeast Academy of
Health Sciences and Engineering.
Wofford, who lives in the U.S. Grant High School attendance
zone, said Northeast’s biomedical program attracted him.
“Here, kids don’t cut up as much,” said Wofford, who scored 1470
on the SAT and is applying to Harvard and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. “Most of the people care about the classes
In creating choice schools, the district hoped to offer “unique,
innovative, enriching” programs it could not afford at every
school, Sconzo said.
But choice schools rob neighborhood schools of students and
resources, critics argue.
At mostly black Douglass High School in northeast Oklahoma City,
students and teachers complain of second-class treatment and
dumping-ground status – meaning, as one student put it, district
officials view their school as a place “to throw all the dummies.”
“Basically, it’s like your landlord-tenant deal,” said Douglass
senior Calvin Walton, 17. “If you just give us an equal
opportunity, we’ll be right up there with the rest of them.”
Sconzo denies claims of unequal treatment.
“Go to Classen,” he said. “Just go see everything that they
have, because you don’t know what you’re talking about. They’re far
from have everything. And the truth… is, we’re a bit unfair
because we don’t give them much, because we don’t want to hear
Bill Scoggan, director of magnet and specialty schools, said
Classen succeeds not because of money or preferential treatment but
because of choice.
“If kids are in schools that they and their parents choose…
they do better. There’s just a better buy-in.”
Money buys choice?
The Oklahoman matched more than 40,000 student addresses for
this school year with a leading marketing data firm’s 1999
income estimates for Oklahoma City census block groups.
Based on that analysis, the typical student lives in a
neighborhood where the median household income is $ 25,000.
But that figure rises 17 percent to more than $ 29,000 for
students who leave their neighborhoods for choice schools.
The disparity is larger at the specialty and enterprise schools.
At the highly competitive Classen, the estimated median family
income is $ 34,500 – 38 percent higher than districtwide.
At all middle and high schools, three-fourths of the 16,304
students receive free or reduced-price lunches – a good indicator
of poverty because eligibility is based on income.
But at five secondary choice schools that use selective
criteria, less than half of the 3,144 students receive free or
The disparity is most extreme at Classen: Just 28 percent of the
979 students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
The Oklahoman found a correlation between student reading test
scores and percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price
lunches. The higher the percentage receiving subsidized lunches,
the lower the school’s test scores.
A study by the Oklahoma Center for Policy Research at the
University of Central Oklahoma showed a link between socioeconomic
status and test scores. The socioeconomic status within a student
body – a combination of ethnicity, parents’ education, poverty rate
and community support – predicted about half the difference between
schools’ test scores.
As the concentration of poverty increases, “You should expect
that their performance would also diverge,” UCO economics professor
Michael Metzger said. “Socioeconomic status is the main determinant
of test scores.”
Students who live in areas representing the poorest quarter of
the district’s population comprise only about one-eighth of
students getting into four sought-after choice schools – Classen,
Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School, Independence Enterprise Middle
School and Northeast Academy.
However, students who live in areas that make up the highest
quarter of district incomes account for about one-third of students
at those choice schools.
Beyond income, the parents of choice school students tend to be
more educated, the study found.
A review of all students’ neighborhoods showed the median number
of families with any college credits is 37.4 percent, based on 1990
That number rises to 44.7 percent for all choice school
students, 49.3 percent for specialty school students and 56.8
percent for enterprise middle school students.
Blurry dividing line
Of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story.
Based on the study, Belle Isle Enterprise fits into the category
Yet 63 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price
lunches. That doesn’t sound low, until you consider that 100
percent of students at Harding Middle School – the school many
affluent Belle Isle students avoid – receive free or reduced-price
“We’ve got some kids from Nichols Hills,” the state’s most
affluent community, said Belle Isle Principal Lynn Kellert, wife of
former school board member Frank Kellert.
“But two of our highest-performing students live in what
Oklahoma City police tell me are two of the most difficult,
high-crime areas in Oklahoma City.
“And we’ve got everything in between.”
That’s a mix some regular schools could only hope for.
At Capitol Hill High School in south Oklahoma City, almost every
student comes from a low-income family. The estimated median family
income of the neighborhoods in which Capitol Hill students live is
about $ 21,600.
At the top choice schools, students choose from a smorgasbord of
Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate courses that
help students get into college.
At Capitol Hill, teacher Pam Chamblee said she was supposed to
teach an Advanced Placement U.S. History class. But another history
teacher was not hired.
So the advanced placement students were combined into a class
with regular history students, making the advanced aspect almost
impossible, she said.
“It’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to me,” Chamblee said this
fall after gathering the advanced placement students in a circle to
discuss special projects while regular students assembled their
notebooks for nine weeks’ grades.
The combination of advanced placement and regular students
wouldn’t happen at Classen, she said.
“They have a wonderful program, and I think that’s good, but I
don’t think the other schools should suffer.”
Using the system
For students accepted to choice schools, the district provides
transportation if the child lives at least 1.5 miles from school.
Nevertheless, the district’s constant shortage of bus drivers
and frequent mechanical problems with aging buses make some parents
reluctant to choose schools outside their neighborhoods.
Most of the district’s 285 buses are at least 10 years old. In
repeated memos, Crawford has warned of frequent breakdowns,
impaired efficiency and safety concerns, as The Oklahoman first
reported last year. After a failed bond issue in June, voters will
return to the polls in February to decide a $ 52 million proposal
that includes $ 10 million for buses.
“We have trouble getting kids all the places we’re trying to get
them,” said Scoggan, a former Classen principal. “Our bus drivers
go out there and… start like three buses before they find one
“Right now, there are folks calling at 10 o’clock, asking, ‘Why
haven’t you picked up my kid yet?’”
Transportation aside, Sconzo acknowledged the district must do a
better job informing poorer students about their choices.
But he said The Oklahoman’s findings did not surprise him.
“There is no doubt in my mind that more advantaged people -
whether they’re advantaged financially, whether they’re advantaged
in… personal education background – will take more advantage of
schools of choice,” Sconzo said.
“That doesn’t at all mean, obviously, that less advantaged
people could not greatly benefit from schools of choice and be very
competitive within schools of choice.”
“They just don’t know how to use the system – the system is so
Poor at a disadvantage?
Classen, Belle Isle and Northeast Academy all use academic
and/or performance criteria to choose students.
District officials defend that selectivity as a means of
ensuring the best, most gifted students gain admission.
“You don’t put a child in… any one of those programs you don’t
believe has the strong likelihood of succeeding,” Sconzo said. “You
don’t put a kid in there simply because you want a better
percentage of any group of students.
“We’re not helping kids when you do that.”
Barbara Bowersox, president of Belle Isle’s board, said that
parent-run school was formed, in part, because Oklahoma City
schools were not serving above-average students.
Classen was taking students scoring in the mid- to upper 90s on
standardized tests, she said.
“But there was a gap of kids from the 60th to 94th percentiles
not being served,” said Bowersox, whose son, Will, is a Belle Isle
sixth-grader. “We were trying to create an environment that really
supported achievement and encouraged it.”
However, three education experts, including two nationally known
proponents of school choice, told The Oklahoman that grade and test
score entrance requirements can put poorer students at a
“The choice plans where the school chooses the kid are the worst
kind,” said Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor who has
written extensively about race and class in schools. “They choose
the kids who are high achievers, who happen to be the kids from the
families who are the most privileged to start with.
“So, they’re giving an extra boost to the most advantaged kids.”
Picking and choosing
Joe Nathan, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center
for School Change, said a choice program already exists for
wealthy families: It’s called the suburbs.
Nathan is a proponent of charter schools, independent public
schools free from many government regulations. The Oklahoma City
School Board is expected soon to approve Oklahoma’s first charter
schools under a new state law.
“We have lots of choice for wealthy people in this country,”
Nathan said. “What we need are more choices for low- and
“There’s a lot of evidence that schools can offer high-quality
programs without picking and choosing students.”
Like Orfield and Nathan, Marquette University education
professor Howard Fuller said choice schools should use a random
lottery selection process.
Fuller is a former Milwaukee schools superintendent who
advocates education vouchers, which give students public funds to
attend any school, public, private or religious.
Public educators generally oppose vouchers, although the
Oklahoma City board declined to take a position earlier this year.
While a pilot charter school program passed the Legislature in the
spring, vouchers failed to gain support.
“Most of the choice programs where people with resources benefit
are the choice programs within the existing system – magnet
schools, gifted schools, theme schools,” Fuller said. “Many of them
were set up to try to keep people with money in the district.”
So, why would a district care about keeping – or drawing back -
“I don’t care if he comes back,” Sconzo said of a hypothetical
Johnny enrolled at a private school. “But I care deeply if he feels
he doesn’t have the choice to come back.”
If the district can make its schools a viable option for all
students, Sconzo said, “The payoff is in the overall community
support for the public system because the community has to pay
Is a lottery better?
Unlike Classen, Belle Isle and Northeast, seven new, federally
funded magnet schools, including Moon Middle School and Star
Spencer High School, use a lottery selection process.
That means students are randomly chosen if more apply than space
In approving the magnet school grant application last year, the
school board reluctantly supported the lottery requirement – but
only for those schools – because federal guidelines mandated it.
Still, board President Kenny Walker doesn’t like it.
“I just think there’s got to be a better way to get kids into
those schools. You may have some child who’s extremely qualified
and their name’s not drawn.”
The admissions process at schools that use selective criteria is
“way more fair than people perceive,” Walker said.
But the school board’s lone black member is not so sure.
“It’s a pick-and-choose kind of thing,” Thelma Parks said.
“They will deny they do it that way. They’ll say they do it
strictly by your test score or your application and teacher review
and that kind of stuff.”
Occasionally, it doesn’t hurt to know somebody.
Board member Harry Wilson told this story to illustrate the
popularity of choice schools:
“The response I’ve had from people who go to those schools has
been extremely positive. Before school started this year, I had a
friend who had a friend who was frantically trying to get her child
into Classen. She had been going to Casady. The student had heard
about Classen and, in particular, wanted to take piano.
“Anyway, I was able to get her student into Classen, and she was
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Sadarius Slaughter, a $ 6-an-hour burger flipper from a rough
part of town, looks more like a linebacker than a classical
However, this 200-pound, all-state violinist lifts bows, not
When she was in third grade, Nicole Le- Francois fled Oklahoma
City public schools for an upper-crust private school. But a new
approach lured her back.
