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DISCLAIMER: This story highlights the perspective of Langston Hughes Academy staff and students as the school faces impending closure.
By: Nate Morris, senior editor
A dense, cold fog grayed out the nearby skyline as a steady stream of high school students arrived in busses and cars to Langston University’s Tulsa campus.
Starting this year, every Tuesday classes for students at Langston Hughes Academy are held on this college campus in the heart of what once was the epicenter of the thriving Greenwood District.
For Dean of Students Justin Daniels, this is an opportunity for the school’s 140 ninth through twelfth graders to experience what it is like to learn in a collegiate setting.
“We have some logistical problems, as you can see,” Daniels admitted as he greeted students one by one and helped direct them to their classes, “but for a high school, I think you can agree we’re doing pretty well.”
Students were tired, a product of the time, the weather, their out-of-school work schedules and more, but individually they were greeted by staff with a warm hello, a smile and a reminder to grab breakfast on their way to class.
Still, the reality of the world outside the glass walls weighed heavily in the air.
Just days before, the state board of education voted to strip Langston Hughes Academy of its accreditation by June 30th, 2019, forcing the school to close its doors at the end of the school year, after only four years in operation.
“None of the board members that are voting on our accreditation have been to Langston Hughes Academy,” Daniels would tell me defiantly later in our interview, “Ms. Hoffmeister herself has never been to Langston Hughes Academy. Never.”
According to the Oklahoma State Board of Education, the problems at LHA have been ongoing and immense: grade tampering, inappropriate staff conduct and allegations of culminated to what the Board believes to be an untenable situation.
But to Daniels and many of the students and faculty at the school, the state is acting in its own self-interests rather than the interests of the larger community.
“I truly believe that the state’s objective is to kill this institution because it will then cover up their lack of oversight,” said Daniels. “This school was accredited for three years under the previous administrator, and yet their own investigation uncovered gross neglect.”
Timeline of Events
When asked to run though his version of the timeline of events, Daniels noted that problems emerging under the school’s founding administration, lead by Rodney Clark, went unchecked by the state for the first three years the school was open.
According to Daniels, Clark and his administration fostered a “culture of animosity” within the school.
“Dr. Clark was the be all, end all,” Daniels said. “It was a centralized power structure.”
When members of the school were made aware of intentional grade tampering last year, Daniels told the Times that he and others went immediately to the State Department with the information.
According to Daniels, they were given the option to engage in their own investigation or to allow the State Department of Education to take over the investigation. In order to ensure the investigation was fair, they handed it over to the state.
“The state decided that they were going to put us on accreditation with probation,” Daniels said, noting that the board members of Langston Hughes Academy subsequently “decided last summer not to renew [Rodney Clark’s] contract.”
According to a Tulsa World article detailing the investigation, several other individuals, including both the Assistant Principal and the head of the school’s Exceptional Student Services Department (Clark’s wife), were put on administrative leave as well.
While on probation, Daniels says that the school accepted a mandate from the state department to ensure that all eight of its core teachers were emergency certified by mid-November of 2018.
The school failed to meet this deadline, but according to Daniels all eight were certified by the time of our interview.
Later that winter, a student was caught on campus with marijuana. Daniels insisted that the student was intentionally given a layered disciplinary action aimed at being “redemptive” rather than expelling student from institution.
According to Daniels, a school resource officer told the school’s new principal, Libby Adjei, “that kid is trash, get him out of your school.”
Another security guard allegedly also voiced disdain that the student was not expelled. When the student returned to school after disciplinary action, security guard “walked off his shift in the middle of the day.”
Three days after that security guard left, a report was sent to Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado alleging that “teachers were smoking weed in students in cars” and that the school was repeatedly “finding guns on students”, Daniels said, vehemently denying the claims as “bogus”.
During this same timeframe, the school was asked to provide all transcripts, schedules, attendance and discipline documents to the state board for review. According to Daniels, the school complied and even received compliments from the state officials conducting the audit.
Weeks later, however, a “scathing” letter from the Oklahoma State Department of Education informed Langston Hughes Academy that the Board would be voting on whether or not to strip the school of its accreditation in just two days.
“They gave the previous administrator 36 months with no oversight and now they’re giving this new administration 5 months to fix it?” Daniels said of the State Board.
