Friday, November 05, 2010

Fighting The "Flight": A Preamble on Partnerships with McLain High and Northside

This is a special letter separate from our regular reports that come out of A Third Place Community Foundation and our missional church and other activities here; another of those will follow. But before the letter, a preamble.

I have been thinking, and writing lately (see the keynote lecture at OU posted on about the way the decline of civil society and of the abandonment of Tulsa's northside over the decades, has stemmed in large part from the disintegration of truly public schools into a situation where students go to schools with other students who believe and look like them and have similar interests and experiences and lifegoals as them, where they are comfortable. Little wonder that once being graduated, they will continue to seek routes of convenience instead of the moral conscience choices required (by both our nation's founders, I personally believe, and for those of Christian faith, required to be a follower of Jesus) to be in right relationship with those different from them, especially those most vulnerable and in need of relationships.

I talk below in my special letter of support for the McLain High School Foundation event on Thursday Nov. 18 about the well-documented "white flight" phenomenon that struck in the 1960s and 70s here, losing the chance to build together a multi ethnic community respecting of differences but moving ahead together. This phrase often focuses on the "flight" and not on the "white." But of course as we have learned over the ensuing decades the artificial creation of what it is to be "white" was part of the invisible problem itself; it allowed people of diverse ancestries to define themselves as a "majority" so as not to remain a "minority"; it allowed them to take a road of comfort, to be a part of the American Dream defined as becoming a secure consumer helping to produce other secure consumers. Part of the angst of our current situation in communities is because the constructed sense of "being white" in order to be in the majority is giving away, regardless of our efforts, and soon in Oklahoma our state too will become a state without a single ethnic majority. Or, I should say, will become again such a state, for our roots, with our many "all black towns" and our history as a home for American Indian nations, once reflected such a diverse face.

"White flight" is not just a historical phenomenon, a relic of the past like officially segregated schools and facilities. It continues to happen every day here as "corporate flight" locates businesses and professions and churches and schools further and further away, taking money to new rooftops instead of old rooftops, new highways instead of neighborhoods. In our area schools, it also means a different kind of "school flight" will take place, and soon, with a lack of imagination and current resources will result in closing neighborhood public schools with small enrollments (at a time when small enrollments should be encouraged especially in places where students are disadvantaged and in need of extra attention and resources) and in their place the students will be sent to a single existing elementary school (as when Monroe was shut down the students were just sent to Gilcrease, as if they were just cogs in a machine and environments are interchangeable) all in order to achieve a certain student enrollment standard quota to meet budgetary needs. At least, we should insist, if certain small enrollment schools have to be shut down, build a new state of the art facility for all; if need be, wait for consolidation until a new bond issue can be passed for it. Or, if legislators and chambers of commerce and media, et al, want to prove there is really a better way to fund our northside area schools than the recently defeated measure to require a certain level of funding, then let our McLain and feeder schools become the put up or shut up site where the GOP in the state capitol and others must show some results of their own. That, or don't pretend any longer to have any concern at all for public education as a right of all, as they have done with health care as a right of all, and turn back the clocks to the 18th century.

We cannot go back to the 1960s and 70s and re-do history, no more than we can undo the Greenwood massacre I wrote about last week. We can't force people or businesses and professions back into our area either (though it still saddens me to see full page ads like in today's Tulsa World where the Utica Park Clinics were boasting of being "close to home" and yet in the map provided 10 of the 12 clinic sites were in south Tulsa and the other two were in suburban towns north and east of Tulsa). Yet, what we can hold out and expect is partnership, at the very least. Every school not in our area should itself be partnered with a school in our area; every church not in our area should be partnered with a school and church in our area; every business not in our area should be partnered with a school and a struggling business in our area; every nonprofit not in our area should be in partnership with a school and non-profit in our area. I put the schools at the top of each partnership need because that is where the disintegration started and continues, and that is the site where it can begin to be transformed.

The opportunity for these kinds of partnerships, each in a model and life of their own organically, can begin this month at two events. The first, on Thursday Nov. 11 at Gilcrease Middle School, dinner at 5:30 pm and forum on our area schools at 6 pm. The second, the one highlighted in the letter below, is the McLain Foundation event. You can find ways even if you don't live here to become a partner with those who do live here at both of the events. The Gilcrease event is free. The McLain event will cost you. Go to both, but if you have to choose one over the other, do the costly thing. If you can't go to the McLain event, you can still do the costly thing and support the new Foundation. Thanks and read below and please share with others in your networks if you are moved to do so. blessings, Ron

An Appeal For Support For Tulsa McLain High School

By Ron Robinson, class of 1972

On Thursday, Nov. 18 at 6 pm the new Tulsa McLain High School Foundation will hold a benefit dinner in the school gym, 4929 N. Peoria, to raise funds to endow the foundation for its mission of supporting the students at a time of public funding cutbacks and continuing economic decline in the community. All alumni, friends, and supporters of the northside and of educational justice should turn out in support.

It will be a fun way to reconnect or meet with one another and with the school and with the current students who are upholding the legacy of not being defined by the statistics and stereotypes but by the “Scot/Titan” spirit of still dreaming the impossible dream for their lives. One of my “impossible dreams” is that the new McLain Foundation will get support from alumni across the 50 years, from those who have left the neighborhoods they grew up in and those who still live here, and especially support across the racial lines. Our school and community has borne the brunt of much tension and change, but out of that conflict, because we lived it, we can become leaders for reconciliation. The Foundation is not a panacea for that deeper work, but it is a start and needs support.

