McLain’s Struggle for Quality Education

The Progress and The Barriers

by Contributing Writer Darryl Bright

As white flight became prevalent on the far north side of Tulsa in 1968, there were 12 African-American students enrolled at McLain High school by year’s end. On July 30th, 1968, the United States Attorney General filed a complaint with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in the case of the United States of America vs. the Board of Education, Independent School District No. 1 of Tulsa County. The central finding of the case was that, “The Board of Education (collectively known as the ‘Tulsa School District’) had engaged in racial discrimination in the operation of the Tulsa Public Schools and has denied minority students the equal protection of laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.”

In September of 1969, the boundaries of thirteen schools were altered in order to increase integration. These schools were Bryant and Bunche Elementary Schools, Anderson, Carver, Cleveland, Gilcrease, Horace Mann, Monroe and Roosevelt Junior High Schools, and Central, McLain, Rogers, and Booker T. Washington High Schools. As the plaintiff, the United States government “… contended that the Tulsa Public School District had an obligation to desegregate nine elementry schools having a predominantly black student enrollment, namely Hawthorne, Whitman, Emerson, Burroughs, Frost, Woods, Johnson, Bunche, and Dunbar.” There were numerous maneuvers and proposals put forth by the TPS superintendent and the school board to prevent losing control and staving off an upheaval from the segregationists.   

One of the proposals included shutting down Douglas and Carver. Douglas and Carver school communities in 1970 and 1971 respectively protested the shutdowns by establishing the Carver Freedom School and the Douglas Freedom School. Two years after the Freedom School protests, North Tulsa community organizations, activists, educators, the TPS school board, and the courts were locked in disagreement about the best plan for desegregation. There were scores of meetings that were held to hammer out what eventually produced the magnet school plan that would be sanctioned by the court. The plan was the one structural change shown to be viable in promoting and sustaining integration of those northside schools by attracting white students north. Carver Middle School was closed then reopened as a magnet school. In 1973, Booker T. Washington High School was transitioning into a magnet school. Both schools were fully embraced by a large segment of the white community attracted by its history, spirit, and “progressive” curriculum. Douglas Elementary School subsequently shut down. By 1973, the magnet school concept was expanding and showed promise as  being the “plan” that would lead to the desegregation of Tulsa Public Schools.

In 1975, McLain High school was 67% African-American. Even though McLain had a thriving enrollment and a comparable curriculum to the other TPS high schools, it was beginning to show ominous signs of the economic changes that came with white flight and the subsequent economic downturn that shut down two shopping centers just north of McLain. Today, our schools continue to mirror that economic downturn. The City of Tulsa continues not to help. Tulsa Public Schools continues not to help. We must thank and support members of our North Tulsa community who have committed themselves, for generations, to the economic development and revitalization of our community. We have had some successes, but we still face challenges to mitigating generations of economic inequities. 

The late historian Dr. John Hope Franklin stated, “If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past.” For a large number of us, McLain High School is viewed as a place of prosperity and hope; a place to develop all students academically, physically, and socially. We see McLain as a place to prepare our children for all of life’s endeavors and ready them to take advantage of life-changing opportunities. We must be thankful to the principals, teachers, other instructional staff, cafeteria workers, our custodians, clerks, our alumni, and last, but certainly not least, our volunteers who are deeply dedicated to our children’s success and well-being. We all realize the struggle we continue to face against an educational system that has marginalized, disenfranchised, and tried to minimize our voices as well as our concerns. We have also come to realize the impossible conditions under which we have been charged with creating a high-performing school and school culture in which our children must reach their potential and realize the genius that lies within them. 

Looking back in order to go forward, my concerns around the issues we face at McLain and its feeder pattern schools have been reconfirmed continuously over my 32 years of advocating on behalf of our North Tulsa schools under 8 different superintendents. During this same 32-year time period, TPS superintendents have assigned 19 principals to McLain High School. The lack of coherence in having that many principals has taken a devastating generational toll on the quality of education our children, families, educators, the school, and our community have been exposed to, essentially by design. The role of the superintendent is, ultimately, to maintain the status quo and the power relationships at all levels of the school system with families and  educational activists. In the district’s organizational chart, the Board of Education occupies the top spot. They play a major role in formulating and voting on policies that govern every level of the district. Additionally, the Board votes on district initiatives, budgets, and much more. Moreover, the Board hires and evaluates the superintendent. They have the power to fire the superintendent who occupies the second highest position on the chart. The superintendent’s position, in reality, drives the policy, creation of district plans, initiatives, programs, and the day-to-day operations of the district, with the help of her cabinet, or the advice of the mothers and fathers of industry and/or philanthropy in Tulsa. The Board historically follows the superintendent’s lead and they usually default to the superintendent’s knowledge regarding educational theory/practice and other school issues. However, I have been noticing a new mode of operation on the board, with two or three board members voting against the “wisdom” of the current superintendent more often. Is this the dawn of a new day? A courageously new relationship and mindset?

