Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Abandonment for an Abandoned Place? Plus Coming Events because we refuse to abandon our place

Hi all. Sad times as I write this. Actually today one of our businesses a few blocks away, where one of our church members works, was robbed and the owner beaten, the payroll for the part time workers who get by day to day was stolen. And yesterday three alternative plans for school closings in the Tulsa Public Schools were announced and all three of them recommend closing our community school. More on that below.

But, we continue to be a presence sowing seeds, and our presence is needed now more than ever before here. We will be reopening regular hours for the community center in our new building, still in phase one of remodelling, beginning April 5, on a part time basis; it is already fulfilling to see how people are finding us out and coming by to see how things are going and to use the resources as we get them available. The Food Pantry is partly back in operation with new hours of Fridays 2-6 pm or by appt or during our special events. We will soon have three computers available in the computer center, and more soon. Our library/free bookstore is available, as are meeting space and DVD watching area, and the prayer chapel space, and community info area, and the outside is being transformed into welcoming artistic space thanks to our community art day last week. We will be moving toward dedication and official opening and more space this summer. But so far on track with the move. Plus we are gearing up for the kitchengarden park work, and our other areas such as Cherokee and more where we serve others.

I had a great time talking about us, and our vision of community, when I was in New England recently. You can read what I said in two sermons here at this link: Abandoned Places, Missional Communities, and Faith.

Events Underway: Thursday, March 31, 4 pm at Cherokee School, strategy meeting with parents to fight against the school closure; Thursday, March 31, 6:30 pm here at The Welcome Table, a free showing of the documentary "A Powerful Noise" about three women in different parts of the world who made big differences in their local areas with global reverberations, free pizza and popcorn and drinks; come get inspired for the world changing work we must do; Friday, April 1, 5:30 pm Tulsa Community College NorthEast Campus, community coalitions "From Turley to TU"; Sunday, April 3, 11:30 am I will give a talk on "Life, Death, and Resurrection in the 74126" at Emerson Hall in All Souls Church, 2952 S. Peoria Ave., followed by lunch somewhere, then back here to the Center from 2 to 5 pm for a free public workshop on economic justice and faith featuring a DVD by Shane Claiborne of with a meal to end it. Also beginning April 15 we will be in the running for a big grant for here from the National Fruit Tree Planting Association; we will need all to help with online voting so we get a big donation for our community orchard for North Tulsa area; more on that will come separately but get ready for it.

Big Weekend of Service: Friday to Sunday April 8-10 we will have volunteer projects going on all over the place here, up at the kitchengardenpark at 60th and N. Johnstown to begin getting it ready; here at the Center, and at Cherokee School, and on the streets of our area. Plan to come spend time changing one little part of the world in great need; all ages welcome.

Big Projects Underway: Even with the school under fire, we continue to gear up for our project for the third summer in a row of feeding all the children and youth under 18 years old a lunch whoever needs it whether they live here or elsewhere or are just travelling through, and it will be at Cherokee School two hours a day. The more volunteer commitment we have the better; then we will just pay for staff when volunteers can't make it. So see me or contact me if interested; we will be holding training for it soon...Also we are getting ready to launch a Summer Wellness Survey Project with OU again; I am getting training for that now; we plan to provide coupons for those who participate with the coupons redeemable at local businesses so it will pump a little money and support into our neighborhood. And plans are continuing to unfold to move toward the launch of our revolutionary Community Health Worker plan to develop health mentors from folks who live right here to help uninsured people who live right here from having to end up so often in expensive emergency room care.