The foundation is critical at a time when public educational funds have been cut and when the community around McLain suffers from the lowest income and lowest life expectancy in the area, 14 years below that of the zipcode just six miles south along the same Peoria Ave. McLain’s foundation is the last one to be created for a Tulsa high school. It is coming at a time when the school, now with several specific magnet programs and an alum for a principal, is transforming itself to continue growing leaders for the community, state, and nation.

McLain has had a unique history in the Tulsa schools during its 50 years serving students in Far North Tulsa and adjacent unincorporated areas such as Turley. It was built at a time of economic and community growth on the northside, but it was also built during a time of official segregation in Tulsa schools and within the city. When Tulsa schools began to be slowly integrated in the mid to late 60s, then more rapidly in the early 1970s, McLain and its feeder schools became the first to be rapidly and fully integrated and did so without the magnet program that developed later for city schools. It was on the front lines for needed change, and the rough lessons learned may have helped smooth the integration of other schools in other parts of the city that would come. However, there is much still to be done.

I was proud to be in the school during this time. I am proud that my senior year in 1972 was the first year for a black homecoming queen, the first of the long line to come. I am not proud of how at the very same time many of the advanced classes for college prep began to be eliminated at the school, adding to the racism that fueled the departure of families from the area. It was not an easy time for any in many ways, and we had little of the kinds of orientation to multiculturalism that have been developed in the decades since and that were part of the first Magnet experiment. Plus, outside of the school at the same time, the surrounding neighborhoods were beginning their 40 year decline in population and loss of mainstream businesses and civic groups to support the school and community youth. Schools do not exist in vacuums; as communities convulsed, so did schools; conversely, though, as schools can make comebacks, so too then can it spill over into communities.

These changes in the 1970s placed an added stress to the long-held stigmas and stereotypes about the area, and to the racism that flared in reaction to integration as “white flight” occurred. Even though there were always (sometimes predominantly), and continue to be, persons of European ethnic descent living in the McLain area, many of the younger siblings of white McLain grads went to Washington High School instead after its integration occurred later, or they transferred out of the district or began the big shift toward private and suburban schools. A perfect storm of social change, decay, and lack of resources and stability all hit at once. There were at one time about as many students in one grade as there are now in what is a four-grade high school. The economic hit that happened to both white and black middle class and working class families in the 1980s, the drop in wages and home ownership, the rise in drug use and gangs, and the flight of business investment that chased after rooftops instead of reconciliation all left a fragile school even more vulnerable.

Within the span of one generation, McLain went from being virtually an all-white, and American Indian, student population in official segregation days to virtually an all-black one today. Along the way even the name McLain was changed, to Tulsa School for Science and Technology. While some class reunions became separated by race, echoing the difficulties of uniting even with integration, one thing that seemed to unify many of both black and white alumni was the effort to return the name of the school to McLain. The original mascot name Scots, held proudly by many black alumni as well as white alumni, did not return with the name McLain, but alumni are proud to now be supporters of McLain Titans. (I do personally wish, however, that the added name Science and Technology would be dropped; all Tulsa high schools have some form of magnet programs now, but McLain is the only one with the added name of a technology school; nothing wrong per se with that, except there is already a Tulsa Tech, and to me it evokes the many historic officially segregated black schools who were designated as technical schools.)

Still, it should be said, that even during the years when the student populations were fairly evenly mixed ethnically, and even during the years when there was the greatest change and challenge from the problems in the community, and even during the years since when the school population has declined and during the name changes, and even today, there always have been students, parents, faculty, and staff, and community mentors, working on the ground and producing graduates and leaders who have the skills and passion to make differences in their respective fields and, what might be more important, in their own communities. I am proud that some of them continue to do so in the neighborhoods that still feed into McLain.

To all alumni and former students (even if you weren’t graduated at McLain) and former teachers of McLain, I want to add my eyewitness account that change and transformation educationally is taking place now in a way we haven’t seen before. The school is of course struggling to continue its academic turning-around and to stay off the list of needs to improve state schools, but it is off the list; new magnet school programs at McLain are in the areas where society especially needs skilled leaders: environmental science, health careers, along with aviation. If you are working in some of these career areas, we need your expertise and connections; but regardless, you have skills and stories to share; we also need your presence and financial support to help keep the transformation going. Even if your own children, or grandchildren, are students elsewhere, we know McLain can still beckon to you. Even, like many, if your high school years were not easy ones, we need your support to make them a little easier for the students today who have challenges and obstacles the same or harder than we had. And even, if you are not a McLain alumni, or parent of a McLain student over the years, but have a passion for justice, here is a place to put that passion into real life.

Hope to see you not only at the Dinner (or support us with a contribution if you can’t make the launch party), but also with the McLain Initiative where every small act and help goes a tremendously long way in the lives here. Checks are payable to McLain High School Foundation and can be sent to Post Office Box 4444, Tulsa, OK 74159-0444. The foundation is a tax-exempt 501c3 organization. Dinner costs are $50 per person or $1,000 $2,000 $3,000 or $5,000 Sponsor Levels for tables of eight guests. For more information or reservations contact: or phone 918.587.7222

Ron Robinson

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