The issues that McLain faces are systemic and generational. If we look at standardized test scores, graduation rates, remediation rates, the few elective course offerings, and the inadequate resources that have faced the student body for decades, we must duly celebrate those young men and women that continue to succeed, experience developmental growth, maintain a vision of high achievement, and work to make that vision a reality despite systemic issues both within and outside the school.

As we look at the historical realities of the academic mastery and proficiency levels expected of students when they arrive at McLain, too many of our young men and women are two or three grade levels behind in reading and math. This has been going on for decades and it is an excellent indicator that this generational outcome is systemic—an educational systems problem. Should we blame parents, the middle school teachers/principals, or the students? The aforementioned issues have been raised year after year to the district, but this does not turn off the facet to the pipeline that keeps our children and teachers in a perpetual year-in/year-out tutoring and required remediation courses cycle. The district leadership is content to spend money in a seemingly aimless manner while not addressing the root causes of the systemic problems that have been ailing McLain. Hence, the vast majority of students cannot read sufficiently and perform the necessary mathematical computations that are needed to be career and college ready. Why?

Even when our best students are performing well academically, they experience difficulty in real-world situations they encounter outside of the classroom. In the 2017-2018 school year, only 2% of McLain graduates were career or college ready. That same year, the superintendent and other administrators were touting how the graduation rate was on the rise. However, questions have been raised by parents, activists, and other community stakeholders about the inequities in resources, lack of state certified teachers, equipment, and textbooks. The answers that have been given from the district are not acceptable and many times there is no response—no action taken. Superintendent Gist and her predecessors have amassed mind-numbing volumes of programs, plans, initiatives, and have exhausted significant amounts of human time and energy only to produce worsening results.

In spite of TPS’ generational failures to meet the academic, developmental, and social needs of African-Americans in their district, students, principals, teachers, staff, families, volunteers, and community activists remain steadfast in their commitment towards ensuring that our children are properly educated. We are deeply invested in the district’s consistent dedication, in words and deeds, to meet our children’s academic and social needs. For nearly 40 years, McLain High School has been mired in a low-performance cycle. Some McLain feeder pattern schools, and other North Tulsa schools, have been in this cycle for over 50 years. TPS’ plans, programs, school restructurings, closings, initiatives, and solutions have not broken the cycle of the miseducation of our children. 

Why does this cycle continue? The generational trend of pre-K to 12th grade unsatisfactory academic outcomes for the district’s African-American students are revealed in TPS’ own statistics and data. Superintendent Gist has refused to identify and address the root causes of TPS’ systemic failures, structural racism, as well as district-wide inequities. Furthermore, all TPS superintendents have failed to act strategically upon the negative impact of racism both in school and outside of school. They have ignored the various manifestations of social injustices that are woven into the fabric of the Tulsa Public School system that color our students’ daily lives. These failures have stifled the development and achievement of African-American children and continue to contribute to the marginalization and disenfranchisement of families across the school district. A quote from the late Dr. Barbara A. Sizemore, teacher and educational administrator, emphatically states why the cycle of  “reforms” has failed and what we are willing to tolerate: “As long as these school reform measures fail to attack the main pillar of structural racism, African-Americans will not be successful. As long as Black people tolerate the least qualified teachers, the fewest resources, the worst facilities, and inadequate supplies and books, [and] a curriculum that denies the existence of Black people, their heritage and history, school reform will fail.” 

Generations of TPS’ programs, initiatives, and plans employing various and sundry consultant recommendations designed to make an obsolete educational system more effective and efficient have still left the outdated mindsets and the current educational system intact. The cycle of low-performance will continue. There has never been a deliberate process established to reconceptionalize teaching and learning for African-American children. McLain has had 19 principals in 32 years. This is by design. 

