With new private sector support and proven achievement, Oklahoma charter schools posed for growth

OKLAHOMA CITY — Fourteen years after the Oklahoma Legislature authorized opening of the state’s first charter schools — but limited such schools to the two largest public school districts – a new era of modest growth in numbers seems possible.

The charter school record at the limited number of sites in Oklahoma City and Tulsa has been characterized by steady improvements in student achievement. That track record has triggered new private sector support, indicating charters are ready for a new growth spurt.

There are still only 20 charter schools in the entire state – and authorization for charters remain limited to the two metro areas.

Still, efforts are underway to boost the number of sites in both communities. Initially, there was fierce opposition to development of charters, particularly in the Tulsa area. Despite such hurdles, the schools have steadily developed reputations for nurturing high achievement among at-risk student populations. 

Success in boosting inner city performance have largely settled arguments over the effectiveness of this once-bold experiment in public school governance.

The best-known Oklahoma charter school program is perhaps Oklahoma City’s KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Reach Academy, based on the city’s east side, at the traditional heart of the black community.

Tracy McDaniel is founding principal and continues to run the school. Children at Oklahoma City’s KIPP Academy outperform eighth graders in every other public school in the city system, the largest tax-financed district in the state. The academy serves around 300 students, 79 percent of whom are African-American, with 81 percent qualified for federally-subsidized meals. 

Other successful charter schools in Oklahoma City include Independence Charter Middle, Harding Charter Preparatory High School, and Harding Fine Arts Academy. Each of the trio have garnered wide recognition for student achievement, in a city where poor standardized test scores typify most public schools.

Independence Middle School and Harding Charter High were founded more than a decade ago by Janet Barresi, now Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Harding High was, in 2012, listed in several analyses as the best performing public high school in the Sooner State including those of the federal Education Department. 

In Tulsa, the first charter school founded in 1999 still serves the north side of town, with a predominantly minority student mix.

Named for its founder, Deborah Brown Charter School has about 240 students. The school consistently scores among the highest in the state on Academic Performance Indicators (APIs) and state Department of Education measures of Adequate Yearly Progress. 

In Oklahoma City, this week brought a fundraising celebration for the ASTEC (Advanced Science & Technology Education Charter) Schools, consisting of a Middle School and High School. The gala drew a bipartisan throng, including former Schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, to a fundraiser financing a new building plan.

Founding principal and director Freida Deskin, a Democrat, may challenge Barresi, and seek the elective statewide superintendent’s position in the 2014 election.

The ASTEC event signaled the state’s charter schools are poised for growth.

Over the next two years, a coalition of well-funded organizations with diverse philosophical orientations are funding efforts to boost the public charter school concept, including the Walton Family Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.  

The effort includes but is not limited funding for three fellowships in Tulsa in the present school year.

Next school year, Damon Gardenhire of the Walton group told Oklahoma Watchdog, three fellowships will be financed in the Oklahoma City system.

Over three to five years, the vision of the four cooperating groups is to create additional public school charter sites with records of student achievement modeled on the initial successful programs in the two cities. 

 You may contact McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com