Oklahoma Centennial High School: succeeding in a place of failure

Oklahoma Centennial High School is only four years old, but the seldom-discussed high school already has established itself as the worst-performing school in the state on state benchmarks.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND Published: November 21, 2010
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photo - Centennial High School freshman Ronesha Johnson and her mother, Yvette Weaver, are concerned about the academic quality at the northeast Oklahoma City school. PHOTO BY STEVE GOOCH, THE OKLAHOMAN <strong>Steve Gooch - The Oklahoman</strong>
Centennial High School freshman Ronesha Johnson and her mother, Yvette Weaver, are concerned about the academic quality at the northeast Oklahoma City school. PHOTO BY STEVE GOOCH, THE OKLAHOMAN <strong>Steve Gooch - The Oklahoman</strong>

Ronesha Johnson knows she attends the worst school in the state.

“This year they say ‘y'all was at the bottom of the list,'” the 14-year-old honor roll student says matter-of-factly, after listing all the things she loves about Oklahoma Centennial High School: her leadership classes, her friends, choir and volleyball.

Her high school in northeast Oklahoma City scored 264 points out of 1,500 on the Academic Performance Index last year, the lowest aggregate score of regular elementary, middle or high schools.

Behind the low scores at Oklahoma Centennial is a group of students who are behind grade level and have an acute sense that they received the short end of the stick.

“They feel abandoned,” said Lynn Green, who has been a teacher for 17 years and at Centennial since 2006. “They feel like they are in a little dumpy building. We're the district's redheaded stepchild.”

Four years after the combined middle school and high school opened, it suffers from gang activity, the perception that facilities are substandard, extreme poverty and a principal who is the focus of an ouster attempt by a group of parents and teachers.

Principal Carole Thompson said this is the first she has heard of complaints about her leadership.

“We're doing pretty good. No one likes to see the test scores the way they are,” Thompson said. “But watch us this summer because our test scores are going to be up. We are going to knock everyone's socks off.”

Deputy Superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools Sandra Park said the district is working with urgency for long-term solutions at Oklahoma Centennial.

“It's a really fragile school,” Park said. “We've passed the assessment point, and we're to the searching for appropriate solutions point. We realize we've got some real challenges in meeting the student's needs.”

Lost in transition

Talk to parents, teachers and community leaders in north Oklahoma City and they will tell you an entire community of students was lost during the split of the old John Marshall High School into two new schools created under the voter-approved MAPS for Kids sales tax and bond issue — the new John Marshall, 12201 N Portland Ave., and Oklahoma Centennial, 1301 N Kelley Ave.

Ronesha Johnsons' brother was among those lost students, says their mother, Yvette Weaver.

“My son's transition got him. He was a good kid. What kind of child do I have now?” Weaver asks. “I'm speaking on a lot of kids' behalf that was actually good students until this transition took place and the gangs and the violence started happening.”

Weaver had three children graduate from the old John Marshall who are successful contributors to society, but her middle child spent his high school years in and out of trouble with the law, and now she worries about Ronesha.

Teachers, who weathered the transition with the students, have lost track of how many are in prison or in the grave.

Korrion Stallings, 17, was shot and killed outside a nightclub in 2007. Tim Morland, a 16-year-old football player, was shot and killed in November 2008. Dejontae “D.J.” Durham, 17, was shot and killed outside a nightclub in 2009.

Last month, Ezekiel Watts, 15, was arrested in connection to a mass shooting that left a 31-year-old dead and injured five others, including at least one of his classmates. The injured girl arrived at Oklahoma Centennial after the shooting on crutches.

Thompson said her school's transition was difficult.

“I went to every meeting, and it was presented to the community as if everything was going to be equal when the schools were separated. It obviously is not equal,” Thompson said.

The perception that students received lesser facilities than their peers at John Marshall may contribute to low morale.

But Eric Wenger, manager of MAPS for Kids, said Oklahoma Centennial wasn't cheated. More than $20 million went into converting the Oklahoma Centennial school from a junior high facility, while the new John Marshall was built for $26 million.

Johnson, like her fellow classmates who plan to attend college, is fighting an uphill battle. She wants to be valedictorian and get a degree in business, but struggles with math.

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