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The transformation of the state’s largest school district will have to be a community-wide effort.

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Mutiu O. Fagbayi speaks during a forum regarding Oklahoma City Public Schools at Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum. (Garett Fisbeck)
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Mutiu O. Fagbayi speaks during a forum regarding Oklahoma City Public Schools at Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum.

Superintendent Rob Neu has brought big ideas and high standards to the Oklahoma City Public School District. But since the beginning of his tenure, he has said that the transformation of the state’s largest school district will have to be a community-wide effort.

After serving in the district’s top post for 100 days, Neu and the district launched The Great Conversation, a six-month program that features a series of public forums and planning sessions to help clarify what the district wants to become and how it will get there.

“I want a stepladder of milestones that you, as a community, say we are going to hold you to,” Neu said during the opening session last week. “That will be our A-through-F report card.”

Mutiu Fagbayi, president of Performance Fact Inc., facilitated the forum as community members expressed their desires for the school district at two sessions last week.

“You may have alignment on the goal, but sometimes … there is misalignment on the road to the goals,” Fagbayi said. “We are talking about all of us going in the same direction toward the same goal.”

Earlier this year, Neu announced ambitious plans to provide every student with an electronic device and increase teacher pay and retention. And the district recently increased its number of curriculum directors and developed content strategies with principals and teachers.

But Neu said real change in the district would need to be a citywide effort and that the district plays an important part in OKC’s ability to progress as a city.

School board member Gloria Torres said community input is also important because of the changing demographics of the district.

“There are some issues unique to the Hispanic community that perhaps other people aren’t aware of,” Torres said. “But [it’s also important] to be able to communicate that we have the same hopes and dreams for our children as the person next to us.”

The district’s student population is nearly half Hispanic, and Torres said more input from Hispanic community leaders is necessary in months to come.

Gloria Torres, Laura Massenat and Aurora Lora talk during a recent meeting as part of OKC Public Schools’ The Great Conversation. (Garett Fisbeck)
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Gloria Torres, Laura Massenat and Aurora Lora talk during a recent meeting as part of OKC Public Schools’ The Great Conversation.

Not everyone agrees

While board members like Torres are supportive of the process, school board member Bob Hammack criticized The Great Conversation at a meeting last week, saying it was just more talk in a district that needs to take action.

“I’m disappointed that our superintendent has chosen to say that after 100 days of observing, now we are going to take another six months to talk about it,” Hammack said during a school board meeting. “That’s insane. We are essentially going to waste a year.”

Other school board members appeared supportive and believe it will have a positive impact.

“I’m really moved that he asked us all to open our hearts and our minds and believe,” board chairwoman Lynne Hardin said.

Neu regularly challenges the business community to become more involved in the school district, and he did so in his State of the Schools address in August.

“I ask that you change the way you think about public schools in Oklahoma City,” Neu told business leaders. “Just like you changed the way you thought about the city a few year ago.”

Jennifer Monies, executive director of the State Chamber of Oklahoma’s Educated Workforce Initiative, said school improvement is critical to economic success.

“Our [state] school system consistently is ranked one of the lowest states in the nation, and that 100 percent has an impact on our economic development and our ability to attract and retain jobs in Oklahoma,” Monies said.

What’s next

The Great Conversation includes more sessions over several more months, and detailed goals and plans will be developed throughout the process.

“This is about the stakeholders here in Oklahoma City coming in and say[ing], ‘This is what our expectation is of an excellent school district, and this is what we need to see and this is how we expect to measure it,’” Torres said.

Besides community leaders and school officials, a handful of students also were invited to participate.

“I think it is very important that, as a student, they allow me to be a part of it, to allow my input in it,” said Jayde Williams, a senior at Northeast Academy. “It shows that they care and they really are trying to better our future.”

Williams said it was common in the past to see education and community leaders fight over the best way to improve education performance but that it is now time to work together.

“They have so many input and so many ideas, but they are not listening to each other all the time,” Williams said. “We need to identify the problem then listen to each other’s ideas and it will work. They teach us to play with each other and share all the time, yet you can’t do that to fix a problem.”

Print headline: Big talkers, Oklahoma City Public Schools launches The Great Conversation to bring together the district and public to improve education.

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