Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White's eyes light up and he sits a little straighter when he talks about his reading buddy, a first-grader at a city elementary school.
“Her name is Rebeca Navarro,” White said. “I look forward to it every week. She's always waiting in the hall, smiling, eager to read to me.”
White meets with the girl every Monday as part of a program pairing city employees with first-graders at Heronville Elementary School once a week for reading time. It's one product of a joint task force involving White, fellow Councilman Patrick Ryan, and Oklahoma City Public Schools board members Lyn Watson and Angela Monson that looks for partnerships between the city and school district to help students.
The task force started meeting about a year ago and meets once a month, alternating between Oklahoma City Hall and the school district headquarters.
Its meetings attract city and district officials and staff from Mayor Mick Cornett and Superintendent Karl Springer on down and result in high-powered brainstorming to find ways the city and district can team up.
Springer said it's the only partnership of its kind in Oklahoma, where cities aren't involved in management or funding of school districts. He has attended the meetings and is a big cheerleader for the task force and the spirit of cooperation.
“When we meet, we're one staff. We're there as problem solvers,” Springer said. “That kind of togetherness and that kind of resolve, that we're going to do this together, it's just so huge.”
The task force members and gathered staff and officials talk about a variety of topics, from marketing to sports and transportation. Some of the most promising ideas involve merging aspects of the district and city bus systems to save on costs, a management audit by the city to help find inefficiencies and getting more community organizations to use schools as meeting points to increase the sense of collective responsibility.
It has no official power, but some of the most powerful and influential leaders and staff members in the city and district in the room are in the same room at the same time during the meetings. Momentum can build and a concrete plan can be laid out for policies and projects to be approved at the city council and school board level.
Setting an example
The city's participation in the reading buddies program started with the task force. It quickly grew from about 20 participants to 70, with the potential for more. Students responded the way organizers hoped by showing excitement about reading and wanting to get better.
“They've been reading more than one book every week, because they'll get through one but want to stay with their reading buddies,” said Rachelle Taylor, who coordinates the reading buddy program for the district.
It's just one example of the many efforts, large and small, that it will take to keep improving students' performance. The task force's aim is not only to find ways the city can help make it possible, but to encourage corporations and community groups around the city to think of ways they can help as well.
“We've got a long ways to go,” said Ryan, White's fellow city councilman. “Maybe as an example, the city can show what it can do and what needs to be done.”