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Interview with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ebony Johnson

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ebony Johnson speaks with reporters on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, at KWGS.
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ebony Johnson speaks with reporters on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, at KWGS.

In August 2023, Tulsa Public Schools' chief learning officer Dr. Ebony Johnson was appointed interim superintendent of the district after State Superintendent Ryan Walters verbally attacked her predecessor and alluded to a possible accreditation lowering or state takeover.

Johnson has since been appointed permanent superintendent and has been given three mandates from the state: train educators on the science of reading, raise academic outcomes, and get low-performing schools higher grades on state report cards.

StateImpact’s Beth Wallis and KWGS’ Max Bryan sat down with Johnson last month and talked with her about how she’s taken bold steps for improvement at TPS in in the current education climate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BW: You've described TPS, the wording you use is a beautiful challenge. What do you mean by that?

EJ: We have, you know, various racial makeup. We have students who have various needs. We welcome the diversity that comes into our district. We welcome our multilingual learners and our immigrant students. We welcome our students who come from other states. But with that, you know, we also know that there's challenge associated. We have some of our students, they are not speaking any English when they first come to Tulsa Public Schools. We have the challenge of getting them the supports that they need in a fast and an expeditious manner so that they are prepared for testing, so that they're prepared to do well in their classes. We welcome all of the families that choose Tulsa Public Schools, and we also know that it is a beautiful challenge before us, because we've got goals that we have to meet and and we will meet. But we have to also, you know, embrace what's in front of us.

MB: How do you think the saga between TPS and Ryan Walters has affected Tulsans? 

EJ: We have a common goal. It's allowed us to mend and have conversations in a way that's productive for our young people. We have regularly scheduled meetings — not only the meetings that happen once a month at the State Department, where we go and we present on the three focus areas. But we also have meetings in-between, where his team and my team are meeting consistently to talk about clarity and expectations, and what exactly do we need to do in order to meet the mark. And so it's allowed our city to really have a hyper-laser-like focus as well on student achievement. 

BW: I think about the situations where we had a board member say that you can teach a child to read in a matter of weeks. You were giving another presentation about, you know, this is the data projection that we have, this is the number that we're going to get. And then Superintendent Walters suggested that you get five times that. I think it would believe it was, 400 to 7,000 kids proficient. How do you approach that? 

EJ: There was some panic at first around, "Whoa, we need to do this by May, by, you know, April's testing period in May." But we just took it from a proactive stance. Anything could come to us at any moment of a day. We have to remain laser-like focused on what's in front of us, which is moving our students in the right direction.

MB: You announced that a dozen schools were recently moved off the federal comprehensive support and improvement list. Can you tell us a little bit about what went into that? 

EJ: We began being very intentional around how we're setting up supports and structures and making sure the students were getting their both core information from their classroom teachers as well as interventions. We were tracking data, meeting on a weekly basis with school leaders, making sure the schools that have struggled the most over the years are actually getting the level of support that they need by time, resource, people, energy, money, all of that. It was very affirming to us to know that we have been doing the right things.

BW: Walters is proposing new administrative rules that would tie district's accreditation status to test scores. It's a familiar refrain for TPS. As somebody who is an expert in education policy, how should we think about this?

EJ: It's critically important that we realize that we're better together in this conversation. I also think that being a superintendent who is experiencing quite a bit of quantitative expectation by the end of the year, I have the ability and will and have already been in communication with my fellow superintendents around ways to really get laser-like focused and understand what this means for their district. We got hit hard with the pandemic and we're all still coming out of that and trying to figure out how to get once again aligned to seeing student growth in a way that makes sense. But I share the same sentiment with my colleagues and that we want to see growth for our students. The challenge to have that associated with accreditation is before us. When those type of things are brought to superintendents like myself, you go, okay, how much energy will you spend on ensuring that the systems are in place and the structure is in place and the teachers are getting what they need so then therefore the students are getting what they need versus a mandate expectation and or change and rule. How to actually meet the expectation is going to be where we're going to put our time, effort and energy. 

MB: You've been giving presentations to the State Board of Education on a monthly basis. Can you take us a little bit behind the scenes of what goes into one of those presentations? 

EJ: Yeah, we have 34,000 students that were responsible for ensuring that they have a quality learning experience. That takes all of our team's effort just to ensure that we have a successful day and a successful week. And then we have the time that we then spend on gathering data — gathering, preparing through building out slide decks, preparing through reports that we are consistently working on and working through, coupled with managing messaging and making ensuring that we fully understand what we are to present on a monthly basis. Our goal every time is to share information that makes sense to the state board as well as the public as a whole.

BW: Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for talking with us.

MB: Yes, thank you for spending your time with us.

EJ: Thank you so much for having me.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.