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TULSA, OKLAHOMA

Part Four: Case Studies of Scaling Up Community School Initiatives

TULSA, OKLAHOMA: Learning from Other Initiatives and Planning for Sustainability
 

Community leaders in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recognized that the supports made available to preschool-age children failed to make a difference in children’s lives once the children entered grade school. The leaders therefore began searching for a way to connect the same types of student and family supports to the schools. After intentional research on best practices, they discovered the community schools strategy and began a journey around the country to learn from others as they planned for a sustainable strategy. Today, community schools are embedded in two Tulsa school districts (Tulsa Public Schools and Union Public Schools), and other Tulsa-area school districts have begun to inquire about community schools. Under the umbrella of the Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative, community school leaders have built collective trust among school leaders and community partners; as a result, many more students in Tulsa are succeeding.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Human Services Commission (MHSC) decided to make educational improvements one of its priorities. The MHSC is a collaborative of leaders established and supported by the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa (CSC), city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) and Union Public Schools (UPS), Tulsa Area United Way, Tulsa Community College, Tulsa Health Department, Tulsa Technology Center, and Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The MHSC had been involved in several activities to support children and families, especially in the areas of child abuse prevention, family support, and early childhood development. Members recognized that, despite these activities, the supports were not following children into the school system. In addition, too often, the gains made in the early years evaporated when children reached school age. Consequently, the MHSC sought to identify a positive school reform and revitalization strategy that would involve the whole child, from the prenatal period through post-secondary education and into the workforce.

The MHSC engaged the CSC to research and present options for developing new strategies to increase the likelihood of success for all children in the education pipeline. The CSC hired Jan Creveling, a respected former Junior League vice president who had worked on MHSC and CSC initiatives, to identify an education improvement strategy appropriate for Tulsa. Creveling began an 18-month process of gathering and analyzing research. She investigated the Beacons model, family resource centers, and other supportive strategies across the nation. After studying various approaches to education reform, Creveling and the CSC determined that community schools offered an overarching framework for all the other programs under consideration.

Creveling and the CSC set out to learn as much as possible about existing community schools. She and Phil Dessauer, the CSC’s executive director, attended the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum in Chicago in spring 2005. At the forum, Creveling and Dessauer were surprised and encouraged when they met the principal and assistant principal of Roy Clark Elementary School, a Union Public School in Tulsa. They, too, were attending the forum to learn about community schools. Following the forum, Creveling visited Washington, DC, to meet with Coalition staff, who recommended that she accompany a team to the Coalition’s National Forum in Baltimore the following year. Upon her return from Washington, Creveling made a formal presentation about her research and recommended that the MHSC begin designing a community schools initiative. The MHSC supported the recommendation and directed Creveling to initiate the needed planning.

Creveling began her efforts by contacting other community school leaders around the country to learn from their experiences. She asked, What lessons did you learn? What should we avoid? What have been your successes? What do you wish you’d done differently? And, if you were starting today with what you know now, what would your initiative look like? Given that Creveling had been involved in other efforts that could not be sustained, she focused on sustainability from the beginning of the planning process.

Creveling assembled a team of 32 community representatives from a variety of sectors to attend the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum in Baltimore in spring 2006. With a plan to learn from others, each representative of the Tulsa delegation was encouraged to attend specific workshops and report back to others in Tulsa on what they learned. Upon their return from Baltimore, attendees began to formulate the vision, mission, core beliefs, governance structure, and core components of a Tulsa community schools initiative.

Given that the Tulsa and Union schools were not only MHSC members but also parties to the decision to investigate a new school reform strategy, UPS Superintendent Dr. Cathy Burden and TPS Superintendent Dr. David Sawyer started hosting listening sessions that enabled the Tulsa delegation to present its findings and proposals to others. Dr. Burden invited all UPS Title I elementary schools to the sessions with the aim that all UPS schools would become community schools; Dr. Sawyer invited everyone from the TPS elementary schools most interested and experienced in community partnerships (based on attendance at listening sessions and leadership experience in working with community resources) to establish the first TPS elementary community schools.

