Special to The Sun
OKLA. CITY —
I love visiting schools — walking into classrooms, observing students and teachers hard at work. I love hearing stories of success, and I ache when I hear the challenges faced in our schools. Sitting behind a desk, it is impossible to get an accurate picture of all that happens in education. During the school year, I am in a different school district — sometimes several — in a different part of our state every week.
Last week, I had the pleasure of having our State Board of Education meeting in Frederick. Superintendent Shannon Vanderburg, members of his staff and the district’s Board of Education extended an extremely warm welcome to my staff, our State Board members and me. They fed us a wonderful lunch, and took time out of busy schedules to help us host our meeting. Select members of their band and choral group played the “Star Spangled Banner” for us, and a student led us in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Most of all, they shared their stories with us. Before lunch, I had the opportunity to talk to several of the high school’s seniors. Taylor Ballard and Grant Hoover shared with me their plans for college and the future. When I asked if they felt they had been well prepared for the rigors of higher education, they both responded “absolutely.” That’s good to hear. I also got to visit with eighth-graders Bailey Howard and Bailee Summers. These vivacious Student Council leaders told me about their sports activities that include cheerleading and basketball. Both of their mothers are teachers in Frederick, so I know they’re getting a good academic grounding as well.
I also got to hear from Board President Felisha Crawford about some of the challenges in the district, including a high free and reduced-price meal count, and the hardship of attracting quality teachers to the rural district. But we heard success stories as well. Superintendent Vanderburg shared with us that the high school previously had been on the School Needs Improvement list. The recently released school report cards revealed the school now has a grade of a B — something the entire Frederick community can celebrate.
It’s important for me and for the State Board members to occasionally have our meetings in schools. It reminds us of how our decisions affect the people we are serving. It gives us a chance to hear first-hand the successes we should celebrate and the obstacles we should help remove. These visits make our work relevant.
In addition to the board meeting in Frederick, I also got to visit Altus High School, where I talked with Principal Mark Haught as well as members of the school’s Student Council. Later in the day, I toured the Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Manitou. Students there are counted as part of the Tipton School District.
I always come away from these visits with a deep appreciation for the work of the teachers and support staff at these schools, and a sense of encouragement that our students are getting the help they need to succeed in their future endeavors.
At Manitou, the educators face a particular challenge in that they are trying to help teenage boys who, in many cases, are far behind grade level. These young men have the extra weight of felony charges, and many come from poor home lives and gang involvement. The teachers at Manitou work to give them the skills they will need to graduate high school and the hope they need to believe they can create a better future for themselves.
My hat is off to all of the teachers and administrators I met last week. Thank you for opening the doors of your schools to me and allowing me to visit with you and your students. Thank you for letting me know ways I can help and for working to build a better future for our young people.
I’d like to wish everyone in the state a blessed Thanksgiving. I hope it is full of family, fun and lots of turkey. On my list of things I am grateful for are each of the hardworking educators throughout our state who every day perform acts of courage as they change the lives of children.
JANET BARRESI is State Superintendent of Public Instruction of Oklahoma.