Using a 1920s building abandoned by the Oklahoma City school district, a group of educators brought a one-time middle school back to life by creating a college preparatory culture and a sense of community.
That was 10 years ago, and Harding Charter Preparatory High School was born.
Carole Kelley, a founder and former head of the school, was the college adviser at Putnam City North and had argued with the school board one too many times.
“I knew there had to be a better way to bring rigor to the classroom, which in turn meant opportunities for students,” Kelley said. “The first principal, Mr. Caram, and the first seven educators created a mission, which then became our culture. Everyone knew it.”
That mission was to provide each student with an academically challenging, educational experience through an Advanced Placement curriculum, which would prepare graduates for success at a four-year university.
Janet Barresi, now state Superintendent of Education, wrote the charter in 2003 and consulted with Kelley, who had attended a breakout session regarding Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). That, coupled with the fact that Barresi wanted to do an all-AP curriculum, established their mission.
Back then, Sally Ziebell was the Russian teacher at a school in the Putnam City district for 12 years before that program was cut. Then Kelley presented her with the opportunity to be the first world languages teacher when Harding opened. Ziebell thought it was a risky proposition, but “wanted to be in on the ground floor.”
“I thought, ‘This is a school that every educator dreams of being able to be a part of. I want to be a part of it from the beginning,’” Ziebell said.
The school received its charter in May 2003 and planned to start classes in August. Most students enrolled at the last minute and formed a small student body. Harding started with 65 students and eight total staff members.
“Harding had been abandoned as a middle school and was not in very good condition, so we had tremendous amount of work on the physical plant to do,” Ziebell said.
Taking care of each other
Today, Harding Charter Prep, as it’s commonly known, has nearly 500 students and has generated such high demand that it held its first lottery for admission in March 2012. During the lottery, more than 180 prospective freshmen applied for only 135 openings.