Now this inner-city student is a National Merit semifinalist who
scored 1400 on the SAT.
All his life, Lupe Gallegos’ parents, Mexican immigrants who
barely finished high school, have stressed the importance of
That helps explain why Lupe’s five brothers and two sisters all
graduated from college – and why he’s pursuing universities such as
Angela Clagg has bleached blond hair and wears contacts, except
when she’s in the mood for dark brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
She works late at a supermarket, occasionally falls asleep in class
and enjoys smoking with friends.
On her last report card, she made seven A’s and a B. But art is
Lori Smith, student council president, pom squad member,
softball player and all-around involved student, comes to school
early to study the Bible. She plans school dances and fund-raisers
and loves her college-level philosophy class.
And she doesn’t mind being a nerd who worries about grades.
“We’re all nerds here.”
Waking up Grandpa
At 6:30 a.m., the sun’s orangish-pink first light peeks over the
thick green treetops east of Classen School of Advanced Studies.
In a minute, the next Mozarts and Bachs will wander in wearing
faded jeans, carrying instrument cases and yawning loudly enough to
wake up this grandfatherly old schoolhouse.
For now, though, the vast, maze-like hallways are silent. The
only sound is the hum of light traffic breezing through a green
light a block away.
In 1993, voters passed a bond issue that included renovating the
old Classen High School and reopening it as a specialty school.
Classen School of Advanced Studies features the college-prep
International Baccalaureate program and a visual and performing
The school accepts applications from sixth- to 12th-graders
districtwide. Three times as many students apply as can get in.
Not only does Classen attract gifted students, it recruits many
of the finest teachers, Principal Ron Maxfield said.
“It’s like trying to coach a team with all Michael Jordans on
Where Beethoven frowns
By 6:45, the orchestra starts to arrive.
The musicians climb a blue staircase, pass a soda machine that
sells 20-ounce Cokes for $ 1 and open the door to Room A-200.
Musical contest trophies cover an air-conditioning vent in the
back. An old Hamilton piano hides in the corner. Ludwig Van
Beethoven and Albert Einstein, both frowning but with inspirational
quotes nonetheless, stick out among dozens of melodic posters.
Beethoven: “Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit
lives, thinks and invents.”
Einstein, concerning his renowned theory of relativity: “My
discovery was the result of musical perception.”
The students unpack their violins, violas, cellos and basses.
They unstack blue-cushioned, silver-legged chairs and arrange the
chairs behind black metal stands, on which they place sheet music.
Orchestra director Heather Bush raises both arms at precisely
6:50. She holds a baton in her right hand as her eyes freeze each
musician and the deep hums and mouse squeaks of instruments tuning
Silence. And anticipation.
Alarm clock blues
Four miles away in northeast Oklahoma City, Sadarius wipes his
eyes, sits up straight and stares at his alarm clock.
Oh, no. Already 6:50 a.m. Late again.
With no time to shower, he slaps on jeans and a pullover shirt.
He grabs his All-State Orchestra jacket and rushes outside to his
car. He paid $ 500 for his gray 1987 Mustang and uses earnings from
working at Wendy’s to fix it up. He might quit the fast-food job
soon, though, and start charging younger students for lessons.
At 7:10, the 32nd and 33rd orchestra players trickle in to
At 7:11 a.m., numbers 34 and 35 arrive.
Number 35, two gold hoops in his left ear and a silver cross
necklace shining under his chin, smiles sheepishly as he walks in
21 minutes late.
As the concertmaster, the top violinist out of 70 at Classen, he
ordinarily would sit up front. But since he’s late, Sadarius pulls
up a chair in back. His left fingers vibrate over the strings, as
the bow in his right hand swims back and forth.
The bow slides slowly at first, as if tiptoeing on a tight rope,
then speeds up to resemble a surfer riding raucous waves.
Suddenly, a voice interrupts the moment.
“You must have your eyeballs on me on this,” Bush says.
Sadarius covers his mouth with his palm as he yawns.
Runaway biology train
Down the hall, past a mile of lockers and beside a glass cabinet
displaying animal skulls, Room A-215 bubbles with scientific
Or as the sign on the door explains, “Biology Lab.”
Even before the 7:50 starting gun, Nicole and her classmates had
sat at lab tables, anticipating a quick race out of the gate.
Teacher David Clark already has his stylish red tie loosened and
his top button undone. He has an eraser in one hand and chalk in
the other as he covers the chalkboard with seven objectives, from
stating the two laws of thermodynamics to explaining the oxidation
reduction OIL-RIG – an acronym for Oxidation Is Less, Reduction Is
“Tell me about respiration,” Clark begs the class. “I’m curious
and want to know more.”
When he really gets rolling, when the chalkboard fills with so
many important points about protein synthesis, hydrolysis and
enzyme-mediated reactions that he has to erase some to put more,
Clark loosens his tie more and rolls up his starched white shirt
And then he punches the accelerator again.
At one point, he grabs an apple and a peanut-butter-and-jelly
sandwich out of his lunch bag. Surely he’s not going to bite into
his lunch, not right in the middle of class.
Of course not.
“Where’s the energy in my PBJ?” he wants to know.
Many students might find it hard to keep up. In Clark’s case,
he’s afraid that if he slows down, students like Nicole might pass
him and eat him for lunch.
Nicole, 17, attended private Westminster School through sixth
grade. Her parents, Art, a law professor, and Betsy, a Moore High
School teacher, didn’t think the city schools had much to offer.
But they weren’t sure they could afford private school once she
reached high school.
“We very likely would have moved… into one of the suburban
areas,” Betsy LeFrancois said.
Sadarius, Nicole, Lupe, Angela and Lori – part of a 125-senior
Class of 2000 – were seventh-graders when Classen opened.
Sadarius had attended all-black Dunbar Elementary and then the
desegregated Page-Woodson fifth-grade center. As a sixth-grader, he
was bused to Webster Middle School.
At Page-Woodson, music teacher Judy Sosbee, Miss Oklahoma 1970,
inspired in Sadarius a love of stringed instruments. Not only that,
she could see a rare talent in him.
“She kept on me,” he said.
His love of music drew him to Classen, where he played the bass
clarinet, sang in the choir and learned to play the piano before
focusing on the violin.
Some of Nicole’s friends joined her at Classen, while others
remained in private school and pay nearly $ 10,000 a year at places
such as Casady.
“I don’t know if it’s better,” Nicole said of Classen, “but it’s
definitely as good.”
Lupe’s dad, Sergio, now retired, was recruited to the United
States to work for Samuel Gordon. His mom, Guillernamia, is a
Neither parent speaks much English, but the family has lived the
“We’re on the line of being rich but not there,” Lupe said.
When many of his Taft Middle School friends applied to Classen,
he did the same.
Angela, who lives in south Oklahoma City, saw Classen as a way
out of Webster, where she wasn’t happy.
Schoolwork may not always motivate her, but she knows how to
take tests. Last year, she transferred from the college-prep
program into visual arts, realizing that was her true passion.
Lori didn’t think Taft Middle School was challenging her.
“I just got bored with it,” said the daughter of Randy, a real
estate appraiser, and Lynn, a loan officer.
Now, she doesn’t have time to be bored. Or sleep.
On a typical night, she might study until 3 a.m., then get up at
5:45 to shower and pull her gray 1992 Nissan Sentra into
Classen’s parking lot by 7 for a student-led Bible study.
Breath mint, anyone?
It’s not lunch time, but already, Phil Reid’s senior English
class is munching on Gardetto’s, Dunkin Donuts and Sun Chips and
sipping Dr Pepper, Diet Coke and bottled water.
Reid, who treats students like adults, can take a lot. But he
points Angela out the door when she arrives in Room A-316 balancing
books and a full-scale salad. That’s not a snack, he informs her.
That’s a picnic.
Not only is the class hungry, it’s sleepy. Angela and four
classmates doze while Reid lectures.
But just before the bell, a miracle occurs: They wake up.
“Guys, remember, if you’re absent during class, if you’re
asleep, you’re responsible for these notes,” Reid tells the class.
A latecomer to teaching, Reid previously worked as technical
director at the Oklahoma Children’s Theater. He knows students who
thrive on the arts don’t always relate to academics.
But he doesn’t consider himself a cop or his students prisoners.
He’s not going to beat them up to make them stay awake.
As for Angela, he pointed out she made a B on his last test.
“Quite a bit flunked. She’s not always awake, but she’s able to
absorb that stuff somehow.”
Everyone’s a friend
Next door in Marian Hulsey’s Room A-318, Lupe flirts with a girl
before IB Extended Essay II class starts.
The girl, Nikki Scofield, is a Hispanic student who formerly
attended parochial Bishop McGuinness High School.
In Oklahoma City schools, the growing Hispanic population
represents 20 percent of enrollment. But at Classen, only 5.5
percent of students are Hispanic.
Lupe does volunteer work for the Latino Community Development
Agency and recently helped organize an education conference for 500
Hispanic students. He hopes such events will attract more Hispanic
students to Classen.
But race is not an issue at Classen, he said.
His best friend, Gerald Kunkle, is white and attended Rogers
Middle School before Classen opened. Another friend, Michael Ross,
is an American Indian.
“Everyone here is a friend,” Gerald said.
Caps and dreams
They came to Classen with big dreams.
Soon, they’ll graduate and start realizing their dreams.
Nicole spent time over the summer at the University of Chicago
and thinks its core curriculum would be good for her, since she’s
undecided on a career.
Lupe’s brothers and sisters earned their degrees close to home,
but he’s more interested in Harvard, Princeton and Washington
University in St. Louis. He may major in political science or
Angela was working to raise money for an unofficial senior trip
to Cancun, but now she’s decided to save for a dependable car and
an apartment. She’ll go to college, but she may take a year off
Lori, who is active at May Avenue United Methodist Church, hopes
to major in French and Religious Traditions of the West at Tulane
University. But the daughter of OU graduates is also considering
Kansas, Baylor and her parents’ alma mater.
Then there’s Sadarius.
The neighborhood kids call him “Violin Boy.” Who would have
thought he would go so far?
“If you knew where he came from, that makes it even better,”
orchestra director Bush said. “He works full time to support
himself and to pay for his violin. He works harder than anybody.”
