Consolidation frustration: Changes to McLain feeder pattern schools cause concern in the community

by Staff Writer Bianca Lowe

Last fall, a group of community members, The North Tulsa Community Education Task Force (NTCETF), came together to confront the issues that have been plaguing McLain 7th Grade Academy.  The Task Force was formed in response to the community voicing concerns that McLain 7th Grade Academy would be closed because of low student attendance. Parents and advocates were uneasy about 7th graders’ safety and overall education should they return to McLain Junior/Senior High School.  Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist and school board member Jennettie Marshall worked together to select the 22 community members who make up the NTCETF. Gist wanted to make sure the NTCETF consisted of North Tulsans from different sectors and generations of the community.

According to Reverend Andrea Chamber, one of the members of the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force, the group utilized information gathered during community meetings and interviews with parents, students, and teachers to confront the concerns facing the North Tulsa community.  After considering several options, a decision was made. In January of 2019, the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force presented their recommendation to Tulsa Public Schools. All of North Tulsa’s sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students would be attending the Monroe Middle School complex, which will be acting as the only middle school in the McLain feeder pattern.  Their decision affects not only McLain 7th Grade Academy, but several other schools in North Tulsa, including McLain Junior High, Penn Elementary, Gilcrease Elementary, Anderson Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary, Celia Clinton Elementary, Springdale Elementary, Unity Learning Academy, and Whitman Elementary. Along with the consolidation of middle schools, Gilcrease Elementary and ECDC Bunche will be consolidated into one school housed in the Bunche building, serving students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.  These changes will take place in the upcoming school year.

According to an official statement from Tulsa Public Schools’ Director of Communications, Emma Garrett Nelson, “… Monroe Demonstration Academy is going from a magnet school of about 250 kids to the neighborhood middle school for the entire McLain feeder pattern.  We are projecting that enrollment will be in the area of 800 students.” Monroe will be keeping its micro society, Monrovia, which encourages project-based learning and utilizing real-world applications. Each grade will be broken into learning groups averaging about 30 students per class.  Students will work with the same “learning family” all year. When speaking to members of both the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force and members of Tulsa Public Schools’ administration, the idea of giving all students in the McLain feeder pattern access to a quality education lead to the decision to bring students to Monroe.  Reverend Chambers stated that the Task Force wanted to create a “neighborhood school” to educate “the whole child.”

Consolidating all middle schoolers into one building in the fall will be a huge change for North Tulsa.  With the help of McLain 7th Grade Academy English teacher Laura Grisham and Monroe Demonstration Academy Assistant Principal Robert Kaiser, 14 student leaders have come together to confront some of the challenges that await them.  The Monroe Leadership Advisory Council (MLAC) includes rising 8th graders from both McLain 7th Grade Academy and Monroe Demonstration Center. The MLAC will allow students space to voice concerns, present solutions, and participate in the process.  The student leaders have presented ideas for extra curricular activities, conducted school tours for prospective hires, and helped students understand how their school is changing.

In order to accommodate the influx of over 500 additional students, the school will be bringing in new staff.  The process of recruitment has included ensuring all current Monroe teachers are retained, transferring in teachers from closing schools, and recruiting new teachers to the district.  Teachers will be given two weeks of professional development in the summer to prepare for the 2019-2020 school year. Dr. Gist stated that Monroe will continue to provide core curriculum along with many after-school programs.  Monrovia, a microsociety where “students are encouraged to search for real-world applications for their learning, and … use technology and project-based learning to create true 21st century academic experiences”, will continue.   When asking stakeholders, “What will Monroe look like in August?”  the words: “high energy”, “smiling faces”, and “large community presence” were used often.  However, some have voiced concerns.

With any big change comes reservations and the changes to the McLain Feeder pattern are huge.  Entire schools are closing and grade levels are being removed from existing schools. Teachers are being uprooted and scattered to different school sites across TPS.  Students and families are contending with a totally different environment than they have been accustomed to. Throughout the process, there have been persistent concerns that the community’s voice has not been heard.  A veteran teacher at Monroe believes there has been a lack of support and transparency from the district. Tulsa Public Schools and North Tulsa Community Education Task Force’s recent closed-door meetings have not quieted the cries of uncertainty.  The Monroe staff are confused about the transition and are afraid the positive school culture may be lost with all of the new changes. There has also been push back against returning principal Rex Langley and teachers have already seen the school culture erode during his year as interim principal.  These issues have led some teachers and students to choose not to return to Monroe in the fall. One North Tulsa mother stated, “This feels like an experiment. Would you put your kid here?”. Only time will tell what lies ahead for North Tulsa middle school students and families.

Illustration: Patrick Norman