Concurrently, the CSC began to build the infrastructure needed to coordinate and manage the community schools initiative, which was soon called the Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative (TACSI). The CSC created the TACSI Resource Center, a "central clearinghouse" staffed by the CSC, to plan, implement, and administer the initiative. Creveling agreed to serve as senior planner in charge of the TACSI, and, in 2006, the CSC hired a school liaison to work with designated community schools.

Since 2006, TACSI has followed a uniform process at each new community school to initiate planning. The planning process is organized around a resource inventory that covers the seven core components of the community schools framework: early care and learning, health/health education, mental health/social services, family/community engagement, youth development/out-of-school time, neighborhood development, and life-long learning. Schools begin the process by identifying initiatives and partners already involved within their school community in order to align strategies, avoid duplication of effort, and generate buy-in from the school and community organizations. Each community school must identify three priority needs to ensure that TACSI meets at least one of them each year and remains responsive to individual schools’ needs.

In 2007, TACSI created a Management Team of leaders from participating school districts and other key stakeholders to help implement and align the TACSI strategy with that of the school districts and the University of Oklahoma community schools system. The team also develops policy guidelines for community schools.

Through a large steering committee established in 2009, the broader community is now engaged in planning and guiding the TACSI; it meets monthly to help guide and support strong community relations. The committee comprises approximately 20 members, including funders, school board members, representatives overseeing each of the seven core components, and individuals with a history of supporting Tulsa-area education and planning initiatives.

CSC staff serve as the intermediary for TACSI and oversee the TACSI Resource Center. The CSC employs the community school coordinators in the TPS sites, whereas coordinators in the UPS sites are district employees. The CSC and school principals supervise TPS and UPS coordinators in an arrangement consistent with the desires of each district as specified from the outset of the initiative.

After learning about planning for sustainability at a Coalition for Community Schools National Forum, TACSI planned the community schools initiative in three-year increments in order to remain sensitive to changing environments. This approach has helped TACSI stay focused while planning for scale-up.

As part of its planning, TACSI outlined the structure, activities, and normative elements of its community schools initiative in what it describes as Community School DNA. The structural elements for each fully developed community school depend on the principal’s strong leadership as well as on a coordinator and site team to ensure the delivery of a set of holistic programs, services, and opportunities; family and community engagement; and community-based learning. The normative elements are democratic leadership, program coherence, parent responsibility, and professional capacity. Together, the aligned DNA elements create and support the conditions for learning.

In addition, TACSI characterizes its schools along a continuum of community schools development according to the following stages (in ascending order): inquiring, emerging, mentoring, and sustaining. In adapting these stages from the Children’s Aid Society community schools stages of development, TACSI has been able to map expectations for new and growing community schools as they scale up.

In 2007, after thoughtful deliberation and learning from experienced community schools initiatives around the country, TACSI launched 18 community schools in the Tulsa and Union school districts. It planned the phased-in implementation of the community schools strategy, starting with elementary schools and then moving to middle schools in later years, thereby providing a vertically aligned continuum of supports. TACSI assumes that it will have to adopt a different approach for the post-elementary level. It plans to explore the relevance of some of its assumptions in a startup effort at the UPS’s grade 6 and 7 center during the 2011–2012 school year.

In the initial year of community schools implementation, principals relied on Resource Inventories to evaluate a school’s capacity and determine its suitability for designation as a community school. Based on the inventories, TACSI started with 2 "mentoring" schools, each with a full-time community school coordinator; by the end of the first year, 5 community schools were at the mentoring level and had a full-time coordinator. In the TACSI model, "mentoring" schools demonstrate the school climate and culture conducive to partnerships and thus are considered to be prepared for a coordinator. Thirteen other schools, referred to by TACSI as "emerging," started to develop the climate and culture of community schools and, during the first year, began to move along the community schools continuum. All 18 schools learned from one another, participated in professional development activities, and received technical assistance over the next two years. In 2009, 7 more schools joined TACSI as "inquiring" schools" in the earliest stages of developing into community schools.