Sadarius describes himself as “not rich, not poor, just enough
to get by.” His mom, Mary, recently took a disability retirement
from Southwestern Bell.
Not long ago, Sadarius began $ 50 a month payments on a violin
worth $ 2,000, his teacher said. He got a deal from someone
impressed by his talent and humble attitude. As he pursues his
dream of becoming a college orchestra teacher, he’ll need to
advance up the ladder of violins as well.
Oklahoma City University violin professor John Arnold, Violin
Boy’s private teacher for four years, said Sadarius’ immense
talents mean he can go wherever he wants as a violinist. For
obvious reasons, Arnold hopes that OCU is where Sadarius wants to go.
But others may recruit this violinist whose musical tastes range
from the rap of Master P to the classical strains of Tschaikovsky.
On the morning after he arrived 21 minutes late for orchestra
practice, Sadarius had another appointment. This one he didn’t
intend to miss. His Delta Airlines flight was departing at 7.
His destination: the New England Conservatory of Music, where he
planned to tour campus, observe classes and share a few notes with
violinist Malcolm Lowe, concertmaster of the Boston Symphony
This young violinist about to soar higher than he ever imagined
had only one fear.
The plane ride.
He’d never flown before.
“Keep me on land,” he joked. “I love land.”
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On a map, Harding Middle School has a rags-to-riches attendance
Its boundaries encompass poor neighborhoods where most families
earn less than $ 10,000 a year as well as affluent communities where
households make more than $ 250,000.
But this north Oklahoma City school doesn’t draw too many future
millionaires from the mansions of Nichols Hills.
Throughout the Oklahoma City School District, students from
wealthier, better-educated areas are leaving their neighborhood
schools – or their pricey private schools – for publicly funded
choice schools, a study by The Oklahoman found.
In 11 of Oklahoma City’s 13 neighborhood middle and high school
attendance zones, a disproportionately low number of students in
poorer areas – and a disproportionately high number of students in
wealthier areas – are being drained from regular schools into
choice schools, the computer-assisted analysis revealed.
At few other schools is the gap between the students leaving -
and the students left behind – more stark than at Harding, a
struggling inner-city school with an 83 percent minority
enrollment, a 100 percent free and reduced-price lunch rate and a
record number of special education teachers handling more and more
cases of students with learning disabilities.
“It has caused some concern, definitely, with the recruitment of
students to attend specialty schools,” Harding Principal James
“We find ourselves having to continue to work hard to make sure
we stay off the at-risk list.”
Harding’s 673 students live in neighborhoods where the
estimated median household income is $ 21,355, The Oklahoman
The newspaper matched student addresses for this school year
with a leading marketing data firm’s 1999 household income
estimates for Oklahoma City census block groups.
By comparison, 336 middle school students who live in the
Harding zone but attend specialty or enterprise schools come from
census block groups in which the median household income is $ 32,234.
Students benefiting from choice live in areas with a 51 percent
higher median household income than the neighborhoods of Harding
“Part of me says, ‘Yeah, that’s wrong,’ but what do we do about
it?” said Oklahoma City School Board President Kenny Walker.
Education has catered to the lowest common denominator for too
long, said Walker, whose 15-year-old daughter attends Classen
School of Advanced Studies.
“I just don’t think we can afford to do that any longer. We just
have to realize there are parents out there who want more for their
But not everyone has a choice where to attend school, said Jo
Soske, a Harding Spanish teacher.
Academic requirements, transportation concerns and the business
of making ends meet keep some parents from exercising choice, Soske
Not every parent, particularly one working two or three jobs,
has time to fill out choice school applications or take a child to
interviews or placement tests, she said.
“I guess I’m one of those people that believes public education
ought to serve all children, and it ought to serve them all
equally, in terms of supplies and opportunities and materials and
advantages and class sizes,” Soske said.
Bill Scoggan, director of specialty and magnet schools, said
teachers and principals concerned about conditions at neighborhood
schools should do more than “wring their hands and say, ‘Dear me.’”
“The challenge is for you, too, to enter the free-market system
… to in fact have kids choose to stay at your school,” Scoggan
Not an option?
For many parents in the Harding area, a middle school with a
history of below-average test scores and a reputation, deserved
or not, for unruly classrooms and unsafe hallways just isn’t an
“I just didn’t see that as an environment where I wanted my
child,” said Barbara Bowersox, who led a group of parents who
persuaded the school board to let them open Belle Isle Enterprise
Middle School, which chooses students based on grades and test scores.
“It just seemed like too big a problem to fix.”
Belle Isle parent Gary Walker, father of seventh-grader Ford
Kirk, said, “For me, there weren’t too many options… Moving was
not really an option because we loved our neighborhood.”
Belle Isle is just one way many Harding area students have used
to avoid their neighborhood school.
Just 53 percent of the 1,166 Oklahoma City middle school
students who live in Harding’s attendance boundaries go to school
there, The Oklahoman found. In addition, about 50 students from
other middle school attendance zones attend Harding on transfers.
The Harding attendance zone sends 29 percent of its students to
four selective choice schools.
Six percent of Harding area students are in alternative
education programs for troubled students.
But some teachers say that’s not nearly enough.
Longtime art teacher Rick Lane, Harding’s American Federation of
Teachers representative, said the school has an unwritten cap on
the number of students it can suspend.
“We need to stop looking at suspension as a bad thing,” Lane
said. “What people forget is, while the disruptive child is out, he
doesn’t affect the classroom and a lot more learning goes on.”
About 10 percent of Harding- area students transfer to other
neighborhood schools, while 2 percent have enrolled at the new F.D.
Moon Academy of Mass Media and Communications Technology, formerly
Moon Middle School. Unlike Classen, Northeast, Belle Isle and
Independence, Moon has no academic, performance or residency
The concentration at Harding of students from the poorest
neighborhoods is 10 percent greater than the concentration in the
school’s attendance zone. The concentration of students from the
wealthiest neighborhoods is 22 percent smaller than the
concentration living in the school’s attendance zone.
“When you put in all the specialty schools and the magnet
schools and the enterprise schools, it winds up that places like
Harding have more behavioral problems and more academic problems,”
said Ted Metscher, president of the Oklahoma City Federation of
On a typical morning at Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School,
5904 N Villa, the student body of 241 gathers in the gymnasium
for an opening ceremony.
The students, sporting khaki uniform pants and polo shirts, say
the Pledge of Allegiance, recite the school honor code and hear a
motivational message from Principal Lynn Kellert.
As the first bell sounds at Harding, on a seemingly typical
morning, the crowded hallways empty and blue-jean-clad students
fill their classrooms. In the office, a man scribbles a statement
about a student accused of throwing a paper wad with something hard
in it and hitting another student.
By midmorning, an announcement blares over the loudspeaker:
“Administrator needed on the third floor! Administrator needed on
the third floor!” The principal and a police officer rush upstairs
to break up a fight.
That same morning, a young girl from an African country arrives
to enroll at Harding. She speaks no English, so Senter must find
some “buddies” to help show her around the school, even though
neither of her newfound friends – nor her teachers – will be able
to talk with her. In a sixth-grade class, all 20 boys and girls
raise their hands when Senter asks if anyone is willing to help.
Children are children.
The difference is that Harding must accept all children who show
up. That’s not true at choice schools.
Students who don’t make the grade or who cause trouble at choice
schools can be returned to their neighborhood school.
“In fact, last year, one of our enterprise schools shipped out a
bunch of kids who didn’t make their grades… and made a lot of
teachers at Harding justifiably angry,” Metscher said.
Bowersox said that about 55 students were on academic probation
at the start of the third quarter.
“Of that, 29 were successful in coming off probation,” she said.
“Twenty-six were not and were excused.”
Sometimes, Harding’s principal measures success in these terms:
avoiding the state Education Department’s low-performing list
for another year.
“We have all the odds against us,” Senter said, “but I sort of
like a challenge. I sort of like being an underdog.”
Harding was an underdog long before school choice changed the
But it seems the district’s 5-year-old choice movement has
helped make Harding even more of an underdog.
The number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches,
a number based on students’ family incomes, has jumped from 72.7
percent five years ago to 100 percent today.
Its minority enrollment has climbed from 68 percent five years
ago to 83 percent today.
Its school reading score on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills has
dipped from the 40th percentile five years ago to the 29th
percentile in spring 1999. A 50th percentile score is average.
Classen School of Advanced Studies has a 28 percent free and
reduced-price lunch rate and a 59 percent white enrollment. Classen
scored in the 85th percentile in reading on the 1999 Iowa Tests of
The gap between the haves and the have-nots extends to the way
district officials treat Harding, some teachers claim.
“They don’t treat the schools equally,” said Soske, who
complained a broken fan made a screeching noise in her classroom
for six weeks before anyone fixed it. “I couldn’t hear the kids.
They couldn’t hear me.
“This is the most poorly maintained building I’ve been in.”
LENGTH: 1359 words
On a windy school day, McLain High School’s student
parking lot displays more striped pavement and blowing dust than
painted metal and rubber tires.
It doesn’t take Principal Travis Henderson long to count the
cars: a grand total of about 10.
At least three belong to teachers.
“Our kids can’t afford cars,” said Henderson, a 30-year educator
who came to McLain in 1997 to “take back the halls.”
What about that school down the street? “They had to build a new
parking lot,” he replied, chuckling.
So close, so far apart
Within three miles of each other on the poor, black side of
Tulsa are Booker T. Washington High School and Robert S. McLain
High School Career Academy.
With an almost equal number of black and white students,
Washington High School is a model of integration.
It’s a college-prep magnet school that draws the most gifted -
and often, most affluent – students from throughout Tulsa and
annually boasts among Oklahoma’s most National Merit semifinalists.
It’s an athletic powerhouse that has claimed nine gold boys
state championship basketballs since 1981. It’s the public high
school in Tulsa, for everybody from the mayor’s son to the
daughters of doctors and lawyers.
“This is, I’d say, a more political school than any other high
school in the city,” Washington Principal Dale Evans Mingo said. “A
lot of our parents are familiar with board policy and procedure.
“They’re very vocal if they feel the students might not be
getting what they expect them to be taught.”
Recipe for failure?
On the other hand, there’s McLain High School, where most
freshmen read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level.
At this north Tulsa school, almost every student is black, and
most of the 700 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Many students’ parents work two jobs to make ends meet. The school
scores terribly on standardized tests and seems destined for failure.
