Classes begin Wednesday for students in the Oklahoma City School District. To get ready for the start of the school year, school district Superintendent Karl Springer sat down to answer questions from readers of The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com users.
Q: MAPS for Kids promised that “Rolls-Royce-quality” alternative schools be expanded so that no troubled student would “perpetually disrupt class because alternative schools are full.” If resources could be made available, would you try to honor that promise?
A: The issue there with alternative schools — there are a couple of camps on that. One would be that any child that's got some kind of behavioral problem that doesn't perform in the classroom in our traditional setting, that we would come up with some sort of building with concertina wire around it; we're not into that. What we've got to be able to do is we've got to be able to take our alternative education program and not let it become a parallel education program to what we're doing. We've already seen what happens when you do that in special education. Expectation for the children needs to be high. The expectations for performance and for what they're capable of doing need to remain high. What we've got to be able to do is have our alternative education program be something that is easy to access and fluid, so that they can get in and out of alternative education program quickly. ... What we've got to be able to do is not write them off. ... We've got to look at the potential that they've got.
Q: Can you explain the challenges and opportunities for some of the smaller schools in the district, like Edgemere Elementary? Is it financially effective to keep those schools open compared to the typical larger schools?
A: I think there are good schools that are big schools and good schools that are little. Edgemere is a good example of what happens when the community wraps their arms around a little school. Over the last couple of years, we've seen dramatic improvement in Edgemere. We have large elementary schools that have wonderful facilities and have that same kind of attitude. Chavez Elementary School kind of falls into that category, on the south side of our school district. I think that, really, the issue isn't so much the size of the school. The issue is what's happening inside of each one of those classrooms and what happens with the community — how does the community support the school? How are the parents and the community collaborating to make that a good place? The bigger question there that everybody wants to talk about a lot of times is, “What about school consolidation?” Well, this is the largest school district in the state of Oklahoma. We have our share of problems. If you wanted to consolidate all the schools in the state, with 650,000 kids in the state, you could probably do it with less than 20 school districts. The issue is what happens inside the classroom. The most important thing about a school is the teacher that's standing in front of that class. Teachers are what make schools good.
Q: As budgets constrain, how do you decide where growth can come from in the schools? Have you pushed forth any of the national trends such as healthier foods, more physical education, increased arts incorporation?
A: Those are all things that we know are important. The longer school day — it took us about 100 years to go from six hours to six hours and 20 minutes — that's one thing that's happened just recently. That's been a good thing. The continuous learning calendar — trying to make it possible to have time during the school year to be able to remediate children on a one-to-one or smaller kind of setting. The other parts of this thing that I think really are important have to do with just really looking at what is the best return on investment, and make sure that that investment is in the children and not in some program just for the sake of a program.
Q: Oklahoma City Public Schools is slow in hiring, contracting, getting necessary information to new teachers including their new employee ID. That also means many of us will start school without laptop computers, no way to use our smartboard, unable to take role, and write lesson plans according to Oklahoma City Public Schools policies. When will teachers be treated as a needed part of the educational process and as customers by the district?
A: I think that there will be significant change to that this year. We've employed a new executive director of personnel, who's pushing very hard to get those things done. Our new teachers — we're issuing the laptop computers to the new teachers as we speak, before school starts. Those issues of getting going at the beginning of the year are going to be remediated to a great extent this year. We're going to be looking at it and seeing what areas we need to improve on. My anticipation is that every teacher will have their laptop and be able to use the technology on the first day of school.
Q: What measures could the state Legislature pass that would make it possible for more graduating students to read and do math at grade level?
A: I'm really not talking for Oklahoma City schools when I say this, because I think there are a variety of opinions. My personal opinion is that, to really do this right, we need to have at least a seven-hour instructional day. Now, there are a lot of places that don't need a seven-hour instructional day across the state, but I think if we're really focusing in on Oklahoma City public schools, that would help. We would be able to have more time for art, physical education, some time for children to be able to really work on activities that would be enriching. I think that would be one thing that the Legislature could do. I think that the aspect of deregulation is important. If we could cause principals to have more autonomy about what they do in their school, less regulation, those are some things maybe we could do that would really help.
Q: What stands in the way of the majority of students today?
A: The expectations for what they can do. We've got to be able to reprogram our children to be able to have them have expectations beyond their wildest dreams, about what it's possible for them to do. So many times, we see kids that just, they lose their hope for the future. They look around them and they see issues of poverty. I just think it's very important that we do whatever we can do to cause our kids to be able to have escalating expectations for their future. And then, all the rest of the people in this community need to have that same attitude.