Cherokee and Greeley School Vulnerable to Being Shut Down: But the big news is the proposals released which all have recommended our schools being closed. We are now in the public, and particularly parent, feedback stage as the reports were just released. It caught us off guard especially for Cherokee near us because 1: Cherokee School represents a historic community, having been an independent school of its own before the 1938 merger with Tulsa Schools, and is the keeper of the Turley Community historical artifacts and display; in fact all the kids in the Greeley school area once were Cherokee students before it was built, and because 2.) its enrollment is more than some other schools who were not slated to be closed in all the plans (though our other partnered school Greeley is also proposed to be closed in two of the three plans), because 3.) its cost per student for building operation was lower than other schools that were not slated for closure, because 4.) its proximity rate to other schools was also on average with others, better than some worse than others, because 5.) its academic performance was also in the average range compared with some other schools nearby, because 6.) it is one of the most ethnically balanced student populations, and we thought that was one of the goals; and because 7.) its number of students in its area who have transferred out to other schools rather than attending at Cherokee was a lower percentage than most other schools nearby, (its only damaging criteria data was that it has a low number of students transferring into the school compared with others nearby).

So, why was it picked to be closed in all three plans, and why was Greeley picked to be closed in two of the three plans? It will be interesting to hear what school officials say who recommended it; so far nothing specific has been said for the reasons behind this particular closure, nor what would be done with the building if the school is closed. In the midst of the grief, I tried to make a few points at the initial meeting last night at our community association monthly program: there is a tendency to be divided and conquered and if each school only struggles alone that will happen; especially if we end up dividing along racial lines; and also that we wouldn't be having this discussion regardless of the declining enrollment in the district if the state were not slashing funds to schools; we would be celebrating having smaller enrollments to do better teaching; we would be celebrating having extra space in buildings to bring in the community more; we should tax ourselves adequately to meet the basic needs of our children, and this is another attack on the whole idea of public schools which is so much a cherished part of our American value system. That is the big picture which we are in danger of forgetting in our specific anger and confusion over why this or that school may be closed.

I will come back in a second as to my speculation as to why Cherokee in particular was slated for closing, but I want to say that we can't let the school system wall off the effect of this decision on communities; especially after they give lip service and in some few places have built effective community schools; yes, education levels and testing results and the kinds of courses available is important; I have been lamenting the loss of these over the past years as they have starved the schools, and now are penalizing them because parents have often left,who could, because of the previous curriculum cutbacks; but don't forget to take neighborhoods into account in the decision; and not all neighborhoods are equal; this will be particularly devastating to the 74126 if Cherokee and Greeley are closed; we should instead, if we were to follow God's preferential option for the poor, keep these schools open and bring others here. As the NAACP has said, our communities here have suffered from decades of neglect, resulting in lawsuits, because of the segregation Tulsa schools had de facto until the mid to late 60s, and then the way integration was handled led to a showcase high school that took away resources from other high schools, and has resulted in again hugely imbalanced racially high schools; so now, don't penalize schools in communities that have been emptied because the resources were taken away in the first place.

Cherokee and Greeley are on the edges of the district; geographically I think the planners were looking at bringing back closer into the center the schools, shrinking the area of service without shrinking the actual area of the district; which means students here on the edge, where we have the highest poverty, will have the furthest to go to attend school; even with more funds spent on busing, it will mean our parents, many of whom do not have cars and do not have reliable cars, will find it harder to get to the schools for events, for picking up kids who are sick, and it will make it harder to build the kind of parental school involvement that is needed. When schools close, parents move, and an already declining student population in Tulsa will continue to decline as more families go suburb or private; the hope is that more elective programming at all of the schools will keep them in the district even if they have to travel with their child further to get there; I hope so, but doubt it if they can get those electives elsewhere. Those who want to go elsewhere but can't afford it will not make the kind of school supporters they are now. Also geographically, Cherokee serves students within and outside the city limits of Tulsa, but it is located four blocks outside the city limits; there is not then a city governmental representative voice that can speak up for it as there is for nearby schools that are within the city limits.

