By Patrick B. McGuigan
The 2011-12 academic year for the Oklahoma City Public Schools started earlier that ever – on Monday, August 1. In addition, a record-setting number of new principals – 26 in all – are in place to press what City Superintendent Karl Springer calls “extensive academic reform.”
In a press conference at Oklahoma Centennial High School, Springer told reporters, “I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about having a new school year start. The job of principal has really changed. As much as anything, now they are instructional leaders.
“The cuts to public education here in Oklahoma City have been pretty devastating, but we managed to add a few things back into our schools thanks to budget planning. The plan we had 24 months ago is still in place.”
The revised principal corps, he said, represents “a change in culture. We are raising the academic bar in the district.”
All over America, “Urban school districts face a lot of challenges, a lot of pressure and stress. We want to get out in front of that. There are a large number of new principals, and that is on purpose.”
Also new is a reconfigured “continuous learning calendar” built around a “breaks in October, winter break and spring break, to allow more opportunities for timely remediation during the school year.” Springer said, “We have the same number of days, but ‘continuous learning’ spreads out the school calendar.” He stressed this “is not year-round schooling.”
This past summer break, “we spent a lot of time at our sites helping children to make up ground” on the End of Instruction (EOI) tests, which will be fully implemented this year. Springer hopes the revised school calendar will support “’just-in-time remediation.’ We hope this is effective. It is intended as more of a strategy to focus on those children.”
Last year was a year of notable, even historic, success in sports for city public high schools. In response to a question from The City Sentinel, Springer said, “Our kids are competitive and they want to compete and do well in interscholastic activities. We aim to make the sports programs sustainable and competitive. As you know, we won several sports titles last year, and we intend do that again.”
The press for necessary remediation, with time explicitly allowed to close gaps for students, is “very deliberate. At some point, to get to where we need to be for our students, we need a 200 day calendar. I’m hoping to see in my lifetime a move to add days to school calendar. Four 50-day quarters would be more effective.” Until then, “We’re going to be positioned to add hours, time, to instruction.”
He advocated more time for instruction, noting, “Even 30 minutes a day would add 14 ½ days to the academic and instructional time” students receive.
As for parental support, an often challenging proposition for local sites, Springer commented, “I think every parent wants their child to be successful. A lot of them are working, and they want the school to be a safe and serene environment where their children can succeed.” He envisions at each school “a community action board, something like a PTA on steroids. We’re about getting out there and engaging parents.”
Springer believes there is community and corporate support for the pressure his administration is putting on teachers and principals: “The city has always wanted to be a successful district.” One of his goals is to remove “middle men” in the system.
“The message to the district, board and principals is to press for what works best. In the past, often it seemed as if the education system has focused on what was best for the adults.
“Now we are focused on what is best for the kids. Our focus in education has to be on the impact we have on children.”
Concerning reduced state appropriations, Springer said, “We weren’t really that surprised given the budget situation. In Texas some schools faced 25% cuts. In California, another 10 to 15 percent in cuts” came after earlier budget trimming.
He says, “Oklahoma is beginning to come out of the recession. Here in our system, we’re going to have a couple of million dollars less than last year. I feel as if we’ve down to collective tissue and muscle. I believe we are at the optimal level we can reach with limited resources.”
In addition to the principal changes and the new calendar schedule, Springer is optimistic about the “Teach for America” program that is bringing 54 instructors into the system this year, and continuation of “Great Expectations.”
The number of teachers in the system is around 2,640, with around 42,000 students in regular and charter schools, “about like last year.” Additionally, “We have 30 new pre-K teachers, all full-time.”
Concerning physical plant issues, “With MAPS for Kids, we are in the wrap-up phase. All construction will be done by the end of 2012.” The district is “now implementing also the 2007 bond issue to make additional improvements.” Looking ahead, “We may need in 2012 to go back and look carefully at some other needs. Class sizes should be about the same as last year, but there are challenges with the budget we’re managing.”
Springer said, as the school year begins, he has “trust and confidence” in each of the principals, including those who are listed as “acting.”