But who’s to blame?
“That’s a whole can of worms,” said Lloyd Ware, a McLain art
teacher. “When you skim off the brightest and best, what you’re
left with are average and below-average students.
“The people you’re competing against not only have their best,
they also have your best. It’s kind of like failure by design.”
State Rep. Darrell Gilbert, D-Tulsa, said he gets tired of
people picking on McLain.
“There are so many variables that are happening at McLain,”
Gilbert said. “Most of the kids are from low-income families, and
that’s not to say they’re not bright, but they’ve got so many other
things going on in their lives… school is kind of a secondary deal.”
‘Heart and soul’
The story of how Washington High School became the pride of
Tulsa – and McLain High School something less – dates back more
than 25 years.
In Tulsa, where hundreds died in one of the nation’s worst race
riots in 1921, the desegregation of schools a half-century later
brought unrest, protest and violence.
Against that emotionally charged backdrop, school officials
transformed Washington into a magnet school in fall 1973.
Washington was “the traditional heart and soul of Tulsa’s black
community,” Larry G. Alexander wrote in a 1981 history.
The idea was to offer special academic programs at Washington
that would attract top students – black and white – and voluntarily
integrate an all-black school that had won its fifth-straight state
football title in 1971, Alexander wrote.
Meantime, McLain High School, which had a white enrollment of
about 87 percent in 1969, saw dramatic demographic changes as
housing patterns shifted. Over the years, the school’s surrounding
community, and thus its student body, became blacker and poorer.
Ironically, Washington High was named after the famous former
slave and educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute, while
McLain’s namesake was a white Army soldier who rose from private to
Washington accepts about 350 freshmen a year. Two to three times
that many apply.
But not too many folks – students or teachers – fight to go to
In fact, about 400 students who live in the McLain attendance
zone flee their neighborhood school for Washington or other more
desirable high schools.
“Any black kid can transfer to any school where he is a
minority,” said Henderson, a north Tulsa native who graduated from
Washington during its all-black days.
He calls the exodus of would-be McLain students brain drain.
“There’s no other way you could put it. That’s 388 kids that
could be here.”
“Creaming” the best students from neighborhood schools is a
concern, said school board member Cathy Newsome, whose son, Jeff,
“The flip side of that is, some believe we lose fewer students
to private schools with more options.”
‘I love this school’
On a recent Monday, a handful of friends ate sandwiches, fruit
cups and potato chips as they enjoyed a leisurely lunch at
Patrick McKenzie, 16, said he probably would have attended a
private school if he hadn’t been accepted to Washington.
His friend Catherine Cox, 16, attended a Catholic elementary
school. She said she would have gone to parochial Bishop Kelley
High School if she hadn’t gotten into Washington.
Another friend, Joanna Shrewsbury, said she, her brother and her
sister came to Washington after home-schooling and private
education in lower grades.
“I love this school,” said Shrewsbury, 16.
“I’ve never been to a school where I could get a good education
and at the same time interact with kids from so many different
races and cultures.”
Washington’s 1,267-student enrollment is 46 percent white, 44.4
percent black, 4.4 percent American Indian, 2.7 percent Asian and
2.5 percent Hispanic.
Washington is “a real accepting school,” McKenzie said.
“I think I’d be scared to death to go to almost any other
Junior Orly Shoham, 16, said her dad, a Tulsa professor,
compares Washington to a college environment.
“The teachers here are just exquisite; they’re marvelous,” said
Shoham, who formerly attended private Holland Hall School. “They
care about the students, and they talk to you about more than just
Algebra II and the Russian Revolution.”
Rick Arrington, who has taught social studies at Washington for
27 years and coordinates its International Baccalaureate program,
said the school’s academic and extracurricular success has made it
the place to be.
But students stay for the atmosphere, he said.
“Part of that atmosphere is a celebration of a diverse student
body. That’s racially, economically, religiously – almost every way
you can have diversity in a school.”
Refuting the reputation
Before her freshman year, Sashaye Brewer applied to Washington,
but she got a letter telling her the school was “too full,” so
she enrolled at her neighborhood school, McLain.
Brewer, 16, a junior cheerleader, is in the Spanish Club and the
advanced chorus at McLain. She’s taking history, geometry, health
technology and English.
McLain gets a bad rap, she thinks.
People “should know we work hard, just as hard as any school,
and the reputation they give us isn’t true. We’re really a good
But McLain’s students face challenges beyond the classroom, art
teacher Ware said.
“We might be worrying about a test or an exam,” said the former
Oral Roberts University basketball player. “Some of these kids are
worrying about surviving – not surviving school, surviving life.”
Science teacher Janice Myers talked about 16- and 17-year-old
students balancing babies, work and school.
“You’re dealing with a lot of issues here other than kids who
are trying to get into Harvard.”
How big is the challenge?
Last spring, Principal Henderson served on a scholarship
committee for the graduate chapter of his Langston University
The committee awarded four $ 500 scholarships to Tulsa high
school students. Henderson was anxious to reward a McLain student,
but no one filled out the paperwork.
“Sometimes,” Henderson said, “it’s just disheartening.”
SECTION: COMMUNITY II; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 1556 words
DATELINE: COLUMBUS, Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio – At Columbus Alternative High School, a
college-prep specialty school that’s the pride of the city’s public
schools, Dominique Brown and four friends squirmed at their desks
before British literature class.
Dominique, a senior in her first year at Columbus Alternative,
reached deep in her past – last year – to talk about life at her
old school, one of the Ohio state capital’s regular inner-city high
“I really did nothing,” she said matter-of-factly. “I did my
work. I got good grades. It wasn’t really challenging. I got into
more trouble because I had nothing to do.”
At the old school, keying cars, slashing tires and destroying
people’s property were common occurrences, she said.
“There, it’s a fight every day. They would plan ‘em, and people
would bring cameras and take pictures.”
And at her new school?
“Three fights in four years,” a classmate said.
A few hundred miles south, two seniors at DuPont Manual High
School in Louisville, Ky., interrupted Spirit Week’s “Twins Day” to
discuss their acclaimed magnet school, which produced 52 National
Merit semifinalists this year, tied for third most in the nation.
“For me, Manual was the clear choice because it’s the best
public education in the city,” said Katie Holmes (no, not the one
on TV’s “Dawson’s Creek”) as her friend, Olga Itkin, nodded
“I’ve really been pleased because I’ve been challenged,” Katie
said. “In middle school, it was just sort of like, ‘Do this busy
work and make an easy A.’ Here, we have thought-provoking
assignments and good discussions.”
For a variety of reasons – to stop the exodus of affluent
families to the suburbs, to produce voluntary racial integration,
even to improve the quality of education – many urban cities have
created “flagship” choice schools, top-notch learning institutions
that serve as lighthouses in often dim, troubled school systems.
These are schools where, as one Columbus parent was told,
education is stressed. A counselor recommended Columbus Alternative
for Geri Bell’s son. But he didn’t win the random lottery for
admission, enrolled at his neighborhood high school and ended up
dropping out of school.
Later, daughter Bethany Bell’s name was drawn, and she’s doing
great at Columbus Alternative, her mom said.
“It’s amazing the difference in the education,” Geri Bell said.
“It really kind of blew my mind because I thought all schools
Oklahoma City has Classen School of Advanced Studies, a sixth-
to 12th-grade specialty school for academically and
artistically gifted students.
Tulsa has Booker T. Washington High School, a college-prep
magnet school featuring the state’s oldest International
Chicago has Northside College Prep High School, nicknamed “Chico
High” after the school board president who lives a few miles away
and has a freshman daughter attending.
Northside College Prep opened this fall. The incongruously
lavish architecture at the $ 44.7 million school is matched by an
academic agenda designed to put Northside Prep in the same league
as Chicago’s most elite private schools and the suburbs’ best
public schools, the Chicago Tribune reported. The school is near
Chicago’s most affluent Northwest Side white neighborhoods.
“How much more of the talent must we see leave our system at the
eighth grade?” the Tribune quoted school board President Gery Chico
as saying. “You know it’s not right. We have to service everybody.
“If you can’t provide these magnet options to our parents
throughout the city, they will leave. And you know what? The mayor
(Richard Daley) wants to keep all people in the Chicago public
system – middle class, poor people, upper class.”
As in many urban cities, thousands have fled Philadelphia’s
inner-city schools. But each year, 3,400 students apply for 175
openings at the highly regarded High School for the Creative and
Performing Arts, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Nineteen
suburban students are paying more than $ 6,000 of their own money to
attend the inner-city school.
In New Orleans, school officials have dealt with three years of
controversy over admissions tests to that city’s gifted magnet
schools. In 1996, two complaints of racial bias were filed with the
U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, charging
that admissions guidelines at Benjamin Franklin High School were
Since then, the magnet schools have become a lightning rod for
the racial and class differences in New Orleans schools, the
Times-Picayune newspaper reported.
In DeKalb County, Ga., magnet schools began as a way to help
desegregate by establishing special, high-achieving programs with
mandated 50-50 racial splits.
But now that the Atlanta school system is no longer under a
desegregation order, some are questioning whether the lottery
admissions process is fair and whether such schools deprive
neighborhood schools of bright students.
“It’s educationally unfair,” Jamie Muller, whose daughter was
selected for a top magnet school but turned down the chance, told
the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
Muller particularly faults the lottery system, which some
educators believe is fairer than selectivity.
“If you’re talented, you ought to be served. You shouldn’t have
to be lucky and talented.”
In Buckeye country
Back in Ohio State Buckeye country, some Columbus Alternative
teachers also think using academic requirements to pick
students would be an improvement over a random lottery.
But politics in this Ohio school district won’t allow it, one
“There’s a concern that a high school might be identified as an
elitist school,” said Ray Bowers, who has taught biology for 18
years. He added, mischievously, “But you can have an elite school
in terms of athletics.”
Despite using a lottery, Columbus Alternative has won state and
national acclaim. Redbook Magazine named it the best school in Ohio
a few years ago. The U.S. Education Department singled it out as a
model for excellence in secondary education. Last year, more than
700 students applied for 160 ninth-grade slots. Eighty-five percent
of the schools’ students, who are 54 percent black and 46 percent
white and other, advance to college.