Deeper still, Cherokee is an ethnically balanced school as I mentioned, and this can work against it as unfortunately there isn't a core ethnic group that can rally around it either. And, here is the rub: many of the white residents in our area have not been supportive of McLain High School and Gilcrease Middle School as they have back in the day when those schools were more evenly integrated and especially when they were primarily white schools; even now the parents of many Cherokee students, though they are not alone in this, have no plans to send their children on to the higher schools close by here, to Gilcrease or McLain, because of the past problems at those schools, which are being turned around, but images and stereotypes and fears are hard to erase; and so why should the school district keep open a school at which many of its students will then transfer to other schools or to charter schools or outside the district? In essence, has our area itself cut itself off from Tulsa Public Schools middle and high schools and are now seeing the District return the "favor" by cutting Cherokee, and perhaps Greeley, too off from it? We need to look at the ethnic demographics of Cherokee compared to the surrounding schools and deal honestly, though painfully, with the emotions and ramifications and history. But, closing it will only make that situation worse, and will make the racial demographics of the schools even more uneven, I believe, as families turn elsewhere.

Our task is to keep our eyes on the real culprits who have failed to tax those things that ought to be taxes, and those people who ought to be taxed, to provide funds for education to all so we can operate out of abundance and not out of scarcity; our task locally is to also envision a new kind of school at Cherokee that will draw on its strengths and help it attract students; I think making it a magnet for overt, intentional, teaching tolerance curriculum as both an Ethnic and Ecological Diverse Elementary School is a key, recognizing its already strong areas of multi ethnic population and the outdoor classrooms we have been putting in place there these past few years through our community foundation and center. We need a place where young people will go to learn how to learn and grow with others of different ethnicities as they get older; it will help them, and their parents, to then remain in the Tulsa district for what it can offer, which is why Bonnie and I moved with our daughter out of Owasso and back to the Tulsa School District. This can be Cherokee's distinctiveness, at a time when diversities and diversity of life are so key to the new economy. I also worry what will happen even more to the vulnerable urban unincorporated area here adjacent to the city limits if the only school in the unincorporated area is shut down; already it is not eligible for community development block grants, etc., and taking yet another resource away will deepen the hurting.

My proposal for this area: (without the advantage of months of deliberations of course and with the caveat that we should just citizen up and tax and spend more for our most vulnerable children)
I like, given the real unfortunate economic circumstances the district is in, the plans to make the high schools multi year campuses, reducing the moves from one building to the other during the adolescent years; I like doing away with middle school as it has been, making the high schools 7 to 12 grades; do this at McLain; it is easier and more appropriate I think to have older children travelling further from their homes, especially in areas with difficult transportation and poverty areas. We then have geography to consider and the value I believe in keeping younger children closer to their homes: Houston and Gilcrease and Greeley are all within a half mile of each, with Houston and Greeley adjacent; Penn and the old Monroe school they are talking of reopening are also adjacent; Alcott and Cherokee are more set off in their own spaces. So, use Gilcrease which is right between Houston and Greeley as a site for those two schools combined, closing their own campuses; and keep Cherokee and Penn and Alcott open, PK-6 or some variation between them of those grades. Don't reopen Monroe. Make Cherokee a Diversity Emphasis Magnet to help attract others and offset that low transfer in criteria and the demographics of the area. Even if you had to, make Cherokee a Special 6th Grade Center with those focuses in order to help prepare students and families for the diversity to encounter and encourge in the higher grade level life, though I in general don't like single grade schools, but it is an idea; just like Rogers High School is going to be transformed into an early college school to prepare students for college and get them started on it; this option of Cherokee as a special 6th grade center would be geared to helping all prepare for the big step into the 7-12 grade centers. Then in the McLain feeder system you would actually have closed two schools which is I think at most all this zip code should have to at worse consider but they are schools close by to another; make up the money elsewhere that would be gained by closing Cherokee too. Gamble on it being pitched as a district wide kind of Anytown School, like the oklahoma center for community and justice has its summer program for diversity called anytown, and add in a focus on ecological diversity and environmentalism and outdoor classrooms, the strengths already in place.

And, as the Cherokees say, make your decisions thinking not of the next budget year, but of the seventh generation.

blessings, Ron
ps I will post these school thoughts separately on Facebook and blog for those who might want to comment or pass them on just as is without the other news.

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