Oklahoma's largest brick-and-mortar school district — more than 33,000 students across 67 buildings — heads back to class on Aug. 18.
The Tulsa Public School district is starting the school year with new programs and opportunities for students amid recent bouts of controversy.
Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist talked at length with 2 News Oklahoma. She said she is staying focused on her mission: making TPS the best education partner for students and their families.
The district begins the new year demoted to "accreditation with warning" by the Oklahoma State Board of Education after the district reportedly violated state law restricting teachings on race and gender during a professional training session. It was a punishment Dr. Gist insisted the district did not deserve and will not impact student learning.
"Right now, it doesn't have any direct implication on us," Gist said. "What it does mean is that because it's a graduated set of steps, and because the state board chose to skip some steps, for violation that to be very clear, we are completely confident we did not meet it was absolutely on earned and you know, other motivated by other factors. But nonetheless, what that means is that if someone determines that we have made some kind of a violation, that we are now graduated up those steps and closer to the moment where there could be implications on the district that include like financial implications."
TPS also faces a financial audit called for by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Stitt's Education Secretary, Ryan Walters, recently went on social media to demand that TPS remove two books from libraries for being "pornographic." Gist says the books, "Flamer" and "Gender Queer" were pulled from shelves immediately and will now undergo a thorough review process involving teachers, parents, and librarians.
Gist expressed disappointment the issue was handled through social media rather than with a simple phone call.
"It makes you wonder if the concern really was whether the images were being seen, or if the concern was more about, you know, continuing to cast disparaging messages about Tulsa Public Schools because we aren't the only school district that has those particular books and we're not the only libraries," she said. "These are very popular, young adult books. That doesn't mean that they should be in school libraries but they were there because our librarians purchased books in big bundles that come based on reviews that are done by various School Library Association from folks across the country."
While school librarians read reviews, Gist says they simply cannot read every single one of the million volumes now on Tulsa school library shelves. Instead, they rely on the review process they implement when someone raises a concern about a particular book.
"We have to focus. We have to stay focused on education's real problems," Gist says, such as finding more qualified teachers. She believes it's a problem that is no longer a crisis, it's catastrophic.
"The thing I think it's that's really important for Tulsans, for all Oklahomans to understand, is that we are in a situation in Oklahoma, where our state hires thousands and thousands of people every year, who do not have the preparation to be a teacher."
She's concerned about so many emergency certifications being issued and last week's move to allow adjunct teachers. These are professionals with experience in a field but no training to teach in a classroom.
Gist says to make matters even worse, experienced teachers are retiring at double the number of those graduating from college with teaching degrees.
"That's not even counting the people who leave the state to work elsewhere or who decide to find a different job or something along those lines."
TPS administrators and campus police are also focused on safety in the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting, adding more training for campus police, educators, and staff.
Gist says they rely on the "See, Hear, Share" program for tips on potentially dangerous situations. 918-480-SAFE is the number everyone is encouraged to call, text or email 24/7 with information about a person or situation that is concerning.
While such a program is helpful, Gist says it takes everyone working together to avoid the next mass shooting tragedy.
"It's our teachers, everyone in the whole system, our parents and students themselves," Gist said. "All of us need to be paying really close attention because the best and most important thing we can do is prevention."
With safety and COVID-19 protocols in place, Tulsa's superintendent is focused on new school year positives, such as:
- Opening a third Montessori program
- Growing career and technical education including the addition of a new aerospace program at East Central High School
- Expanding full immersion and dual language opportunities for students
"Tulsa is actually internationally known for the quality of our world language programs, and we now have 11 schools that have full immersion or dual language opportunities for students, and so students leave elementary school bilingual," Gist said.
As a former TPS student herself, and the district's longest-serving superintendent in 30 years, Gist said she loves back-to-school time.
"We're fired up for another year and we're going to keep plowing ahead, no matter the challenges that are before us. We're grateful for our board's leadership to help us to really stay focused, even during these tumultuous times."
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