Columbus Alternative has about 600 students, about half as many
as some other Columbus high schools. It doesn’t field sports teams,
but students can participate after school in their neighborhood
schools’ athletic programs.
However, for many Columbus Alternative students, chess is the
competitive sport of choice.
“People who go to the other schools consider us the smart kids,”
senior Glen Ford said. “We just work harder than they do.”
Bethany Bell added, “I think at other schools, the teachers are
almost afraid to challenge students. But we’re really stretched to
do things teachers know we can do.”
Columbus Alternative stresses humanities and offers five foreign
languages: French, Spanish, German, Russian and Latin. Every
Wednesday, 10th- through 12th-graders participate in a full-day
cooperative program with business, university, cultural, artistic,
research or health organizations in the community. Internship sites
provide hands-on work and career exploration experiences. Students
earn a half-credit each year for the internships.
Even with a random lottery, the school tends to get the best
students, one teacher said, because “usually the students coming
from parents who care enough to apply are of the higher gene pool,
and it ends up OK.”
Senior Lawrence LaSalle said his parents didn’t give him much of
a choice where to attend high school.
His other option: a parochial high school where students wear
“It was either CAHS or put on a suit and tie every day.”
Winners & Losers
The “Winners & Losers” school choice project was co-sponsored by
The Oklahoman and the Education Writers Association, the
800-member professional organization of education reporters.
Others 1999 fellows are Jondi Gumz of the Santa Cruz (Calif.)
Sentinel, Rosemary Shinohara of the Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News,
Sarah Tully Tapia of the Arizona Daily Star, Sabrina Walters of the
Miami (Fla.) Herald and Phil Walzer of the Norfolk Virginian Pilot.
What do you think?
The Oklahoman is interested in your reactions to the “Winners &
Losers” school choice project.
You also may call our special telephone line at 475-3430. After
the beep, record your comments and be sure to include your name and
spelling, your hometown and a telephone number in case we have any
questions. Your telephone number will not be printed.
A sampling of reactions from readers who respond before midnight
Friday will be included in a story Monday in the Oklahoma NOW!
LENGTH: 1622 words
DATELINE: LOUISVILLE, Ky.
At one time, Central High School was known as
“the colored school” here. It later became part of a civil
rights battleground over school desegregation.
Today, 25 years after the start of cross-county busing drew
violent protests, Central High has become a battleground again.
This time, however, some of the same black plaintiffs who once
fought for desegregation are suing to remove racial quotas.
The object of their ire is a 50-percent cap on black enrollment
that has kept hundreds of black applicants, including many within
walking distance, out of Central – even though the popular magnet
school remains far from full.
“Hell, no, it makes no sense whatsoever,” said Teddy Gordon, a
lawyer representing black parents who consider Central’s admissions
Such are the racial complexities that grip America’s schools at
the turn of the century. Early next year, U.S. District Judge John
G. Heyburn II will hear the case.
Louisville could join a growing list of urban cities – including
Oklahoma City – where the courts have declared desegregation
efforts over and removed race-based student assignments.
A Midwestern city with heavy Baptist and Catholic influences,
Louisville is famous for baseball bats and horse racing. Just
across the Ohio River from Indiana, many Oklahomans know Louisville
best as the place where people actually liked The Colonel -
football coach Howard Schnellenberger, that is.
Some had proclaimed Louisville, where metropolitan Jefferson
County’s inner-city and suburban schools were merged, a model of
integration – one place in America where busing actually worked.
“In the beginning, the courts made us desegregate,” said Pat
Todd, Jefferson County public schools’ director of student
assignments, who happens to be an Oklahoma City native and 1965
John Marshall High School graduate.
“Now we have learned valuable lessons from that and… seen
ample evidence of how beneficial it is. So we’re going to make the
courts tell us we can’t do it anymore or agree with us that we can.”
The quota wars
As a Jan. 31 court hearing approaches, the battle over Central
High School has served as a hot topic of debate in Curtis
Shain’s law class.
“Why file a lawsuit?” asked Shain, a white student who travels
nearly 15 miles to attend Central’s legal services/government
“Yes, maybe we shouldn’t have quotas, but should we have
all-white or all-black schools? That’s putting America back 50
In the days before blacks and whites drank from the same water
fountains or ate at the same hamburger joints, Central admitted
only blacks. Now, any white student in Louisville and its Jefferson
County suburbs can enter Central, a magnet school with special
programs in business, banking, dentistry, law, veterinary medicine
and health professions.
Under the 96,000-student district’s desegregation plan, no
school can be more than 50 percent black. Overall, the district’s
enrollment is about 70 percent white and 30 percent black.
Edwin Brown, 17, a black senior in Central’s banking/finance
magnet, said he fears his school would revert to its all-black days
if the quotas were removed.
“The only reason the parents filed the lawsuit was because
they’ve got the old Central in their head, when it used to be a
black school,” said Brown, a Division I basketball prospect. “You
can’t do that because it’s the ’90s.
“Kids today are not racist – most kids just like to be
together… Personally, I feel it’s best for anyone for racism to
But Natalie White, 17, a black senior in Central’s
pharmacy/therapeutic magnet, said she has highly intelligent
friends who couldn’t come to Central because of their skin color.
“I see some (white) students acting up, and I’m like, ‘Why are
they here?’ It makes me feel like, ‘Why do we have to have this
The Louisville case is just the latest in a series of court
fights nationwide over whether schools can use race as a factor in
assigning students to schools.
In September, U.S. District Judge Robert Potter ordered an end
to busing and other means of achieving racial balance in
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. Seven white parents had sued after a
half-white, half-Hispanic student was barred from a magnet school
that used race as a factor in admissions.
Earlier this year, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
against a Boston policy that considered race in determining
admission to the city’s academically selective “exam schools,”
including the acclaimed Boston Latin School.
In light of the Charlotte and Boston decisions, Tulsa schools
Superintendent John Thompson has recommended his district stop
using racial quotas to determine admission to Booker T. Washington
High School, that city’s flagship magnet school. A school
board-appointed task force will review the district’s magnet school
Louisville attorney Gordon, who is white, said the black
families he represents were “sick and tired of having to live in a
white-majority setting, which by definition was saying an
African-American majority in a high school was inferior.”
Besides, as 800 yellow buses roll each morning in Jefferson
County, black children endure the longest rides and are given the
least-desirable educational opportunities, he said.
Some blacks have decided that all-black or all-white schools
wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
However, attorneys Steve Porter and Kevin Kijewski, who
represent a group of Central parents and students who want racial
quotas kept, argue that Jefferson County schools remain segregated
in many ways and that it’s way too early to end desegregation efforts.
As evidence of lingering segregation, they point out that less
than 10 percent of students in the district’s advanced programs are
black, while blacks are twice as likely as whites to be suspended.
Rather than end racial quotas, the district should pick out 200
white students and tell them, “Go to Central,” said Porter, who is
white. That, in turn, would allow an additional 200 blacks to attend.
Jefferson County school officials don’t deny racial disparities
in areas such as advanced programs and discipline.
“We’re real public on our shortcomings,” Todd said. “We think
that’s one advantage of keeping the desegregation plan in place. It
But Gordon said the lawsuit is a “win-win situation” from the
“The public front is desegregation for diversity,” he said, “but
the private position that everyone knows is that they spend $ 27
million a year in desegregation busing costs alone, which they
On a nippy fall morning, a spiffy-looking man in a
charcoal-gray suit joined a crowd gathered around a ribbon and
A tiny gold cross pinned to his lapel, Harold Fenderson
applauded a group of 15 entrepreneurs, most old enough to drive,
standing alongside the ribbon.
Scissors sliced the ribbon as a ceremony celebrated the annual
reopening of a successful community business.
But this wasn’t just any business. It was the KFC Mobile Unit, a
fast-food restaurant on wheels owned and managed by Central High
School students – an endeavor that will generate about $ 15,000 this
year for student scholarships.
Walk down the Central hallways and you’ll also find miniature
versions of a Walgreens pharmacy and a SuperAmerica grocery store,
not to mention the pet grooming service Critterland, the
Yellowjacket Financial Center and other real-world student endeavors.
“It’s not the history of the school, it’s the programs that we
offer that no other high school does that attract students,” said
Fenderson, a Baptist preacher and motivational speaker who is
Central easily could accommodate 1,200 students, but it stopped
enrollment at 970 this year based on the number of white students
who chose to attend, he said.
“We don’t turn away whites because they didn’t have academic
preparedness. We turn away black students with all A’s.”
Many of Louisville’s brightest white students choose DuPont
Manual High School, which produced 52 National Merit semifinalists
this fall, tied for third most in the nation. Just one of those
semifinalists was black, Gordon said.
Another majority-white magnet school, Louisville Male High
School, which has been coed for decades, is a Kentucky football
powerhouse with a reputation for recruiting top athletes.
Some black leaders wouldn’t mind seeing Central High School
become an elite school for the black community – academically and
Ten years ago, Fenderson accepted the Central principal’s job,
determined to turn around a struggling school in a part of
Louisville known for drugs and prostitution.
Today, blacks clamor to get their children into Central. The
school’s history and the neighborhood’s reputation keep many whites
away, he said.
Should racial quotas mean hundreds of blacks who live nearby
must go to school somewhere else, even if they prefer Central?
Fenderson dodged a direct answer, saying he prefers to stay out of
But he asked if Oklahoma has department stores such as Sears and
“What if the only reason you couldn’t go in was because you wore
glasses?” he said.
However, critics contend poor recruiting, not racial quotas, is
the problem at Central.
“The principal wants to be able to recruit black students all
over the city,” said Gary Orfield, a Harvard University education
professor who is one of the school district’s expert witnesses.
LENGTH: 1448 words
Two issues lurk just below the surface as the Oklahoma City
School District increasingly turns to choice schools as a means
of improving the quality and perception of the district’s
Race and class.
Students from wealthier, better-educated areas have benefited
most from the district’s 5-year-old school choice movement, a study
by The Oklahoman found.
In 11 of 13 middle and high school attendance zones, a
disproportionately low number of students in poorer areas – and a
disproportionately high number of students in wealthier areas – are
being drained from neighborhood schools into choice schools.
So, what’s that got to do with race?
Some say it’s time to stop paying attention to skin color, that
race no longer matters.
