Help Oklahoma City create a great public school system

ByJoe Clytus (op-ed)

The Oklahoma City community, our business and civic leaders agree. If we want to put Oklahoma City on the map—to make it a great city, a destination for families, an employment center—we must have great public education in an attractive environment.

The community has already invested in this. In 2001, we passed MAPS 2, otherwise known as MAPS for Kids. The community agreed to tax ourselves in order to repair and replace our aging school infrastructure. We did this with the understanding that it would lead to a productive and successful education system. MAPS for Kids has raised and spent in excess of $470 million over the past 15 years.

But so far, our investment is being underused. The newly renovated buildings are nowhere near capacity. There are hundreds of empty seats in northeast Oklahoma City public schools.  And although there are bright spots, overall school performance across OKC as not changed much in a decade and a half.

As a lifelong OKC resident, a product of our public schools, and a former school board member for eight years, I think we should demand a return on our investment. Right now we have an opportunity to do that.

While a number of OKC’s public schools are underperforming, there are also many schools that are doing a great job at educating kids. There is something to be learned from those schools. In America, there is a tradition of creating a successful model and then duplicating it. We should help successful schools expand and encourage struggling schools to emulate them, instead of trying to reinvent the learning wheel.

Here is a timely example: KIPP Reach College Preparatory in northeast OKC is trying to expand. KIPP Reach is a public charter middle school that has had enormous success with historically underserved students. It is the highest-performing public middle school in the city and was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. (Full disclosure: I have three great-grandchildren who attend KIPP Reach, where they are doing very well.)

KIPP Reach’s current school building is dilapidated and badly in need of repairs. But at nearby Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, there is a renovated 900-seat school building with only 400 students in it. KIPP is proposing to move its current school to MLK, taking advantage of just a fraction of the unused space—around 300 seats. Sharing a facility would let educators collaborate with and learn from each other. A year from now, KIPP would start a new elementary school open to all families living near MLK.

This is a smart and cost-effective way to make use of our community’s investment. It costs the district nearly nothing to move KIPP into an unused school space that we taxpayers have already paid for. In exchange, KIPP gets to open a new neighborhood elementary school and teachers at MLK get to collaborate with educators from one of the city’s highest-performing public schools.

The community of Oklahoma City made an investment in our public schools. It’s time for us to use our voices by supporting high quality public schools like KIPP Reach to grow and thrive.