TPS’ instructional theory ignores and denigrates the African-American child’s cultural heritage, intellectual heritage, cognitive development, linguistic development, and identity formation. In the final analysis, the TPS school system and its overall instructional theory/pedagogy is based on white middle-class values and worldview. This is the primary contributor to the systemic generational failure of TPS’ solutions for African-American children, and, indeed, all children of color. This mindset is a barrier to meeting our children’s educational, developmental, and social needs. Regardless of the intent and work ethic of Superintendent Gist, board members and district administrators, their failed practices and failed solutions are evident of that white middle-class mindset. Hence, our children are further alienated from the TPS educational system. 

TPS’ “reforms and innovations” are based on the mindset that “the system is doing fine.” TPS’ 2015-2020 strategic plan does not address the generational low- performance of African-American children across the district or the reinvention of mindsets, paradigms, relationships, curricula, culture, and processes. Furthermore, there is no mention of addressing the academic and developmental needs of African-American children. Families, students, teachers, staff, and community members must be strategically engaged and empowered to contribute to all aspects of the reinvention process. 

The following is a short list of plans and initiatives that have fallen woefully short in meeting our McLain students’ academic and developmental growth needs over the years: 

  • Northside Priority Schools from 1983-84
    • The plan included adding new course offerings for McLain for the ‘84-’85 school year
  • Operation Outreach (A Tulsa Community Effort to Address the Needs of At-Risk Children) from August of 1991
    • The focus was McLain and its feeder pattern schools
    • “Operation Outreach associates the school with the community by providing additional funds for staff members to become educational advisors…Each of these advisors will work with a small number of students at school…[and] build rapport with the family at home. Another focal effort is extending the day for secondary school students, who need additional time for supervised study.” 
  • Renaming/rebranding McLain High School as McLain Career Academy in 1993
    • McLain would focus on preparing students for careers (e.g. Health Sciences, etc.). The academy ended after one year with the termination of the school CEO’s one year tenure.
  • Taskforce on High School Restructuring in June 1994 
    • Was a TPS action plan to reimagine high schools
  • McLain Initiative in March 1997 
    • The superintendent declared all positions vacant at McLain HS and McLain feeder pattern schools. This action was supposed to usher in a new beginning for McLain. All staff and teachers had to apply for the vacancies. Some teachers were not rehired and McLain’s principal was not allowed to apply. There was no strategic plan developed and funding was not provided for the major improvements.
  • Tulsa High School for Science and Technology in 2001
    • An April 2001 TPS informational flier about the pilot program stated: “…Students may wish to pursue a course of instruction that leads to professional certification to qualify the student for immediate employment in the field of technology. Or a student may take college preparatory coursework… A full complement of courses in the fine and performing arts will be [offered]… A one-half million dollar ($50,0000) grant from Williams [Company] is but the first step… to creat[ing] one of the country’s premiere science and technology schools… students with an interest in science, telecommunications, energy, material science, biotechnology, and optics will find a home.” 
  • North Tulsa Community Schools Advisory Committee in 2005
    • Focused on McLain and it’s feeder pattern. Teachers, staff, principals, families, community organizations, and school volunteers met under the facilitation of the superintendent’s assistant for 52 weeks and accomplished nothing of substance.   
  • State-required, McLain Advisory Committee established in 2012
    • Established to improve all aspects of the educational process at McLain. On February 5, 2013, the committee unveiled “The McLain High School Recommendations.” The document details 15 recommended paths to improve teaching and learning. The 15 paths were never implemented per the district administrator who had secondary schools under his responsibilities. A public explanation was never given for why the recommendations were never implemented.  
  • Tulsa Beyond in 2018
    •  A reimagining high school TPS pilot program. The status of McLain’s action plan is unknown.

Peter Murrell, author of African-Centered Pedagogy, Developing Schools of Achievement for African American Children, created an instructional theory of a “unified system of practice” that can serve as a solid model of what a logically sound reinvention of the district’s system, culture, and structures can be while serving the social and academic needs of all ethnicities, nationalities, and races. This is not an issue of the violation of civil rights. It is a violation of our children’s human rights. We cannot continue taking the same actions over and over and expecting different results using the same consciousness. We cannot use the same consciousness that created the problem to get us out of the problem. As a community, we must deliberate and come up with strategic solutions to determine what would best serve the children of McLain High School and its feeder schools. We must determine what we want our children to learn and be able to do. We must define our own destiny and develop a picture for our schools and children’s future as the context for unity of will and unity of action—for our children’s sake. 

Original photo credit: the City of Tulsa