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Commentary: Schools tied

Pathway to Greatness offers hope for Oklahoma City Public Schools, but the state’s public education system needs more than just hope.

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If there were ever a school dedicated to achieving Horace Mann’s dream of making education “the great equalizer,” Harding Charter Preparatory High School would be it.

Harding’s mission statement reads, “Provide every student with an academically challenging educational experience through an advanced placement (AP) curriculum, which will prepare students for success at a four-year university.”

The biggest point of pride at Harding is being named the No. 1 public school in Oklahoma by US News & World Report five years running. A close second is being able to serve disadvantaged communities — over half the student body is on the free or reduced lunch program.

I’m wrapping up my senior year at Harding, one of 20 schools in Oklahoma City Public Schools District to be impacted by the Pathway to Greatness initiative. Harding has undeniably served me well throughout my four years there. I’m set to graduate in the fall with several more credits than the state requires in subjects like science and foreign language, and I’ve earned enough AP credits to test out of nine classes at University of Oklahoma.

Unfortunately, I am not the type of student the school was designed to serve. I was fortunate enough to attend a private school from kindergarten through seventh grade. While I was there, I had access to incredible resources, both materially and from teachers. The day I set foot in Harding, I could already do basic algebra and write essays and had experience in lab science.

Harding is a charter school, which means admission is determined through a lottery system, not through an entrance exam. This is both one of Harding’s greatest strengths and its fatal flaw.

Serving students who need help the most means filling in all the gaps these children have in their education. Remember, this is Oklahoma City Public Schools — 48th in the nation, 47th in terms of K-12 achievement.

Each year, there are students in freshman English who have never written an essay before or are unable to identify basic parts of speech. Through no fault of their own, they have been let down by Oklahoma’s public school system and simply cannot learn at a ninth-grade level.

Incredibly, Harding offers no remedial courses. If a student fails a class, they come in during the summer and “relearn” the material in a program called A+. However, this program is woefully inadequate when it comes to fundamentals like writing or basic arithmetic and algebra skills.

This is where Harding’s current policy of offering only AP and pre-AP classes might do these students more harm than good. They should absolutely have the chance to take AP classes and be exposed to this level of material, but you cannot treat students who transfer from public schools one step above babysitting services the same way you treat kids like me.

There is a mantra I’ve heard repeated by teachers and administrators at Harding that goes, “The workload at Harding is more challenging than other schools to prepare you for college,” which I can buy into. The second part is, “Your Cs and Ds are like getting As and Bs in the public school system. Colleges will see this and accept your grades over a public school student because they will see you went to Harding.”

This part I find much harder to swallow for a couple of reasons. First, any student who chooses to go out of state won’t benefit from Harding’s name recognition. Second, many scholarships that these students are so in need of are based on grade point average (GPA). What are they going to do, staple a copy of the US News & World Report article to every scholarship application?

Though they might be getting a much better education at Harding, their achievement doesn’t translate to the transcript. And make no mistake; these students are working incredibly hard for 2.5 GPAs.

Two Saturdays a month, the school is open 9 a.m.-noon for students who need help in math and English, but if you cannot tell a noun from a verb and your homework is to read two chapters of Charles Dickens by the end of the week, there’s only so much two Saturdays can do. This also means that twice a month, certain teachers and administrators spend their entire Saturday mornings at schools.

The majority of teachers make a real effort to keep office hours and will gladly talk with students who need help before or after school, but remember, the kids who are struggling at school are many of the same kids who work to support their families.

The faculty attrition rate at Harding is on par with that of Star Trek extras. Teachers simply cannot afford to raise or start a family on their salaries, so it is no wonder the state is approaching 3,000 emergency-certified teachers.

The fault does not lie with the teachers, most of whom put in many hours a week on top of the time they are at school, nor with the administrators who were having a hard enough time finding qualified teachers to teach in this state before all the budget cuts hit.

The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of our state government, which never made school funding a priority and will not do so anytime soon.

I’m still proud to go to Harding despite all of this. Going to a majority-minority school was life-changing for me in ways I’m only now beginning to realize.

We as a country cannot afford to remain segregated by race and class, but also we cannot treat students with different needs the same way. Schools like Harding serving kids from all economic and racial backgrounds are the first step to creating a more inclusive and open society, but they need help.

This is where I see the Pathway to Greatness as an incredible opportunity. The incoming class of freshman is set to increase from 135 to 170 students, and the space available allows for more growth if the increase goes well.

A bigger student body means more per-pupil funding, and a newer building means far fewer repair costs, which could add up to a lot of new resources, but it’s still not enough.

Change needs to come from the state level, and usually this is where I would also call for federal funding, but with Betsy DeVos at the helm, we will be lucky if we still have paid teaching staff by next year’s elections.

Last November, a record 16 educators were elected to positions in the state Legislature. But before you get too hopeful, remember that everything I have just described is coming out of the No. 1 public school in the state five years running.

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No, that sound you’re hearing isn’t Gov. Kevin Stitt brushing yet another education reform bill off his desk. It is Horace Mann rolling over in his grave.

On second thought, maybe it is both. 

Nikita Lewchuk is a senior at Harding Charter Preparatory High School. They are currently a reporting intern at Oklahoma Gazette. | Photo provided

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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