The day of the vote, students, parents and teachers traveled down to Oklahoma City to defend their school at the board meeting. According to school officials and students, only a brief window of time was allotted to plead their case in defense of their school.
Minutes and audio of the board meeting, which was held nearly a month ago on January 24th, are not yet available on the OSDE website as of the publishing of this article.
A powerpoint presentation by the state department is available for public viewing, however. The document contains evidence of expired certifications, missing background checks, incorrect schedules and issues of noncompliance with IDEA laws and students’ IEPs.
Following presentations and public comments, the board voted to rescind the school’s accreditation, forcing its closure by the end of the fiscal year.
Students Fight to Save Their School
Students at the school, like Cormell Padillow and Adalene Peru, expressed their deep disappointment in the State Board’s decision.
Peru, a senior who is preparing for graduation with four university acceptance letters already, told the Times that she entered Langston Hughes Academy as a freshman with a fourth grade reading level and is now taking college level courses at TCC.
“I do a lot,” says Peru with a laugh, “I’m the valedictorian of our class, student council president and captain of the speech and drama team… the winning speech and drama team.”
“Here, every staff member knows your name,” Peru continued, “it’s just a smaller environment, we’re all like a big family.”
She says she has implored Superintendent Hoffmeister to come out to visit the school.
“Come out, see us, visit us, see what we’re doing… stop trying to save yourself and be honest.”
Padillow, a junior, reiterated his love of Langston Hughes and the feeling of “family” that persists within the school.
He notes a change for the better with the shift in administration, giving Dr. Libby (who is in her fifth month as principal) credit for “giving teachers more power” to engage with students and have a voice in the day-to-day operations of the school.
Padillow stated he believes the school is under a microscope because they “self reported the issues last year and, because we did wrong, there’s a perception that we are going to continue to do wrong.”
“We’re also not what our community is used to, they’re not used to charter schools,” Peru added.
She continued her invitation to community members and State Board members alike to “come and see”.
She cautioned State Department officials that their choice to close the school is affecting the lives many of students of color in Tulsa. “Think through it before doing anything irrational,” Peru said.
“Our representatives are making rash decisions and working backward from a conclusion,” Padillow added, “there has to be an incentive to the idea that if the story was out that it is the lack of oversight by our own state government that causes these problems, it would cause a backlash” against the State Department and against Joy Hoffmeister.
“To shut down this school, when it’s had no reasonable amount of time after it had the honesty to disclose it’s own controversy and scandal, shows a lack of understanding of the situation,” he continued.
Padillow added that he believes State Department officials “are not representing our community or the students’ lives”, but instead are “just making rash decisions to save their self image. It shows just how much of a politician they truly are.”
Peru recalled Dr. Libby being dismissed at a recent board meeting when attempting to discuss the school’s progress and test scores with the State Board.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of [the board members] haven’t even been out to North Tulsa,” Peru stated. “I want them to see the journey I see every day on my way to school. Some of our kids walk miles in the cold each day just to come to school. I want them to consider every aspect before making a decision.”
As the conversation drew to a close in the glass-enclosed lobby still shrouded in a cold fog, Adalene and Cormell oscillated between pushing for the preservation of their own education and joking about having too much coffee and pouring chocolate milk into their cereal.
For all they were enduring and fighting for, they were both still teenagers who had forced by the failures of adults to temporarily abandon those carefree jokes and assume a role advocating for the futures of themselves and their peers.
“The opinions we are sharing right now,” said Padillow, entering back into advocacy mode, “is something felt by all students.”
“I remember the very day we were told our school was not accredited, when you came into the school the energy was not sadness, but anger,” Padillow continued.
“Frustration,” Peru added.
For Padillow, this process has made him realize how much power he has to create change within a political system. “I realized I have to do something,” he said, noting his disdain for the corruption in Oklahoma politics, “I can’t just wait on other people.”
For Peru, this process has changed her perspective of education in Oklahoma.
“It’s sad, it’s really sad,” said Peru, “before all of this happened, I really wanted to go into education because I really had a passion for it.”
This experience has changed the trajectory of her life. As a result of this experience, Peru no longer wishes to pursue a career in public education.
Peru will be attending Northeastern State University in the fall, majoring in Business Marketing.
In spite of the immense challenges ahead, Justin Daniels remains optimistic.
“We are encouraged, we are fighting, and we are not giving up,” Daniels said.