A group of black church leaders that believes public education is failing communities with the poorest and most vulnerable children is calling on state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and her six challengers to address their concerns.
The group, which includes leaders from Oklahoma’s largest networks of black denominations, has invited Barresi and her challengers to meet with them individually and then collectively June 8 during an “accountability session” at Oklahoma City University.
“These kids are the people who are going to have to be our leaders and take care of us in the future,” said the Rev. Ray Douglas, senior pastor at Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church in northeast Oklahoma City. “The future is in their hands, and it has to be in educated hands if we’re going to survive and prosper.”
Leaders who met Wednesday said they are deeply troubled by high dropout rates and their relationship to growing incarceration rates, funding inequities, high-stakes testing and A-F grading and the negative effect it has “on our children, our schools and our communities.”
“They’re being taught to test and not to learn,” Douglas said. “They’re not being taught critical thinking skills that they are going to need to make wise choices in the future.”
The forum is sponsored by Voices Organized in Civic Engagement (VOICE), a coalition of 27 congregations and non-profit groups that work together on issues facing families in the Oklahoma City metro area.
Coalition organizer Kristen King said topics that will be discussed include high-stakes testing and the effect it has on students, teachers, schools and communities.
“Does that really tell us everything we need to know about the work that’s being done in the schools?” King said. “When testing is used is it used for individual student growth rather than school assessment?”
The candidates for superintendent are John Cox; Freda Deskin; Jack Herron; Joy Hofmeister; Ivan Holmes; and Brian S. Kelly. As of Friday, five of the seven candidates had agreed to attend, King said.
“They have a real understanding of what’s happening in their communities,” King said of church leaders, “and I think that would be helpful to someone who is trying to turn our state around in education and other areas.”
The Rev. James Dorn is pastor of Mount Triumph Baptist Church in northeast Oklahoma City and president of of the Progressive Oklahoma Baptist Convention. Dorn said church leaders are obligated to advocate for congregation members, particularly young parents without a voice who are under-represented by state and local school leaders.
“This gives all of us an opportunity to hear what each candidate is saying about the office ... about their vision for the office ... about their platform,” Dorn said. “And then hold them accountable for what they said.”
In addition to funding for support programs that students need to meet educational and employment requirements, church leaders are seeking a more culturally sensitive approach to terms such as “F school” and “free and reduced-price school” used by school districts to identify schools and population groups.
The Rev. Clarence Prevost, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wewoka, is also a member of the Sasakwa Public Schools board of education. He implored other church leaders to do something at the local and state levels to “ensure our kids are properly educated.”
“My kids are all public school educated ... so it works. And none of them had to take remedial courses,” Prevost said. “I was involved in their education. I was involved in the process. Most of us do not have that opportunity to do so.
“However, there are representatives ... we should have representatives that represent each district, each area, the local school board should be there ... in fact, in my opinion some of them should be here.”
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As the bishops and presidents of the largest networks of African-American denominations in the state of Oklahoma, we have come together because we love the children we serve, and we honor the teachers and educators who serve them. Our congregations are deeply rooted in our communities and have played a vital role in shaping the development of our children. We have a biblical, moral, social and spiritual obligation to advocate for their education and their futures.
The African-American church is a major stakeholder in the education of our children. We are deeply troubled by the high dropout rates and see a link between them and the increasing incarceration rates of our children and the economic disparities in our communities. We are concerned about high stakes testing and the negative impact that it has on our children, our schools, and communities.
In spite of the challenges, we stand by our public schools. We call on our elected and appointed officials on the local and state level to stand with us in making the following changes:
•Resources to fund competitive pay for teachers and to provide the necessary educational materials and supplies.
•Funding for support programs that students need to help them meet their educational and employment requirements.
•Equity in school funding and resources across the state.
•A faster way to get direct services to children who are in crisis.
•A more transparent and understandable Individualized Education Program (IEP) system with education and clear guidelines for parents and guardians.
•A more culturally sensitive approach to words that are used to identify and describe population groups. Care should be taken not to use administrative words to identify our students.
•A greater collaboration between local and state educational officials in assigning the school performance measures. Not using an A-F grading system to label schools.
•We are calling on all of the state superintendent candidates to attend the VOICE accountability session at 3 p.m. June 8 at the Henry J. Freede Wellness Center on the campus of Oklahoma City University, 2501 N Blackwelder Ave.
We are deeply concerned for public education. If education is allowed to become just an industry that is used as a “racket” to push out the poor and disadvantaged, then we have destroyed the very purpose of public education. We believe that the public education system should be equitable to all students and when so, will level the playing field and give fair opportunities to all of the children in our public school system.
We commit to making ourselves available to meet with the state superintendent of education on a quarterly basis to help improve the educational outcomes of children in our state.
Dr. C.W. Whitlow,
Dr. Wayen Dallas,
Dr. Malcolm Colby,
The Rev. Marcellus Fields,
The Rev. James Dorn,
The Rev. Willie J. Tiller,
The Rev. Anthony Scott,
The Rev. Ray Douglas,
The Rev. Clarence Prevost