ON the first day Douglass High School students walked the halls of their new building, the Oklahoma City School Board chairman at the time stood before students with a message of hope.
“The investment they made in you is one we expect to pay off for years to come,” Cliff Hudson said that day in January 2006. He was referencing voter support of MAPS for Kids, which paid for the new Douglass and hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of capital improvements throughout the district.
Contrast Hudson's remarks to last week when the current school board chairwoman, Angela Monson, tried to sidestep accountability for what has all the makings of an educational travesty. Top school district officials had gathered to make a shocking admission: 87 of the 107 Douglass High School seniors don't have the necessary coursework and test scores to graduate come spring.
The news comes as the school is reeling from allegations that the former principal, Brian Staples, manipulated attendance and grade records. Staples resigned last month. The district turned its investigation over to state education and law enforcement authorities. Federal education officials also are investigating.
In response to questioning, Superintendent Karl Springer said the “buck stops with the school superintendent.” Those words have a hollow feel when considering the totality of the district's response to date. The district has said some of the allegations against Staples are true while some weren't. But in refusing to distinguish between the two while trotting out the newest findings, they're nonetheless pointing fingers at Staples.
While reserving blanket judgments until more information is known, we can't get past Monson's statement last week: “We did not fail our students.” The evidence suggests otherwise. If her attitude is representative of the entire board, some soul searching is in order.
Again, it's impossible to draw fully informed conclusions when so much about the investigation and what happened at Douglass isn't public. But the principal isn't solely responsible for making sure students are on a graduation track. That's a years-long effort involving counselors, teachers, administrators, students and parents. Developing that track is a core function of a high school that affects everything from course offerings to scheduling to staffing decisions.
The district also hasn't provided specifics about where the biggest academic gaps are for students. But the breakdown of such a vital function suggests a big problem and that accountability for the egregious lack of oversight and verification should perhaps extend beyond a single individual. If that's happened, let's hear about it!
Parents have a substantial role in checking their child's progress. But parents also should have confidence that an effective system exists to ensure most students are on the right academic track. Springer should feel responsible, as should many under his oversight. So should Springer's bosses — Monson and her fellow board members.
None of their responsibilities is more basic than their duty to provide a quality education for all students. On the best day in Oklahoma City, it's a tough task. That the job is difficult doesn't make the reality of what Douglass students are facing any more acceptable.
Students depend heavily on adults to make sure they're taking the right courses and the right tests on the right timeline. When 80 percent of a school's senior class isn't on track to graduate, just a semester away from what should be their big day, how is that not a failure on the part of the system and all those in charge of it?