The Strength of Local Public Schools
Consistent, caring teachers invested in the community.
Posted December 22, 2017
I grew up in Chickasha, Oklahoma. It is a small town whose population rose and fell with the booms and busts of the oil cycle, with a farming community at its core. Unlike large metropolitan areas, there were no private schools to attend, no charter schools, and no practical options for transferring to other schools. The default was that if you lived in the community, you attended Chickasha Public Schools. The view from the ivory tower is often that athletics have no role in education, but in Chickasha they served to: 1) bring together diverse students, 2) expose students to life lessons of hard work and integrity, and 3) give many students opportunities to go to college who would not have had that opportunity if not for athletic scholarships.
Many teachers in the district had attended the school system as students and there was a great deal of stability in the teaching faculty throughout the schools. This formed the nucleus of a public school system that could endure administrative turnover with superintendents coming and going, each bringing different visions to bear on a small town that valued education. But when the administrative direction is mismatched with the values of a community, it is a recipe for dissent and failed programming.
Recently my hometown has received a great deal of attention for suspending four employees for a host of allegations (Lane, 2017; Rayne, 2017; Sweetman, 2017; see links in reference section). There are legal matters to sort out and I am not privy to any additional details outside of public reporting. However, I will comment on the general criticisms of the program at the center of the debate, Student Personalized Learning Center, as well as one of the suspended educators in particular.
Former Chickasha Public School educator L. J. Powell (2017, December 19) recently wrote an opinion letter on the state of Chickasha Public Schools. He discussed the changes he had seen since beginning his work there in 1958 at the beginning of integration. Mr. Powell served many roles in the school district including Teacher, Dean of Students, Athletic Director, Head Baseball Coach, and Head Football Coach. In his letter he criticized the Personalized Learning Center, where students are taught with individually tailored learning plans where students self-teach and have multiple attempts to take a test at their choosing. With regard to this, he wrote a particularly interesting statement. “I realize it takes money to run the school system, but NOT at the expense of educating our students. What they are doing is NOT preparing our students for college or life—neither of these give you 4 chances to get it right!”
With regard to Chickasha Public Schools, Mr. Powell makes two key points. The first is the issue of funding. Chickasha Public Schools has never been one flush with funds. There simply isn’t enough money in the community to have a tax base large enough to give the school system money for luxuries. However, the school system has always provided nice facilities and services to the students. The community truly values education, which is why there have been so many community members attending recent school board meetings. Money isn’t the strength of the school system. One strength of the school system has always been the supporting community. Another strength of the school system is the large number of caring, compassionate, talented educators who dedicate their careers to the school district and embed themselves in the community as citizens. These educators live in the community, eat at restaurants in the community, attend school district events, and attend church in the community. Alumni from Chickasha Public Schools have quite a positive record of accomplishments as professionals in the community and beyond. The constant is having teachers who have a stake in the development of the students as people inside and outside of the classroom.
The second key point Mr. Powell makes is his criticism of the Personalized Learning Centers. This criticism reminds me of when the district experimented with Outcome Based Education in the 1990’s. Outcome Based Education allowed students to learn at their own pace and take exams over until they reached the score they wanted or needed. In terms of psychological learning theory, this type of self-paced learning is fine. However, the implementation of such a broad sweeping program in a public school system had unintended consequences, including for my own career.
Practically, students learned no sense of urgency. Why study hard right now when you can take it again later after seeing how the questions are worded? At a time when students should learn self-discipline, they were learning self-gratification (go ahead and do what you want with your time now, and fix it later). For me, I was unprepared for the intensity of college work. Sure, I knew the material when I left high school, but I was not equipped to survive college work with the necessary study skills that were needed. It took me time to develop those skills in college, as the expectations were different. As an educator, I am certain such a student would not be successful in my classes, though I go through extra efforts at the beginning of each semester to make sure all students know that the expectation is that they cannot fall behind due to lack of timely effort.
Additionally, I would like to address my experience with Mr. Pete Bush, one of the suspended educators. Mr. Bush was my teacher and coach in high school, and my roommate on baseball road trips. I learned much of what I know about classroom management from watching him as a teacher and I learned the technical skills that gave me value as a college assistant baseball coach from him as well. Mr. Bush is certainly a man of integrity and a man who never allowed anyone under any circumstances to cut corners. He stayed with me after nearly every practice helping me put in extra work at my request, instead of going home to his new wife, and later to his new wife and baby. I’m an educator and I don’t know that I have that kind of passion for the success of my students. I would like to think that I do, but that is a very high bar to clear.
If not for Mr. Bush’s advice, I would be a high school baseball coach. That is a valuable calling, for sure. However, he is the one who told me I could pursue higher education more deeply and still be involved in coaching baseball. He is the one who asked me late in my senior year what I wanted to do for a career. I said, “I want to be a high school baseball coach.” He told me ,“Yes, you could be a very good baseball coach. But your skill set is deeper than that, so don’t sell yourself short. You can always be involved in baseball while you have another career. What else do you want to do?” I responded with, “Well, I really like studying psychology.” And here I am, a psychology professor writing for Psychology Today. There was no big administrative budget that led to that conversation and no second chances on a test. All that was required for that lesson was an educator who genuinely cared deeply about the successful careers of his students.
We need more of Pete Bush in the Chickasha Public School system, not less. Whatever the outcome of the issue at Chickasha Public Schools, the long-term story of the school district is not one of corruption and greed, pettiness and retaliation, politics and embezzlement. The story of Chickasha Public Schools is of a community that supports its students and teachers, and cares about the holistic development of its students.
Layne, J. (2017, December 14). Four employees suspended from Chickasha Public Schools. The Express-Star (see link).
Rayne, M. (2017, December 20). Investigation heats up after suspension of 5 Chickasha school employees. KOCO News 5, koco.com (see link).
Sweetman, C. (2017, December 14). Chickasha Schools employees suspended pending mysterious investigation. Oklahoma’s News 4, kfor.com (see link).