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GREENWOOD Dist. — Tucked away just north of downtown Tulsa, one of the city’s best kept secrets offers students a vibrant education with phenomenal results. Yet according to Jonathan Townsend, the new executive director of Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, the educational institution shouldn’t be an elitist secret. It should be open to all students across the city, including those who were birthed near the backdrop of Black Wall Street.
Born and raised in North Tulsa, Jonathan Townsend is on a mission to expand the opportunities TSAS provides by opening its doors to the entire city.
The school had the lowest college remediation rate of any school in Tulsa County in 2020, according to a report from Oklahoma State Regents.
“This is an environment where every kid really does understand that we see them for who they are,” Townsend told The Black Wall Street Times at his office on Friday, Feb. 24. Giving this publication an exclusive tour of the school, Townsend expressed pride in overseeing an institution whose teachers and students look like the diversity of America.
As one of just a handful of Black school leaders in the state of Oklahoma, and the first at TSAS, Townsend wants to leave a legacy that ensures he isn’t the last.
“I have to perform well because I don’t know who is behind me,” he said.
Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences
TSAS isn’t like most other schools in Tulsa. It’s a public charter school that acts independently of schools in the TPS system. TSAS doesn’t require a GPA admissions test. Students are instead selected randomly from a lottery of all those who apply.
The student body is diverse as well, both in terms of ethnicity and income. Fifty percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 52% of students are non-White, according to their website.
For years the school was located in historically White south Tulsa, far removed from the mostly Black elementary schools on the north side of Town. So when TSAS relocated to the Easton Heights neighborhood, Townsend became excited for the opportunity to recruit more students from the kinds of neighborhoods he grew up in.
“I never had a Black male homeroom teacher,” Townsend told The Black Wall Street Times. It’s a fact not lost on his students who look up to him.
Inspired by teachers who changed the trajectory of his own life, Townsend spent years as a classroom teacher and a member of school boards before utilizing his educational experience in Mayor Bynum’s administration. Now, as the first Black executive director of Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, Townsend unapologetically supports his teachers and students.
Touring the hallways, Townsend gives a fist bump to every kid he sees, with a momentary check in of their mental wellbeing. One kid he walks by calls him “Mr. Obama,” highlighting who he represents to kids that aren’t used to seeing Black excellence or Black leadership period.
“If you’re in it for the right reasons, there’s an opportunity to make a difference really for a whole generation,” Townsend said.
While the students don’t participate in a school sports program, the arts and sciences taught at TSAS go beyond the basics.
In one geometry classroom, students learning about Black Wall Street built 3-D models of the once wealthiest Black community in the nation.
Putting their skills to the test, FOX23 recently featured the projects at a student showcase.
In another classroom, students learn the ins and outs of classic photography inside a state-of-the-art darkroom.
And in a wellness P.E. class, students do more than run laps. They learn nutrition and how to live a balanced, healthy life inside and out.
Jacelyn Jackson is the school’s education and wellness instructor, as well as director of dance.
“Well, they get one body. I want to teach them that they only have one,” Jackson told The Black Wall Street Times. “I want them to understand how to properly take care of it, how to nurture it, what to feed it and how to groom it properly.”
Townsend isn’t oblivious to the problematic politics coming from state leaders who seek to ban books and the teaching of uncomfortable history. Oklahoma State Superintendent and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters has attacked teachers to the point where even the Republican-controlled legislature has passed a bill to limit his power.
While the culture of fear has surrounded education in the state, Townsend isn’t afraid to support his teachers and allow them to soar in their own creative ways.
“What I tried to get my team to understand is that regardless of who is in the State Superintendent position or the state legislature, our goals and our responsibilities remain the same,” Townsend told The Black Wall Street Times. “And that is to serve our kids with everything we have.”
During the tour, each classroom seemed to have its own style and creative way of teaching students. Recognizing Black History Month, the rooms were filled with pictures of influential Black and BIPOC leaders, rebuking the culture of fear some seek to instill on school districts.
“We support our teachers,” Townsend said. “My thing is, how can I always try to figure out how can I protect my teachers because they make this place happen?”
Building a legacy at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences
Even the library, a new addition to a school that didn’t have one at its previous location, was filled with rows upon rows of Black scholars, activists, and thought leaders.
Jesse Stallings is more than a librarian. He’s director of information and innovation.
“It’s important that, you know, we see Questlove right next to John Lewis and the strange fruit collection. It’s a difficult read in places but it’s also important,” Stallings told The Black Wall Street Times.
Ultimately, Townsend wants to bring the community into the fold by hosting events with parents and students. The former political candidate also isn’t afraid to go door-to-door to spread the good news about TSAS.
“We’re gonna start having TSAS community nights, where we open the doors after school and offer free services that the parents of our students can come and participate in,” Townsend said. He wants the events to be open to non-parents as well. Meanwhile, he’s continuing his mission to impact the community one student at a time.
“I want my legacy to be that I opened the doors of opportunity,” Townsend said. “For students that maybe didn’t think they would be here or could be here. I want the education they receive here to confirm their imaginations.”