An essential component of TACSI’s scale-up and sustainability strategies is a rigorous evaluation of the implementation and impact of community schools. The TACSI partnered with the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa’s (OU-Tulsa) School of Education to begin evaluating the model. Assistant Professor Curt Adams first studied the governance structure of each community school and found that high- implementing community schools ("mentoring" schools) achieved the greatest success with students and families. For leaders of the initiative, this finding confirmed the effectiveness of the TACSI model. In a second study, Dr. Adams and his team examined cross-boundary leadership, another key ingredient of the strategy, and found that collective trust among leaders and school personnel was essential to success. A third study found that, on state achievement tests, grade 5 students in high-implementing TACSI community schools were outperforming by 30 points grade 5 students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in non-community schools. Leaders were surprised and delighted to see that the initiative was making a noticeable difference in so little time. Each study has helped TACSI expand the initiative by using the best data available for decision making.

OU-Tulsa has been involved in developing TACSI from the initiative’s outset. Pam Pittman, head of the university’s Community Engagement Center, has served on the Management Team since its inception, and the OU-Tulsa clinics have always played an important role in providing supports in community schools. Using a university-assisted community schools model, OU-Tulsa provides supports to students starting in grade 9 and continuing through college. The university’s diagram of the P-20 Pipeline in Tulsa illustrates the relationship: TACSI provides support at the beginning of the pipeline, from early childhood education and elementary school through middle school, and OU-Tulsa supports students from high school through their experiences as life-long learners.

In 2009, TACSI was awarded a grant from the Institute for Educational Leadership, in collaboration with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to participate in the Early Childhood and Community Schools Linkages project (Linkages). The project goals are (1) to ensure that all children are prepared for success in school and life; (2) to enable all schools to be prepared for the youngest children; and (3) to demonstrate that community schools are effective vehicles for promoting access to and continuity of high-quality programming across early childhood education programs and the early grades. Tulsa, and indeed the state of Oklahoma, has a history of strong and broad early childhood education support. The Linkages grant enabled TACSI to deepen its connection to existing early childhood efforts in Tulsa and to create important linkages to elementary schools scaling up to become community schools.

As mentioned, TACSI’s plan for scale-up is well aligned with participating school districts’ objectives. To scale up effectively, the Management Team decided (1) that every community school must write the community school strategy into its site plans and (2) that districts must include the strategy in district strategic plans and vision. TACSI worked with both the UPS and TPS to ensure that community schools were aligned with the student achievement approach in each district’s strategic plan. The student achievement goal in the TPS 2010–2015 strategic plan sets forth the following objective:

Expand the concept of community schools to appropriate scales of growth within the District. A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Community schools combine the best educational practices with a wide range of vital in-house health and social services to ensure that children are physically, emotionally and socially prepared to learn.

Encouraged by the strength of its strategy and the high level of community support, TACSI has most recently been working to expand the number of community schools. Every Title I elementary school in UPS is a community school. As the result of a recent school consolidation plan, the TPS is closing several schools, and Superintendent Keith Ballard is committed to transforming all remaining schools into community schools. Broken Arrow and Sand Springs, two nearby districts, have approached TACSI and are in the initial phases of developing their own community schools initiatives. TACSI has also been helping Metro Tech become a community school. Metro Tech is an alternative high school located in Oklahoma City, about 100 miles from Tulsa.

TACSI is reaching out to state political leaders, courting the support of Governor Mary Fallin and the new Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. TACSI escorted Barresi on a site visit to Kendall-Whittier Elementary, a TACSI school, and a representative from the governor’s Tulsa office has visited the school.

TACSI continues to enjoy the support of school, community, and government leaders who view community schools as a central strategy to improving outcomes for children, families, and communities. Thanks to thoughtful planning and learning from others, TACSI is growing and providing an example for others.


Additional Resources

Watch a video about the impact of TACSI

TACSI from Ben West on Vimeo.

 

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