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An Unstoppable Optimist's Take on Education in Oklahoma

Photo Courtesy of Felisa Hilbert

When I received this assignment, I was mortified because when you listen to people in general, almost everyone points out something that is not working in Oklahoma.  Being an optimist, I was determined to find out what our community thinks.  Therefore, I set out on a quest to interview people from different sectors of our population to include teachers, students, parents from our ED and ELL programs, directors of educational programs and the assistant superintendent in my school district.  It was very helpful to me to listen to all of these voices to know of their thoughts, worries and successes.  Many of them expressed the same concerns and many voiced with me what is going great here in our state.

I know that we live in a state where educators and support staff are not paid sufficiently for the work they are doing.  For example, a teacher’s salary is greater in any state that surrounds Oklahoma.  In fact, we are near the bottom of the national list (48th) in teacher pay, and Oklahoma is 46th in expenditures per student.  We receive an average of $7,755 per student while the regional average is $8,964 - and the national average is $9,934.  In Parental Engagement, we are one of 11 states that lack family engagement laws… and what about the Title I money for parenting engagement?  The list could go on and on until you become depressed enough to think that everything is wrong.  Well, not me!  I am an optimist that sees in everything an opportunity for progress and learning.  Therefore, I want to tell you what is working in Oklahoma, and especially, in Broken Arrow Public Schools.

Despite these facts, our teachers are still going the extra mile for their students.  They continue to care and worry over the students as whole individuals - not only if they adequately learn math, science, reading and writing.  They also care about the emotional, social and economic status of their students.  Our students work hard despite all of the challenges they face.  Fortunately, we have a community in which parents, leaders, and administrators support our schools and work together to ensure our children receive the best education.

I live in a city with a population of 98,850.  Our enrollment in Broken Arrow Public Schools (BAPS) in 2011 was 16,976 students.  In our community we represent five continents and have families from more than 60 different countries living together side by side.  This living arrangement has caused certain barriers in which some people grew up in a different culture and speak a different language, while their children are bilingual.  Still many others have been living in this community for generations.  However, when it comes to our children we all have the same feelings of pride and hope for our town and our school system.  We want the best teachers, administrators and curriculum that will prepare our children for college or their chosen vocation.  We know that the school system is not perfect, yet we recognize the need to work together for its overall improvement and to solve its problems.

Seven years ago, we established some diversity and culture outreach programs to engage all of our parents, but especially our minority parents in the education of their children.  We organized a Multicultural Literacy Night in Lynn Wood Elementary School where the parents presented about their native or ancestral country and shared their culture.  The success of this program has been overwhelming and soon became our Multicultural Diversity Festival.  Today the festival is a community event with many participating sponsors.  This event has opened doors to bring together many parents in our school’s activities and parent teacher conferences.  Last fall our ELL (English Language Learners) program at Lynn Wood Elementary had a 98% attendance rate at parent teacher conferences!  Communication between home and school has increased significantly.  Our parents are participating more in school activities and are more engaged in their children’s academic life.

Broken Arrow was the first city in the state of Oklahoma to have a community-based PTA organization that addressed the needs of minority parents.  International Cultures for Education (ICE) PTA was born to be the voice of many parents who cannot express their opinions due to a lack of education, opportunity, or because of a language barrier.  In it we strive to provide an environment of learning to empower our parents with knowledge and understanding of the impact they have in their children’s education.  We have set up English classes for adults, parenting classes, immigration forums and other special programs like the Bond Election Outreach, all in an attempt to make a stronger connection between the parents and our schools.  The ICE PTA started 3 years ago with only 15 members and now has more than 100 members.

Broken Arrow parents have the opportunity to be involved in the Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC).  The goal of PLAC is to educate parents and state legislators as to how laws affect public education.  PLAC speaks on behalf of our schools at Capitol Hill to create a better school environment.

This year our entire school district is focusing on literacy.  Reading is an important skill that our children need to develop, especially at an early age, because reading helps them cultivate a love and thirst for life.  The more a child reads books, the sooner he or she will be able to master reading in general to absorb and understand school subjects and lessons in life.  Therefore, we are doing something good here.

In addition, BAPS was asked by the Oklahoma Department of Education to mentor 17 school districts on how to implement common core standards.  As a parent and as an education advocate, I am very excited about Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent guide and clear understanding of what is essential for students to learn.  This will empower teachers and parents with the knowledge of what our students need to learn in order to help them prepare for a future that involves everyone.  Establishing common education standards is one way we can work to address the disparity between school and district standards, state-wide, and ensure that all children, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status or life history, receive an education that is tailored to and values their potential.

You see my positive list can go on and on forever.  I know there are still many issues to tackle; however, when I see parents, teachers, community stakeholders, and PTA leaders sitting at the same table talking, listening to each other and making an effort to find solutions together, I feel hopeful.  We all are accountable for the education our children receive.  Nothing is going to change unless we change it ourselves.  This is your opportunity to step up and be a voice for others to follow!  We already know what is not working.  The question is, what are you going to do to help make it better?  This is a grand opportunity along with a great challenge but it will ultimately become our mutual triumph.  We need to be involved and educated in our school issues, which will give us power, direction and authority in the education of our children.

If we want the right to have a say in the structure of our schools, then we must take the responsibility that comes with it.  Parents need to step up and also be accountable in this process.  Not only do we need our parents to do so, but we also want them to!  We want to have our parents serving in the schools boards, running for legislature and volunteering in the schools.  Parents do not have to have a teaching degree to be effective in their children’s education.  Parents know what is best for their children and they can be an instrument that the teachers need to form strong partnerships with to make a positive and permanent impact on the children’s’ lives.  Parents are, and always have been the primary teachers of our youth and we need to utilize their power and potential in order to have a (more) successful future.

As I said, we know that it is not perfect, but we recognize the need to work together to improve the overall system and to solve its problems.  This collaboration makes me proud to be a part of Broken Arrow schools!

Felisa Hilbert is currently a 2011 Oklahoma Mom Congress Delegate, a 2011 White House Champion of Change, the Oklahoma PTA Membership Vice -President, and the founder (and current-vice-president) of the International Cultures for Education (ICE) community PTA.  She is a community organizer and education advocate with a heart for helping people.  She works tirelessly on behalf of celebrating and promoting cultural diversity.  Her passion is serving minority groups and empowering parents of all backgrounds with knowledge of the importance to be involved in their children’s education as an early way to help them be successful.  She is the mother of three bilingual children (Citlali, Thomas, and Xochitl) and has been married to her husband Dan – a retired military and now a high school Spanish teacher - for 25 years