“I’ve never known of a racial incident at my school,” said
Sheena Nicole Brooks, a black student at Northwest Classen High
School. “You will see groups that have so many different colors, it
looks like a big flag.”
Classen student Jade Mui reflects America’s changing racial
makeup. She’s part Malay, Chinese, Irish, British and Indian.
So, what race does she put on official paperwork? “I pick a
different one each time,” she said, laughing.
In the last 15 years, Oklahoma City has moved from court-ordered
desegregation and cross-town busing to neighborhood schools, at the
same time emphasizing choice schools.
Race is not an issue anymore, said school board President Kenny
“I firmly believe that if you want your child to attend a
particular school, there is affordable housing, and you have the
ability to live in that part of town,” Walker said.
But Howard Fuller, a black, former Milwaukee schools
superintendent, said race is always an issue.
“It’s not just the color you are, it’s also your economic
circumstances,” said Fuller, who directs Marquette University’s
Institute for the Transformation of Learning. “A disproportionate
number of people who lack economic resources happen to be people of
Choice is just one factor in the changing demographics of the
city’s public schools.
Enrollment has risen 4.7 percent to 40,150 since the year before
choice was introduced. But the number of white students has dropped
by about 2,000 in the last five years, while the number of Hispanic
students has jumped by more than 3,500.
The declining white numbers shouldn’t be construed entirely as
white flight, Harvard University professor Gary Orfield said.
“The average Anglo family is having about half as many children
as a Latino family,” he said. “So, a lot of what people are saying
is white flight is a racial transformation of American society.
“The other part of it is, we keep building all-white suburbs.”
The district’s Hispanic student population now represents 20
percent of the total. But Hispanics comprised just 5 percent of
students accepted at choice schools this fall.
More needs to be done to inform Hispanic children about their
choices and the application process, said Ruth Mazzaheri, the
Latino Community Development Agency’s programs director.
However, Alfonso Gomez, a northwest Oklahoma City father of
four, said he has tried to get his children into Classen School of
Gomez said his son, now a college junior, was admitted the year
Classen opened because the school didn’t have enough 10th-graders.
But the school rejected his three daughters’ applications.
“They give me all kinds of excuses,” said Gomez, a bus driver.
“They weren’t either smart enough or gifted artistically. For us
poor people, there’s no way you can put them in there.”
Poor people can’t afford ballet lessons, he said, and his
artistically inclined daughter didn’t have a portfolio when she
finished fifth grade.
As for the academic side, “They want high scores,” Gomez said.
“How can our kids have high scores when our kids don’t have the
But Gomez hasn’t given up easily. One daughter attended
Southeast High School’s technology program. Another was accepted by
Independence Enterprise Middle School, although his wife has to
take her to school. Fortunately, the family has two cars.
“If I were somebody else, like my next-door neighbor, I wouldn’t
have another vehicle to take her to school.”
Janet Barresi, Independence’s board president, said the school
prefers to use money on curriculum rather than transportation. But
carpooling is available for those with transportation problems, she
With skyscraper-high test scores and bubbling-over popularity,
Classen has accomplished a major feat.
“I think it’s beginning to resolve the question, ‘Can we do
anything right?’” school board member Harry Wilson said.
Now – after proving the district can make a star out of a
majority-white school that hand-picks gifted students – here’s
Do the same thing at Star Spencer High School, Moon Middle
School and five mostly black elementary schools – all schools with
high poverty rates and low test scores. A slick brochure printed
with Uncle Sam’s cash describes the seven new, federally funded
magnet schools as “Reaching for the Stars.”
However, in a district that combines selective specialty schools
with magnet schools that pick students by lottery, the potential
exists for “nameplate magnets,” Orfield warns.
“It’s a situation where people think they’re in something
special, and they’re really not,” said Orfield, who has written
extensively about race and class in education.
“If you call a school that’s got a high poverty concentration
and all minorities a choice school, it’s really not. It’s just a
new name for remedial education.”
A healthy approach?
At Star Spencer, where the district is initiating a mass media
and communications magnet program, 94 percent of students are
minorities and 79 percent of students receive free or
Star Spencer is one of seven mostly black schools for which the
district received a $ 7.85 million federal grant to create magnet
The U.S. Education Department grant has two goals: to reduce
racial isolation by attracting students districtwide, and to
improve academic quality through special programs.
But under federal rules, the district cannot use race as a
factor in choosing students.
“The message is, create good enough… programs that they
attract everybody,” said Bill Scoggan, director of specialty and
magnet schools. “To me, that’s a pretty healthy approach.”
While the magnet schools must pick students by lottery, choice
schools such as Classen use selective criteria.
Since Classen’s first year, when the competition wasn’t as
fierce, the school has had room to accept only 32 percent of nearly
By race, the school has accepted 36 percent of white applicants,
30 percent of Hispanic applicants, 26 percent of American Indian
applicants, 24 percent of Asian applicants and 23 percent of black
applicants, The Oklahoman found.
District officials could not explain the disparity between the
percentage of blacks and whites accepted.
It could be that blacks tend to apply more for the performing
arts programs, Scoggan said. If 50 blacks were to apply for the
dance program and only six spots were available, that would skew
the overall acceptance rates, he said.
‘A mammoth challenge’
Some, including board member Thelma Parks, have suspicions about
the commitment to a poor, mostly black school like Star Spencer.
“I’m sorry if that may sound negative,” said Parks, who
represents predominantly black northeast Oklahoma City and Spencer.
“But I don’t think they’re putting into Star Spencer what they put
“It appears to be a double standard.”
However, district officials talk passionately about their dreams
for the magnet schools.
Star Spencer is installing computers and building a broadcasting
studio, so it’s too early to judge the program, Scoggan said.
Still, he stressed, “It’s a mammoth challenge to get kids to go
to Star Spencer. You go through two other school districts to get”
to the Spencer area.
But if the program is right, 20 miles won’t make a difference,
Assistant Superintendent Guy Sconzo said.
Proof of that, he said, can be seen at Classen. “People who live
in the wealthiest neighborhoods of our city… clamor to get their
kids into Classen, clamor to put them on a bus for 12 miles, to go
to an inner-city neighborhood in an old facility.”
CONTRIBUTING: Database editor Griff Palmer
LENGTH: 1394 words
What luck. What wonderful luck. Teno Chen, 16, an aspiring
scriptwriter with dreams of creating shows for MTV, had moved to
Midwest City not knowing where he’d attend high school.
At first, he assumed he’d go to Midwest City High School, since
it looked nice and wasn’t too far from his house.
Only one problem.
“They said I wasn’t in their district,” Teno said.
The high school sophomore, it turned out, lived not in the
Midwest City-Del City School District but within Oklahoma City
Teno figured out Star Spencer High School was the closest
Oklahoma City high school to him. Not only that, Star Spencer had
just become a magnet school focusing on mass media and
communications. The district had received a federal grant to start
magnet programs at Star Spencer and six other mostly black schools.
What luck. What wonderful luck, Teno thought – a school with
programs that perfectly matched his career ambitions.
But first, he’d need to prove himself to school officials.
Or at least that’s what he was thinking as he walked into the
principal’s office. So, forgive him if he was a little nervous when
he sat down to meet with Star Spencer Principal Jimmy Dew, a
6-foot, 10-inch giant of a man with a drill sergeant’s scowl.
“I thought I had to lay my whole life on the table for me to get
into this magnet school,” Teno said.
Begging him to stay
What Teno didn’t know was that he was entering a school with a
history of academic failure and low expectations.
Among Oklahoma City’s nine high schools, Star Spencer had ranked
either last or next-to-last in every subject on the spring Oklahoma
Core Curriculum Tests.
The criterion-referenced exams measure how much of the state
core curriculum students have learned in grades five, eight and 11.
Results are reported in terms of the percent of students who scored
at a satisfactory level as defined by law, according to the state
Just 22 percent of Star Spencer’s 11th-graders had passed the
In reading, 39 percent of Star Spencer 11th-graders made
Just 12 percent of Star Spencer students passed the geography
Star Spencer was a school marked by rundown facilities and a
rough image, right or wrong. A school with no doors on rest room
stalls and a football stadium that even supporters called a
laughingstock. A school used to bad publicity, or no publicity at all.
And now here was Teno, an ambitious teen-ager with big dreams,
sitting in the principal’s office asking to enroll.
“The principal was practically begging me to stay in this
school… and gave me all these false hopes,” Teno said. “He was so
wanting me to stay, it wasn’t even funny.”
Monster movie man
Ask Teno his race, and he’ll quickly respond: “I call myself a
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Taiwanese father and a
Mexican/German mother, Teno lived in the Aloha State until he was
8. He never met his birth father. But David Dulina, the man he
considers his father, married his mother, Delilah, in Hawaii.
Dulina, a U.S. Army soldier of Yugoslavian descent, was stationed
on the islands.
When the time came for an inevitable military transfer, Dulina
was offered two choices: Alaska or Oklahoma.
He picked Fort Sill, OK.
Dulina retired from the Army a few years ago, but the family
remained in Lawton, where Teno attended Eisenhower High School. But
over the summer, the Dulinas moved to Oklahoma City so Delilah
Dulina, a self-employed artist with complicated medical conditions,
could be closer to major hospitals, Teno said.
In Lawton, Teno and some friends had used their video expertise
and put together a show that they submitted to MTV. The friends
created what they called POMMA – Preservation of Monster Movies
Association – and sent a pilot to MTV. It’s a sci-fi comedy in the
realm of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” only geared more toward
the MTV generation, said Teno, who still hopes to attract the
Given that dream, Teno was excited when he heard about the Star
Spencer magnet school’s state-of-the-art technology: its
Internet-connected computers, its interactive video monitors, its
“I was told they had mock studios,” he said. “What I wasn’t told
was that they weren’t built yet.”
Dealing with frustration
After just a few weeks at Star Spencer, Teno was so frustrated
that he was ready to give up – ready to transfer to another
The second week of school, somebody incited a small riot in the
parking lot, Teno said. It started as a fight between a few, but
others joined in the mayhem, just for the fun of it, he recalled.
In classes such as Oklahoma History, students were more
interested in making noise or causing trouble than in learning.
At home, Teno couldn’t hide his frustration.
“Sometimes, people can get to you,” Teno said. “I try not to let
it get to me.
“But sometimes, when you get six hours of ‘Why do we have to do
this?,’ ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘This is lame; this is boring,’ it
tends to get on your nerves, and it brings you down, too.”
