Citywide Education Progress Report


Key Takeaways: June 2018

Tulsa faces the challenge of having to rapidly increase the number of quality schools, even as state revenue shortfalls consume much attention. In April 2018, teachers across Oklahoma walked out to demand legislative action on increasing salaries and providing additional funding for schools. Schools in Tulsa cancelled class for weeks in support. On the plus side there is engagement on school improvement efforts: Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist brings passion and urgency, Mayor G. T. Bynum supports education as a top priority, and Impact Tulsa pulls together local education, nonprofit, philanthropic, business, civic, faith-based, and community-based organizations. Greater visibility is needed for Hispanic, Black, and Native American communities most impacted by low-performing schools. The city provides a healthy number of school choice options, but better information and enrollment supports would help families navigate the system.


System Reforms

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

Cities engage families Good
Variety of groups Good
Broad support Developing
System is responsive Developing

Do students have access
a high-quality education?

Strategic school supply Developing
Transportation is working Developing
Enrollment is working Developing
Families have information Little in Place
Array of school models Little in Place

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Right teachers Developing  
Right leaders Developing
Equitable funding Little in Place

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

Improving school quality and ensuring access

School quality and student opportunity are unevenly distributed in Tulsa, as in many cities across the country. Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) leadership are addressing school quality by developing a strategic plan, partnering with community groups, developing high-quality instructional materials, and increasing teacher leadership. As school quality improves, the choice process must be made more accessible to all families or the historic gaps in student access and outcomes will continue. Many families still do not understand the full array of options available to them. Education leaders should consider creating a consolidated information guide that would allow families to compare performance, school culture, and curriculum to find high-quality, good-fit schools, district or charter. They could also consider developing a unified enrollment system for both district and charter school options.

Using collaboration to address talent recruitment and leadership development

Stagnant pay and education budget cuts over the last decade have led teachers to move to other states or change professions. Their frustrations came to a head in April 2018 when teachers across Oklahoma walked out of classrooms, demanding remedies from the state legislature. Both TPS and charter leaders closed schools in support of teachers, but they must look for additional recruitment and leadership strategies. The district has initiatives to develop teacher and principal talent, including partnerships with TNTP, but could collaborate with charter schools and other districts in Oklahoma to make these efforts more sustainable. Collaboration can also be improved with state university-authorized charter schools, which currently operate in isolation. The Tulsa District-Charter Collaboration Compact provides a structure to pursue collaborative work around talent. The Compact has previous achievements, such as successful facilities-sharing agreements. However, only half of the city’s charter schools are in the Compact, so a true citywide initiative must involve other charter school leaders. Partnerships with the city and civic leaders could lead to innovative solutions, like housing incentives, that could further attract talent to Tulsa.

Strengthening school- and community-level engagement 

TPS and local organizations understand the importance of community engagement. When TPS faced the need to make budget cuts in 2017, it deeply involved community members in identifying and refining budget priorities. Education leaders can build on these experiences to create ongoing opportunities for involvement. Engagement in school portfolio decisions–like turnarounds, school closures, and the development of innovative instructional models–may need to be restructured so that all families can participate. This is especially true for black and Hispanic families who have been historically underserved by the city’s school system. Another key next step will be clarifying the district strategy around school partnerships and district school autonomy. A well-defined policy of school autonomy can attract community groups to help operate neighborhood partnership schools, much like MetCares that opened the Greenwood Leadership Academy in 2017. Neither the district nor the charter sector has the capacity to drive public engagement efforts alone. This is an opportunity for sector leaders to collaborate with each other and with local funders and nonprofits. Community groups can support the school system by training families on how to support turnaround efforts and advocate for family and student needs.


Building a Pipeline to College in East Tulsa’s Growing Latino Community

“I always knew I wanted to come back to East Tulsa and start a college prep school,” says Elsie Urueta, who founded Tulsa Honor Academy (THA) in 2015. She was a first-generation immigrant, and Teach for America drew her to become a teacher—first in St. Louis and then at Chicago’s highly successful Noble Street charter network. Urueta says East Tulsa’s Latino population has grown rapidly since she first arrived from El Paso with her Mexican immigrant parents in the 1990s. Yet, the community can still feel isolated and underserved by good school options. The THA Familia—as Urueta calls her team—aims to raise expectations for its middle schoolers, making good use of data to guide instruction. And indeed, these kids are outperforming comparable schools in the city.

Starting a new school anywhere can be daunting work. Urueta received a fellowship from Building Excellent Schools, which helped her develop her charter application and provided valuable leadership coaching during her first two years. Although it has outgrown its existing facility, THA also benefited from colocating on district campuses. The Tulsa District-Charter Collaboration Compact provides an avenue for accessing district services on favorable terms, including facilities. Charter leaders say that the district’s Chief Innovation Officer Andrea Castañeda has brought new energy to the collaboration work. As its students mature, THA plans to expand into high school, creating a complete pathway to college in East Tulsa.

Building Upon the Legacy of Tulsa’s Black Community

How do school systems partner with communities? The historic roots for Tulsa’s black community lie in Greenwood in the northern area of the city. It was once home to “Black Wall Street” before the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 destroyed the thriving black businesses there.
Partnering with the MetCares Foundation, a local community group, Tulsa Public Schools opened Greenwood Leadership Academy in fall 2017. The student body is nearly 100 percent black and mostly low income. Under founding principal Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, campus leaders hope to develop a culture and school design that reflects a commitment to black excellence and draws on Tulsa’s history of a stable, successful black community.

Greenwood Leadership Academy operates under a new governance model authorized by the state through House Bill 1691, which allows MetCares and the district to partner on facilities, transportation, and other district services. Teaching staff are employees of MetCares and the campus shares space with Academy Central Elementary. Much hard work remains, but the school could prove to be an important pathway for increasing student achievement, improving community engagement in the school system, and drawing families back to the district who have left for other schools.

Student and School Outcomes

Graduation rates in Tulsa showed little change relative to the state, remaining 9 percentage points below state averages in 2014-15. Math and reading proficiency rates also did not improve relative to the state. Most student sub-groups are not proportionately enrolled in advanced coursework in high school: Black and Hispanic students are underenrolled while white students are overenrolled.

► Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the city’s math proficiency rate trends mirrored the state’s. In 2016-17, the city’s proficiency rate was 16 percentage points below the state’s.

► In 2013-14, white students were enrolling in high school advanced math coursework at rates above their enrollment, while black and Hispanic students had disproportionately low enrollment.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary (includes schools from the Tulsa, Union, and Jenks school districts). Performance data are from the Oklahoma State Department of Education and math enrollment data are from U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.


About Tulsa

The primary district in Tulsa, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), has been pursuing a number of systemic changes to improve school and student performance. The district adopted a strategic plan in 2016 and is currently focusing on teacher leadership, school innovation, and personalized instruction. TPS also aims to increase school-site autonomy and partner with nonprofit groups to operate some school campuses. 

School Choice in the City

Tulsa is home to 12 charter schools. TPS operates magnet schools that have neighborhood preference and selective admission policies. Families can also opt in to any district neighborhood school on a space-availability basis using an administrative transfer process.

Governance Model

The Tulsa Public Schools Board oversees district schools, and TPS authorizes half of the city’s charter schools. The other charter schools are authorized by Langston University or Rose State College. TPS also contracts for partnership schools.

2016 District Student Body

Enrollment: 38,628 students
Race and ethnicity: 33% Hispanic, 25% white, 25% black, 17% other
Low income: 73% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Note: Enrollment and demographics data for Tulsa district schools only.
Source: Tulsa Public Schools, 2016.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.