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Update by Jonathan Townsend from the Mayor’s Office
Growing up, I always felt that education was incredibly important. So much so that when I graduated from college, the first thing that I wanted to do was teach in a classroom. I had the honor of working at John Burroughs and Walt Whitman Elementary here in Tulsa, the latter being the school that I attended for 6 years as a child. Although I was proud to be serving in such an imperative role in the lives of children, I couldn’t help but notice how much things had changed since I was a kid in the 90’s.
In the Mayor’s Office, my current role allows me to work and develop ways that we can raise student achievement. Although the world of education seems bleak these days, I believe we have some great opportunities to turn things around in Tulsa. We have fantastic leadership at Tulsa and Union Public Schools, a community filled with people and organizations that care for our youth, and a Mayor that values education enough to take the City of Tulsa off of the sidelines and make us contributors. The City of Tulsa has never had an official role in education. It has always been something that our state government had assumed responsibility for. The opportunity for the state to properly fund education has always been there. However, not enough has happened on that front. So we want the ability to help however we can. Our desire is to simply provide whatever support we can to our students and teachers.
We’ve asked ourselves questions like, what can we do to increase 3rd grade reading scores? How can we help schools decrease absenteeism? Can we do anything to make Tulsa a place that teachers feel more appreciated? Often times, when people focus and think about things long enough, they can come up with some pretty good ideas to rectify a problem. To help increase third grade reading proficiency scores, we’ve partnered with an organization that is doing paramount work regarding the issue. One of the first things that Mayor GT Bynum did while in office was sign an executive order that allowed all City of Tulsa employees to volunteer for up to two hours a week to read with a child through a program called Reading Partners. City employees can do this during the week without losing pay for it.
We’ve also recognized that until something is done about paying our educators a more respectable wage, there are other ways that we can show our appreciation for them. We’ve worked with local universities like Langston University-Tulsa to offer a tuition discount for anyone that works for a public school in Tulsa County. That means that if you are a cafeteria cook, janitor, teacher assistant, or anyone who works in a public school every day, this opportunity is available to you. We’ve also collaborated with the University of Tulsa and Yale University to offer enhanced professional development opportunities to a greater amount of Tulsa Public School teachers. We worked with the Tulsa City Council and Tulsa Fire Department for a very successful school supply drive during the summer knowing that many of our classrooms would still be in need of materials early in the school year.
To decrease absenteeism, all high school students can ride the Tulsa Transit bus to and from school for free as long as they present their school I.D. We are purposefully working to offer more families the chance to send their kids to pre-kindergarten classes so that foundational learning takes place earlier. We’ve sponsored many in-school learning activities at traditional public and charter schools, and we have partnered with the Tulsa Regional Chamber and Impact Tulsa to sponsor numerous financial aid drives for current and aspiring college students in various communities across the city. These efforts led to the number of students receiving money for their FAFSA completion to increase by 12%. There is so much work to be done, and I am always among the first to admit that we are far from the ideal situation in this city. But I completely believe that we have enough people in our city that care about our kids to make things better. It is because of this that I am confident that our schools will soon thrive again. Our kids are our everything and we owe them all that we’ve got.