Finally, his mother decided she’d heard enough.
She and Teno drove to the school district’s central
administration building to see about getting him into another
school – a better school.
School officials told Teno he could transfer just about anywhere
he wanted, including Classen School of Advanced Studies, the
district’s flagship specialty school for academically and
artistically gifted students.
But a twinge of guilt gnawed at Teno.
“I decided I would like to stick around at least until the end
of the year at Star Spencer and see how much – not saying I
alone can change everything – but see how much I can give to
the school. Because it needs students who care, and it doesn’t
have students who care on a broad base,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for Star Spencer’s principal, Dew, to arrive
by 5 a.m. and stay until 9 p.m.
Dew doesn’t come across as a man with time for chit-chat. If he
catches a student with a soft drink in the hallway, his stare alone
can lead the offending bottle into the trash can.
But Dew leaves little doubt that he’s a man on a mission: to
improve Star Spencer in image and substance. To make this school a
viable option, not just for students in the Spencer area but for
those throughout Oklahoma City.
That kind of change, which Dew describes as “major surgery…
with as few scars as possible,” takes time.
Dew estimates it will take at least two years to get the program
where he wants it.
By that time, he envisions students in internships with area
media organizations and producing an “ESPN Sportscenter”-like
program featuring clips from Oklahoma City high school sporting
Already, Star Spencer has sought to raise expectations: Ninth-
and 10th-graders must maintain 3.0, or B, grade-point averages or
face possible reassignment.
Also, the school plans to require students to wear uniforms next
In the last few weeks, Teno has found reason for optimism at
Star Spencer. To a visitor, it appeared that social studies teacher
Ron Parker was using 110 percent of his energy to control his
Oklahoma History class. The student in front of Teno wasn’t taking
notes until Parker pointed it out and Teno loaned the boy a sheet
of notebook paper.
But at least most were listening, and raising their hands to
“Things have changed a lot,” Teno whispered.
“I guess the best example is, people are actually starting to
care,” he said later. “You can see the initiative that they’re
taking. A lot of students have expressed an interest in buckling
down, and they’re actually seeing this as a great opportunity.”
A student like Teno deciding to stay at Star Spencer can’t help
but benefit the school, teacher Michael Hocking said.
“Teno has a lot of good leadership characteristics, and he has a
very critical and analytical mind on his shoulders,” the teacher
said. “He really thinks things through.
“He’s becoming pretty accepted. In the speech class, the
students really respect and listen to whatever Teno has to say.”
What wonderful luck.
LENGTH: 2323 words
While Oklahoma City’s public choice schools have served
disproportionate numbers of affluent students, heartwarming
exceptions can be found.
Meet Maureen Wallace, 14, an eighth-grade cheerleader at
Independence Enterprise Middle School.
How rich is Maureen?
Just a year ago, she and her family were sleeping in their van -
the closest thing they had to a home.
“Our house had just got foreclosed, and we couldn’t find a place
to live,” Maureen said. “We’d park outside apartment buildings.”
Janet Barresi, president of Independence’s parent board, said
Maureen is making A’s and B’s and talking about college.
Maureen had one big advantage, Barresi said: a parent who cared
enough to find the best educational opportunity.
“What is the next challenge?” asked Barresi, mother of twin
seventh-graders, Ben and Joe. “It’s getting kids whose parents
don’t care into these kinds of schools.”
If school choice is the future of public education in Oklahoma
City, the 40,000-student district must tackle certain key issues,
national education experts and local school leaders told The
The district should:
- Make sure students from all socioeconomic backgrounds have
equal access to – and take full advantage of – the best schools
- Extend more choices to Oklahoma City’s south side. Southeast
High School’s technology specialty is popular, but overall, north
Oklahoma City families have far more choices – at least far closer
choices – than those on the south side.
- Find a way to inform the hardest-to-reach families,
particularly the district’s rapidly growing Hispanic
population, of the choices that exist.
So far, students from wealthier, better-educated areas have
benefited most from the district’s 5-year-old school choice
movement, a two-month study by The Oklahoman found.
In 11 of Oklahoma City’s 13 middle and high school attendance
zones, a disproportionately low number of students who live in
poorer areas, and a disproportionately high number of students who
live in wealthier areas, are being drained from neighborhood
schools into choice schools.
What can the district do?
First, it can improve its outreach, experts and school officials
“I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job letting people know
what’s available,” school board member Mike Chandler said. “I don’t
believe the general public understands how things have really
changed the last few years in this district.”
At the same time, the district can use the lessons learned at
choice schools to improve all schools, said Barresi, a north
Oklahoma City dentist.
Among the lessons she believes Independence Enterprise has
taught: students perform well in a small-school setting; parental
participation is vital; and there’s power in direct teacher
involvement in deciding curriculum.
“I’m proud of Oklahoma City schools. I think they’re right on
the cutting edge. What we’ve got to do is take what’s working in
choice schools and apply (it) to Harding Middle School and all the
other neighborhood schools.”
Look what’s new
In the past, only one public school option existed when
students finished fifth grade: their assigned middle school.
Today, choices for students entering the sixth grade include not
only their neighborhood schools but also Classen School of Advanced
Studies, Northeast Academy of Health Sciences and Engineering,
Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School and Independence Enterprise.
There’s also “The Academy,” a school-within-a-school honors program
at Hoover Middle School that is open to students districtwide.
That list doesn’t even mention a growing number of choices at
the elementary and high school levels.
“I think that’s something that’s evolving,” Chandler said of
outreach efforts. “Unfortunately, so much effort has been put into
just getting these programs off the ground and running effectively.
“I think our next phase of development… will be to find ways
to inform our lower socioeconomic populations.”
National research has shown that parent information campaigns
can make a big difference, said Joe Nathan, director of the Center
for School Change at the University of Minnesota.
Such campaigns mean school officials going out in the community,
talking about the choices and making the information available in
different languages, said Nathan, a nationally known school choice
“That’s a way to make sure all kinds of families use it,” he
said of choice. “When you don’t have the information translated in
different languages, when there isn’t a real effort to get the
information out to the families, then you’re going to have a result
that you describe.
“In many cities, there’s more information about how to select
among cars and refrigerators than schools.”
Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School, which chooses students
based on grades and test scores, has tried to recruit students from
all backgrounds, the school’s parent board president said. In
February, parent volunteers stuffed and sealed more than 3,500
informational packets and mailed them to every fifth-grade student,
regardless of test score, Barbara Bowersox said.
Barresi said getting the word out about Independence Enterprise
is hard because the school doesn’t have an advertising budget.
“All marketing is generated by our school parents and teachers.
We use many different approaches, but it is difficult to let the
district know about our schools.”
Beyond outreach is access.
Oklahoma City’s more exclusive specialty and enterprise schools,
such as Classen, Northeast and Belle Isle, use selective academic
and performance criteria that could put poorer students at a
disadvantage, experts said.
Nathan and two other educators – Harvard’s Gary Orfield and
Marquette University’s Howard Fuller – said a random lottery
selection would be more equitable.
White students from more advantaged, higher-income families
typically score better than poor, minority children on standardized
tests, school officials acknowledge.
“That’s why it’s also grades, teacher recommendations, essays,
interviews,” Assistant Superintendent Guy Sconzo said of the
process to get into Classen. “You try to make it as multifaceted as
Some universities give special consideration to first-generation
college students and don’t expect the quality of their applications
or transcripts to be as high as other applicants, said Bill
Scoggan, Oklahoma City schools’ director of magnet and specialty
“We probably at a place like Classen should do that,” Scoggan
said. “If this is a family who has never had a high school graduate
forever and forever, and this is a child who obviously has some
pretty unique abilities but their application might not look as
clean as we’d like it to, maybe there should be a little different
way of looking at those folks.”
Wheels and mirrors
Beyond just gaining admission to a school, a student must find
a way to get there.
While the district promises free transportation to students
accepted to choice schools, a lack of bus drivers and frequent
mechanical problems with aging buses cause problems and delays -
particularly for cross-town routes.
“My own real concern is that I think we have to improve our
transportation system to help make choices a true realistic
option,” said Chandler, whose board District 7 covers southeast
A year-old pilot program in which Metro Transit buses instead of
yellow school buses take hundreds of Oklahoma City students to
school has proven successful, Scoggan said.
Expanding that program might be one way to improve
transportation, he said. Also, voters will go to the polls in
February to decide a $ 52 million school bond issue that includes
$ 10 million to buy about 200 new buses.
At the same time, south Oklahoma City needs more choices that
don’t take long bus rides, board member Harry Wilson said.
While choice schools have boosted the district’s reputation,
“I’ve also heard people from my district in particular say, ‘We
wish children in all the schools got that kind of education,’” said
Wilson, who represents southwest Oklahoma City’s District 6.
More than 600 middle school students from north Oklahoma City
attend either Classen School of Advanced Studies or Northeast
Academy of Health Sciences and Engineering, The Oklahoman’s
computer-assisted analysis found.
Less than 100 middle school students from south Oklahoma City
attend either of those schools for gifted students, the review
Wilson said he thinks the district needs another school for
advanced studies, although he’s not sure if it should be an exact
duplicate of Classen, Oklahoma City’s top-performing school.
Sconzo said he’s not opposed to “mirror magnets,” which would be
mirror programs on opposite sides of town.
“What I do know is that we have to have more choices on the
south side of the district,” the assistant superintendent said.
“That’s got to be balanced.”
Perhaps Oklahoma City school officials’ biggest outreach
challenge involves communicating the district’s choices with a
rapidly growing Hispanic student population.
Hispanic enrollment has nearly tripled in 10 years, now
representing 20 percent of the district’s total.
Yet, at Classen School of Advanced Studies, Hispanics account
for just 5.5 percent of the student body.
“Goodness, if you don’t even have the same language I’m trying
to communicate with you in, then you really are disadvantaged in
terms of taking advantage of choice,” Sconzo said, describing the
challenge. “That may be the most extreme example.”
Just gaining the trust of Hispanic parents can be difficult,
said Ruth Mazzaheri, director of programs for the Latino Community
“Many times, parents are fearful,” Mazzaheri said. “In many of
our countries, we’re not ever to challenge the education system.”
