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Planned downtown elementary school yet to materialize from MAPS for Kids

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It's been nearly a decade since voters passed the MAPS for Kids initiative in November 2001 to build or renovate more than 70 schools and the administration building for Oklahoma City Public Schools. Of the new schools, one was to be a downtown elementary school.

A 'catalyst' for downtown
Breaking the 'dysfunctional lockstep'

As the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area Public Schools Trust and school district continue to implement construction projects and communicate with the public, the downtown elementary school is one the community hasn't heard much about. As downtown Oklahoma City progresses, the one thing missing from the ever-changing landscape is the downtown school voters approved.

In recent discussions with Eric Wenger, program manager for OCMAPS, he indicated that not only is the downtown elementary school still in the plan, but the process is moving forward and the naming of a project architect is under way.

"We will be interviewing architects for the project and making a recommendation to the MAPS for Kids Trust, City Council and Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education this summer," Wenger said.

Once the three groups approve the recommendation for a project architect, several community meetings to garner input and involvement regarding the design will be scheduled, he said.

Elements missing from the "downtown school" equation are the lack of a site, established educational programming and defined attendance boundaries from the school district. According to Karl Springer, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, informal discussions have taken place regarding these issues.

"Those details have not yet been agreed on, but the school board has guidelines and is passionate about the geographical boundaries," Springer said, adding that the vision for the school is one "for students of poverty and those of economic wealth; a school where both enjoy a quality education."

Boundary lines have yet to be determined. According to Springer, the student body could include children of downtown employees. With a growing population of students south of Interstate 40, it could also provide an opportunity to elevate some of the overcrowding in the south Oklahoma City schools. Springer also indicated the current timeline for site selection will correspond with the hiring of an architect.

But how does the lack of a programming plan and defined attendance boundaries affect design and construction?

"We can progress without programming specifications from the district, Wenger said. "There are established specifications for building the schools, and we will maintain those."

Once built, Wenger said the district will be able to use space according to the determined programming.

"This has been done with other schools when programming ideas changed with the school leadership," he said.

The plan calls for the downtown elementary school to be completed at a cost of $8.8 million.

A 'catalyst' for downtownRegardless of what comes first, architectural or programming plans, OCMAPS will continue with construction, according to Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, because that school is an important piece of downtown's renaissance.

"The school is a catalyst (for downtown Oklahoma City), and we need to push ahead," Cornett said.

The idea of offering quality educational opportunities in the core of a downtown area is not unique to Oklahoma City. Recently, the city contracted with the Urban Land Institute (ULI), an organization providing leadership in creating communities that thrive, to study growth plans and offer recommendations for creating a downtown area where people live, work and play. Among their suggestions was the strong need for a downtown elementary school.

ULI representatives stressed that one of the many keys to urban revitalization is quality educational options, especially for young families who live or work downtown. Using Tampa, Fla., as an example, the group pointed out that many center city districts have addressed this issue by offering schools with specialized curriculum that draw students from a broad spectrum. Tampa offers a K-5 school boasting lower teacher/student ratios, an accelerated curriculum and before- and after-school care. One option would be to build upon the success of Classen School of Advanced Studies.

With that in mind, Cornett is ready to proceed with the downtown elementary school.

"We were in pause. We're not in pause anymore," he said.

According to Cornett, based on conversations with Springer and Angela Monson, chair of the OKCPS Board of Education, there is consensus that construction of the school will move forward.

"The Board of Education has had no formal discussions about who will go there, how we'll staff it, but we are aware of the item and understand the city is proceeding," Monson said. "We are waiting for a more formal process to come before us and look forward to discussions with patrons and others interested in the school."

The MAPS for Kids plan called for all projects to be complete by 2012, but that is not likely for the downtown school, according to Wegner.

"It will take about a year to do the design, and it can take up to two years to build," he said. "So, it really can't be feasibly done until 2013."

When the original MAPS for Kids plan was developed, there was always a belief among some members of the Project Kids committee that a downtown elementary school was viable, according to Bruce Day, co-chair of Project Kids, which helped start the MAPS for Kids campaign.

Day remembers discussing a developing downtown and an increasing population of downtown workers coming from across the metropolitan area. "The idea was that if a school of sufficient quality was planned and developed, 'they' would come to us," Day said.

Breaking the 'dysfunctional lockstep'The vision for a downtown school in part revolved around the idea of serving working parents with PTA meetings scheduled after work and volunteer opportunities available before and after school because they would be located close to their children's school.

Turnover in district leadership and, at the time, a decline of downtown leadership interest resulted in the downtown school project "falling through the cracks," according to Day. On a larger scale, the poor results regarding school district efforts to improve the learning environment published in the 2009 assessment of the MAPS for Kids Task Force Report submitted to The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools has resulted in talk of revving up the Project Kids committee again in the form of a new citizen's initiative. This new task force would again hold community meetings for citizen input.

"The idea would be to reassess ourselves and figure out how to break the dysfunctional lockstep created by the socioeconomic profiles of our students, the central bureaucracy and a teacher union due process system that trumps managerial decisions," Day said.

Project Kids was a group of concerned citizens who held community meetings in the late 1990s to solicit input and develop a vision for creating a model urban school district. Their work led to the MAPS for Kids initiative.

As all parties proceed, there is a clear message about the purpose of the school, and that is it should be for the children and their education.

"We have the opportunity to create a school that would be a school of dreams," Springer said. "Every student would have the benefit of mentors and role models pulled from the downtown workforce, with professionals adopting the school. This could be a place to connect with an early childhood agency and a health care agency for support. We need quality education for all the children."

photo Eric Wenger is program manager for the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area Public Schools Trust. photo/Mark Hancock

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