The Douglass High School senior class could be riddled with dropouts if students become too overwhelmed by the wreckage left by years of academic mismanagement, the state superintendent of schools said Monday night.
“We've got to do everything we can to make sure these kids don't drop out,” Janet Barresi said. “And quite frankly, that's my concern: They'll get overwhelmed and they'll drop out.”
Barresi spoke during a community meeting at the northeast Oklahoma City campus of MetroTech.
Business leaders and state representatives joined parents and alumni to hear about how the state Education Department is partnering with Oklahoma City Public Schools to help more than 100 students earn their diplomas.
An investigation into the school's former principal began this summer and lead to the discovery that nearly all of the senior students had gaps in their transcripts.
The investigation uncovered grade tampering and attendance fraud. Principal Brian Staples resigned last month. But the investigation continues into exactly what has been happening at Douglass, 900 N Martin Luther King Avenue.
Several speakers at the meeting said the problems are chronic.
“Douglass has been sitting there, beautiful building, rotting on the inside,” said Seidah Vaughn, an education consultation who has a daughter at Douglass. “But this road? We've been upon it for a very, very long time.”
But Oklahoma City Councilman Skip Kelly, whose district encompasses Douglass, said he wonders whether the school is being targeted.
“Is one school in some respects being singled out in reference to these types of issues?” he said. “With all due respect, if the problem's there, it needs to be fixed. Are we putting too much of a burden on people who already have too much of a daily life to live?”
The crisis at Douglass is a wake-up call for the wider community, said Anna King, who has three children who graduated from Douglass High School. King is the president of the state PTA.
“We should act like this is a thunderstorm or a tornado or an earthquake because it is,” King said. “We need this community to actually wrap themselves around each one of these schools that feed into Douglass because they can't read at grade level. ... Grab a kid and say, 'You matter.' If we do not, we as the grown-ups, we are letting these kids down. They grow up in this community. They live in this community. They matter.”
Audit reveals gaps
District officials asked Barresi's team to audit the senior class transcripts. What they found was that 3 in 4 students didn't have the credits necessary to graduate on time.
Students will need to make up their credits in a hurry — through night classes, online coursework, after-school tutoring, summer school and classes during school breaks — to finish in May or this summer.
There is so much to be done, but Barresi said she wants students to know it can be accomplished.
“We just can't let them get so discouraged that this isn't worth it,” she said.
In addition to the senior class woes, an audit of the junior class was also troubling, state officials said. About 5 percent of the juniors are on track to graduate, though most of the problems can be fixed by simply adjusting student schedules.
“What the junior class, sophomore class and freshman class have on their side is time,” said Melissa White, executive director of counseling and ACE for the state Education Department. “Next year, make sure they're in classes they need for graduation in all seven hours. That seems like it will be the answer for most of these kiddos.”
Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer has asked for an audit of freshman and sophomores as well.
After that, state workers will train Oklahoma City officials how to audit transcripts so the same thing can be replicated districtwide.
Officials ask for help
Teachers and administrators have met with students and parents individually, some at home, interim Principal Barbara Davis said.
They had to sign contracts that they agreed to work toward graduation.
“We're going to do the best we can,” Davis said, “and we're going to help every one of these kids be successful.”
But teachers and administrators will need help from churches, nonprofits, businesses and individuals to succeed, Barresi said.
Tutors and mentors are needed. Baby-sitting help will be in demand as well. Food, calling services, counseling, daytime staffing, transportation and other needs will all have to be addressed.
The short time between now and May will be a long, trying time for students, Barresi said.
But teachers and staff members will also be worn thin.
“They are individuals that will need a tremendous amount of support and a tremendous amount of help, along with the students,” she said. “They're going to get discouraged and they're going to get tired.”
Anyone who would like to volunteer or offer services can contact Melodie Fulmer, executive director of parent and community engagement for the state Education Department. Her number is 522-6225.