By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder, director and executive editor
On a cold Tuesday morning in February along the northern border of Oklahoma’s second-largest city, Black educators and Black school administrators pose for a group picture after a discussion encompassing the importance of representation in education.
Tulsa Legacy Charter School strives to create a culture of excellence in the city’s majority-Black section of town by providing a rigorous, arts-infused curriculum that prepares its scholars, pre-K through 8th-grade, for college and the world beyond.
Tulsa Legacy is 1 of 7 Tulsa Public School District’s charter partners and classifies as a Title I. Schools with large concentrations of low-income students are classified as Title I schools and receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting its students’ educational goals. 97% percent of Tulsa Legacy students are considered economically disadvantaged, many receiving free breakfast and free or reduced lunch.
Kiana Smith is the school’s new executive director and believes that representation matters.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black teachers make up less than 7% of the American teaching population, while Black Americans account for 16% of the national populace. Hence America has a diversity gap within the pedagogy field.
74 Million reports that “hiring bias, certification tests that teachers of color are less likely to pass, a racial gap in bachelor’s degree attainment, and lower retention rates for teachers of color, among other factors,” are contributing to Black teacher deficits.
But, low representation of Black teachers at Tulsa Legacy isn’t a problem.
“We provide [our scholars] with opportunities that they may not see in other traditional settings. We have high expectations. Embodied within those expectations is that they see people who look like them, helping drive their education outcomes,” Smith explained.
Of the 650 students attending Legacy, Black scholars represent 82%.
A Brookings Institute study reveals that “Black students who have one Black teacher by third-grade are 7% more likely to graduate high school and 13% more likely to enroll in college. After having two Black teachers, a Black students’ likelihood of enrolling in college increases by 32%.”
Staci Brown, the assistant principal at Legacy’s upper academy, said that it was important for her to go back into the community where she was raised to teach. She attended Walt Whitman Elementary, Monroe Middle School, Booker T. Washington High School. All the schools she attended had sizeable black-student and black-teaching populations. She said that while in college, she began to see the inequities that existed in her north Tulsa community.
“I had a lot of people who sewed into my life when I was at Monroe Middle School, who looked like me, who believed in me. I remember Ms. Ursuline Jackson. I believe she was one of the main teachers who was rooting for me when I was in middle school. It was so important for me to make that full circle, and it’s one of the main reasons I serve at Tulsa Legacy Charter School,” Brown said.
Carolyn Statum is the primary academy principal at Tulsa Legacy Charter School. She graduated from Langston University, Oklahoma’s only HBCU. Statum said that while attending Langston, it was the first time she saw someone who looked like her in a position of leadership working at a school.
“I wanted to be that for young kids, little people, who look just like me. So I ended up going to school for elementary ed[ucation],” Statum said.
Since 1987 the number of Black school principals has remained under 10% nationally, but all of the administrative staff at Tulsa Legacy look like the majority of the population they serve.
Shaniqua Ray is the district math coordinator at Legacy. Before working at Legacy, she was a math teacher at Monroe Middle School.
“When I first moved to Tulsa, I worked at Monroe. I enjoyed the atmosphere that was there. Over the course of being there, I realized that growing up; I didn’t have teachers that looked like me. And so, I wanted to step into a Math classroom and be able to encourage scholars who looked like me to be their best. I wanted to tell them that they can like Math and go into a career that deals with Math,” Shaniqua Ray stated.
Tulsa Legacy is bursting at its seams with Black men and Black women teachers. While Black male educators account for less than 2% of the national teaching population, Tulsa Legacy has 11 Black male educators, the highest than any other area school.
As Black families become more informed about the school choice movement, individuals skeptical of charter schools — worried that they’ll destroy public education — often claim that charters lead to school segregation.
Brown sought to tackle that mindset by explaining, ” I think it’s important for us to look at statistics and look at the retention rate of our schools and the demographic we serve. And for someone such as ourselves, we’re rooted in the community. It’s not because we want to teach our students only because their Black — it is important because representation matters — but we also want to be here because we know that our students face trauma. We know that our students are used to people walking in and out of their lives. So it’s not about teaching students who are Black, it’s about finding people who are passionate and just as passionate about the community as we are.”
Smith added by saying it’s also about creating opportunities for students who’ve been historically disenfranchised.
“I also believe its another conversation to say: We’re pushing not segregation, we’re pushing opportunity. I feel oftentimes you have to look at what’s happening and to see what you can do to make sure you’re providing access to a demographic that has often been marginalized in a greater scheme of things. So its providing opportunity as well as noting that we are not an exclusionary institution,” Smith explained.
7% of students attending Tulsa Legacy are White, 7% are Latinx and 2% other.
Smith said that society often conditions itself by not providing certain visuals that its need to inspire success.
“Oftentimes, you can be blinded by opportunities that you can’t even imagine because they’re not put to your visuals. So if you’re able to see someone who is successful who’s doing a certain particular thing, you can more than likely see yourself in that particular image. You can see yourself even better because you know that there is a pathway that you’re able to do it.”
Since Smith has been the executive director at Tulsa Legacy, the school has seen a 61% increase in academic growth, higher than the state’s average — earning a B from the Oklahoma Department of Education.