And at many schools, Hispanic parents receive rude treatment
from school officials, which only exasperates the situation, she
For Hispanic students, problems start in elementary school when,
for example, standardized testing time comes and the non-English
speakers are sent to the cafeteria while others take the test, she
“Their peers are saying, ‘These are the stupid kids.’ You create
that kind of thing in elementary school.”
In Sconzo’s dream world, all Oklahoma City schools would be
All 90 or so schools would offer a special program or emphasis
to attract students. All parents would choose the school that best
met their child’s needs and interests.
“I firmly believe it’s feasible, and over a period of time, I
personally believe it’s very doable,” said Sconzo, a Brooklyn
native whose longshoreman dad worked overtime to send him to
parochial school when he was growing up.
In the last few years, the district has steadily added choice
Twenty schools now have choice programs, and at least five
additional schools are exploring possibilities for next year.
Stonegate Elementary School may offer a pre-International
Baccalaureate program; Westwood and Madison elementary schools are
investigating year-round school; and Shidler and Wheeler elementary
schools may expand their pilot dual-language programs, district
Sconzo’s boss, Superintendent Marvin Crawford, said he’s pleased
with the enthusiasm school choice has infused into the district.
“I’m not sure that all schools should have a specialty,” said
Crawford, who is scheduled to retire in a year and a half. “I know
that there’s a place in our district for all students.”
In Sconzo’s view, the very act of choosing a school gives
parents a higher stake and leads them to be more involved.
“I honestly believe a parent can make all the difference,” he
said. “What I point my money on is: Socioeconomic status,
ethnicity, lack of formal education – all of those factors really
pale when the parent makes the choice.
“If, at the poorest, highest racially isolated school, we
introduce the factor, I think it’s choice that makes the
difference. I think the involvement rises when I’ve decided this is
where my child is going to go to school.”
The same thing goes for students, he said.
“When you make me go here, it’s an entirely differently mindset
than, ‘I want to go here – I’m choosing to go here.’”
Sconzo points to his family’s personal experience with Classen
School of Advanced Studies, where his daughter, Jennifer, is a
junior drama major.
“My daughter flourishes because she gets to do something she has
a passion about – singing, dancing and acting – and she gets to do
it during the school day. We make it legitimate,” he said, laughing.
“Wow, can she flourish at that school. I would argue it’s not
only that she gets to do her passion during the school day… but
she does exceedingly well academically because of the arts.”
Still, not everyone is certain choice is the answer.
“Education in Oklahoma City tries to be all things to all
people,” said Ted Metscher, president of the Oklahoma City
Federation of Teachers. “We’ve received in the last few years a lot
of pressure from parents who wanted safe, orderly, high-academic
“But that’s costly and takes money away from the regular
What’s really needed, he said, is not more choice but adequate
funding of all public schools, more stringent disciplinary policies
and more alternative school space for students that disrupt learning.
“I think we just need to improve the schools we have now -
properly fund them and ensure a safe and orderly environment.”
CONTRIBUTING: Database editor Griff Palmer
SECTION: OKLAHOMA NOW! EDUCATION – FAMILY – PARENTING;
LENGTH: 1604 words
Dozens of readers responded by e-mail and telephone to The
Oklahoman’s four-day “Winners & Losers” special report, which
examined public school choice in Oklahoma City.
Many readers applauded the series, calling it an important
contribution to better understanding of the issues and challenges
faced by the city’s poverty-ridden public schools. But other
readers criticized the angle taken, using descriptions such as
In a two-month study, the newspaper reviewed thousands of
computer records, visited more than a dozen schools in three states
and interviewed more than 100 students, parents, teachers, school
officials and education experts. Students from wealthier areas have
benefited most from Oklahoma City’s 5-year-old school choice
movement, the study found.
While choice schools have posted impressive student achievement
and boosted the district’s reputation, neighborhood schools have
struggled to deal with falling test scores and increasingly
impoverished student populations. In 11 of 13 neighborhood middle
and high school attendance zones, a disproportionately low number
of students in poorer areas – and a disproportionately high number
of students in more affluent areas – have left neighborhood schools
for choice schools.
Readers such as John Rex, a recent past president of the
Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation, praised the series.
“It will be very helpful to have this background information
communicated to the public,” said Rex, 1999 campaign chairman for
the United Way of Metro Oklahoma City. “Thank you for the research
and reporting of this to our citizens.”
Rex, who won a Friends of Children Award this year for
recruiting businesses to help tutor Oklahoma City schoolchildren,
said a significant issue is the mobility of a large part of the
“In general, many teachers and schools just do not have students
long enough to do a proper job of education. To a great extent,
this is unlikely to change and probably calls for special
strategies to reach those students anyway.” The problem of students
unable to speak or understand English is another major barrier that
should be considered, Rex said.
On the other hand, Stan Corley of northwest Oklahoma City
provided a line-by-line satire of the newspaper’s opening story,
feigning shock: “Those criminals! We can’t allow people who have
excelled to pass those same qualities of excelling and competing
successfully to their own children! They are advantaged!”
He asked the reporters to drop the “inflammatory socialist
rhetoric.” But Corley’s e-mail concluded: “After thoroughly
roasting you guys, let me urge you to pursue one line of your
investigation. There must be ways of connecting with
‘disadvantaged’ kids who have the ability to excel and pull out of
the trap of poverty. You have hit a point on which both liberals
and conservatives find common ground. I fully agree with… several
of your interviewees that avenues should be developed to allow
these kids to access the system (some system) and get on the fast
track to join those middle-class and wealthy folks who have to pay
for their own school lunches.”
Some readers had more specific complaints.
Mary Slaughter, mother of Sadarius Slaughter, 18, an all-state
violinist at Classen School of Advanced Studies, objected to the
description of her son’s northeast Oklahoma City neighborhood as a
“rough part of town.” Also, she said a teacher quoted as saying
Sadarius got a job to support himself was mistaken. The mom said
Sadarius works to pay for “extra stuff.”
“You can tell he hasn’t missed too many meals,” said Mary
Slaughter, who was pleased overall with the story of her son’s
Meanwhile, some John Marshall High School students were upset
with another student’s statement: “At John Marshall, there aren’t
that many students that are willing to learn. They’re just kind of
there to be cool or something, to show off.” The student quoted was
John Marshall’s representative, selected by school officials, at a
student leaders’ roundtable discussion on school choice.
“I’m willing to learn. I have a 3.7 grade-point average,” said
Markeita Yarbrough, a John Marshall sophomore who is cheerleader
captain and class president. “Every school has their problems, but
there are a lot of students who come to learn.”
Following is a small sampling of other readers’ reactions:
- Janna Preston, mother of a fifth-grader, is pleased with her
daughter’s magnet school and believes choice has provided
educational options in Oklahoma City not available in suburban
schools. “I must also be fair and state that transportation is a
living nightmare. With one semester of the school year completed,
it hasn’t improved, and there are no answers. Fortunately, I am
able and willing to drive my daughter to school 12.5 miles each
way. Thankfully, I have a boss who pretends he doesn’t notice when
I slip in the office a few minutes late after waiting for a bus
that doesn’t show (only to find out later that it showed up over an
- Bobby Faulk, Oklahoma State University student and 1996
Northwest Classen High School graduate: “When I attended Northwest
Classen, there were many bright, hard-working students that had a
drive to succeed, but the majority of students were only there
because they had to be. If the bright students had a choice at that
time, I am confident that many of them would have gone to Classen
(School of Advanced Studies) or some other magnet school that would
be more of a challenge. As it was, we lost two of our best advanced
placement teachers to Classen. I am not saying that the other
teachers were unqualified, but the truly elite, be it teachers or
students, are now going elsewhere. Where does that leave Northwest,
Douglass, John Marshall and all the other schools?”
- Ann Taylor helped reopen Nichols Hills Elementary School and is
an advisory board member for Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School:
“I am looking forward to your continued coverage, possibly about
parental responsibilities for their OCPS students, such as
attendance, homework assignments and adherence to school policies.
Is this public education’s problem or a parental one lost 40 years ago?”
- Erma Robbins, a mother of 10: “I think it’s just going to be
more dilapidated schools in the inner cities… The kids sometimes
don’t even have a bathroom to go to. The ceiling leaks. No paint.
Now with school choice, they can just forget about the inner-city
children, which is poor. And those who ‘have’ will have pretty
schools, nice schools, to go in, and the inner-city kids will just
go to decrepit schools as always.”
- David Jones, a former Oklahoma City math teacher, said he
doubled his salary in less than a year’s time as a computer
programmer, so he could pay for private school for his daughter.
“The current changes through the magnet schools provide the
opportunity for everyone, but only those who choose to take
advantage of it will receive it. In this way, students and parents
who do not have the drive that is necessary to take advantage of
the privilege… will continue to get as much out of the school
system as they have gotten in the past, which unfortunately is very
little. But now those students and parents who do have the drive
have some place to turn… to be successful without paying
additional private school fees or moving to a different school district.”
- George Richardson sees choice schools as a way to get around
desegregation and believes the purpose is to artificially raise
test scores by drawing back private and parochial school students.
“They’ll claim the curriculum raised scores, but manipulation and
social programming did that.”
- Stuart Ball: “It seems that responsible reporting involves more
than just fanning the flame of income jealousy. Is it possible that
the characteristics that cause people to make choices that give
them a higher income are the same characteristics that cause them
to want the best possible education for their kids? … The
question is not what you want, but what are you willing to do about
it – like filling out forms, going to the interviews … or even
accepting a lower standard of living to pay for a private school.”
- Jennifer Pursell, a volunteer tutor at an Oklahoma City grade
school with a high poverty rate and mostly minority student
population: “One of the problems I have seen is a lack of
initiative among parents of these children… In my opinion,
several Oklahoma City teachers are bending over backwards to get
these underprivileged children a chance to attend a good school.
However, their main stumbling block is getting the parents to take
the time to complete the applications and then take their children
to the school to take the admittance test or for the art programs,
to try out… I am tired of hearing how horrible the Oklahoma City
school system is. Even when they try to do something positive, the
media can find something to criticize.”
- Ken Richards: “The too-often-held view that the least of us
should not be surpassed by the more advantaged is wrong. Worse, it
is destructive to society. Educational opportunities that allow
everyone to aspire and grow intellectually benefit all of us. The
travesty occurs when society only concerns itself with the ‘up
side’ of its educational responsibilities.”