By Nehemiah D. Frank
The Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education plans to shutter three north-side schools by the end of the school year: William Penn, McLain 7th Grade Center, and Gilcrease Elementary school.
The school district’s superintendent, Deborah Gist, says low-enrollment and fiscal responsibility have driven her and TPS’ Board of Education to make their decision.
“If there were enough students, that would be the perfect scenario for everyone,” Gist says.
Students, attending Gilcrease Elementary school next year, will attend school in the Bunche Early Childhood Development Center, that’s if the Board of Education vote yes on item G.3 at tonight’s school board meeting.
Gist says that Bunche is only using about 25 percent of its space and Gilcrease only 50 percent of its space.
Gist said that when schools aren’t full, TPS can’t offer the type of quality programming they know that students deserve.
“It’s clear as the chief executive officer of an organization and needing to be fiscally responsible to Tulsans who fund our public schools that it’s important that we’re doing things that are financially smart. I have that obligation,” she said, “I know it’s difficult and that it causes people pain.”
Gist said that, by both schools consolidating into one building, it will make for a more comprehensive program and lead to positive experiences for students. She also mentioned that if both school consolidate into one, that TPS may be able to hire a speciality teacher for the school — like an art instructor.
Gist said that Gilcrease currently doesn’t have an art program because there aren’t enough students enrolled in the school to employ those types of specialty instructors.
School funding is allocated by how many students attend the school.
Some members of the community are concerned with the building being empty and unmaintained.
The word blight used to describe schools, homes, and commercial properties in north Tulsa is currently a grave concern for north Tulsans, since the Tulsa Development Authority tried imposing a Blight Study and eminent domain in sections of north Tulsa.
Gist said that although the building will be closed, maintenance will continue so the school building isn’t damaged on the inside from extreme temperature changes.
“We will keep the grounds maintained. We make sure that the appropriate amount of heating and air conditioning stays on to make sure that the building’s structure isn’t being damaged. We will keep the security going so that there are cameras that are active — on and in the building,” Gist said.
Some teachers brought up the foreseeable rough transition in moving their classrooms to another building. For example, a $10,000 indoor slide that will need to be transported to the new building, per student and teacher request.
Gist said that measurements have been taken for the new slide to be safely transferred to the new building.
Gilcrease teachers, however, aren’t convinced that relocating their students to a newer building will improve the comprehensiveness of both programs.
One Gilcrease teacher wrote in her open letter to TPS:
“What is best for kids will never be a newer renovated building, not the latest curriculum craze, not the most up to date technology, but that we have high-quality teachers in every single classroom who believe wholeheartedly that our students at Gilcrease can achieve as much as any other student in this school district.” — Hanna Al-Jibouri
Al-Jibouri beleives TPS should wait another year to ensure that moving Gilcrease and closing the school is the best decision for Gilcrease students and families.
Gist believes that Gilcrease students and families shouldn’t have to wait on the uncertainty as to whether they will move into another school building next year or remain in the Gilcrease building.
“Limited transition is good for kids,” Gist says.
Lastly, Gist explained that the $1,000,000 bond money that was originally allocated for Gilcrease’s new heating and air conditioning system will now be used for construction-additions for the Monroe Demonstration Academy’s expansion, which will include the physical school buildings of Monroe and William Penn conjoining.
Tulsa Public Schools Agenda on Gilcrease Shutter Recommendation and Rationale
RECOMMENDATION: To create a new PK-5 elementary school to open in the 2019- 2020 school year at the current Bunche facility at 5402 N. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., close Gilcrease Elementary and ECDC Bunche schools at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. The enrollment area of the new school will be the current Gilcrease attendance area. The recommended effective date is the first business day after the completion of teachers’ contract year (which is estimated to be May 24, 2019). It is recommended that the new PK-5 facility be named in a future board meeting after consulting with the school communities and stakeholders as described by the Board’s school naming policy.
RATIONALE: Bunche currently serves grades PK and 1st grade and uses approximately 25% of its building capacity based on enrollment. In its present grade configuration of 1st through 6th grade, Gilcrease Elementary uses approximately 50% of its available capacity. On February 19, 2019, the Board decided that next school year (2019-2020), rising sixth graders from Gilcrease will attend Monroe Demonstration Academy and not their elementary school, which would have been Gilcrease Elementary. Given the District’s commitment to providing aligned and coherent PK-5th grade programming, combining the two student bodies to make a PK- 5 elementary school is in the best interest of District students. The proposal also allows the District to more efficiently use its resources. The Bunche facility is the preferable location for an elementary school because it was designed as an elementary school, and the Gilcrease facility has a middle school design. The Bunche facility has also undergone recent updating and renovation. As such, it is a more appropriate location for PK-5 programming, especially given the needs of early childhood students, and is the most financially responsible decision.
Author’s Note: There was no conversation as to why enrollment has been on the decline at Gilcrease or the Tulsa Public Schools district. Gist also mentioned that no TPS sponsored charter schools expressed interest in occupying the Gilcrease building, once it becomes vacant. Gist, however, appears to be open to the possibility of a TPS sponsored public charter school occupying the Gilcrease building.
Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. A rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the education reform movement, Nehemiah frequently travels for speaking engagements around the country, is a blogger for Education Post, and has been featured on NBC as well as in Blavity and Tulsa People. Nehemiah is also a teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK, a 2017 Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, and a 2018 Oluko Fellow. He gave a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa in the spring of 2018.