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Tulsa Public Schools ups the intensity to prepare for high-stakes testing

Tulsa Public Schools teacher Asriel Teegarden works on reading comprehension with a small group of students at Burroughs Elementary on Monday.
Nuria Martinez-Keel
/
Oklahoma Voice
Tulsa Public Schools teacher Asriel Teegarden works on reading comprehension with a small group of students at Burroughs Elementary on Monday.

TULSA — The question of the day for the four boys at Burroughs Elementary was this: “How do you feel about the solar eclipse?”

“Sometimes, there’s a little bit of fear about the unknown,” their teacher, Asriel Teegarden, said.

The natural event wasn’t the only unknown ahead of her students. Near the end of their 30-minute lesson – featuring a space-themed reading comprehension exercise – Teegarden had one final question.

How did they feel about the “big test” next week?

Annual state testing begins Monday in Oklahoma school districts, and in Tulsa Public Schools, Teegarden said there’s a “different intensity level” ahead of the most important testing period of her career.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education put high stakes on Tulsa’s results with threats of a significant accreditation downgrade.

A fifth grader at Burroughs Elementary in Tulsa looks over a practice test sheet on Monday.
Nuria Martinez-Keel
/
Oklahoma Voice
A fifth grader at Burroughs Elementary in Tulsa looks over a practice test sheet on Monday.

The state ordered the district to have half of its students score at a basic level or higher on state reading tests or improve reading scores by at least 5%. District leaders say winter benchmark tests showed they would have to accelerate learning for at least 700 students to meet the demand by spring exams.

“Usually, I would be nervous for these children, but I’ve gone about it like, ‘I’m excited you’re going to take this because you’re going to all do great,’” Teegarden said. “Everything has got to be positive, giving them a lot of positive feedback. I think they’re going to do excellent.”

Teegarden working with students at Burroughs, 4 miles from her usual classroom at Council Oak Elementary, is a testament to Tulsa’s all-out approach to state testing this year.

She was one of 45 high-performing teachers in TPS chosen to work with students at risk of scoring below their grade level in reading. Most of these teachers traveled to schools other than their own to lead small-group instruction with 1,125 elementary students.

Each teacher was assigned about 25 students to split into groups for lessons two days a week over the final three weeks before state testing.

“At first, they were kind of nervous,” Teegarden said. “I would say that first week it was more so, ‘Why are you taking me? What did I do? What is this exactly?’ They were questioning it. And then, they just couldn’t wait to see me. And every day they couldn’t wait to see our group.”

The teachers will earn an extra $7,500, plus another $1,500 for traveling to other schools, from the Oklahoma Teacher Empowerment Program (OTEP), which combines state and district dollars to boost pay for top-performing educators.

Skelly Elementary teacher Charity Hargrave leads a reading exercise with a small group of fifth graders in Tulsa on Tuesday.
Nuria Martinez-Keel
/
Oklahoma Voice
Skelly Elementary teacher Charity Hargrave leads a reading exercise with a small group of fifth graders in Tulsa on Tuesday.

At Skelly Elementary, Charity Hargrave said she felt “a little bit of pressure” to make academic gains in only six small-group sessions. Hargrave teaches fourth grade at Skelly but, through the OTEP program, was assigned 27 fifth graders at her school for extra instruction.

She said she had a “very short period of time” to review benchmark test scores for each student, group them based on their performance level and plan lessons for each session.

But the experience has been positive, she said, and she hopes it will continue in the future.

“I feel like I can reach more students,” Hargrave said. “And I want to because I want them to get this type of education because they deserve it, no matter where they grew up.”

During a lesson on Tuesday, five fifth graders, who Hargrave said scored only slightly behind grade level, read short stories to identify which was written from the first-, second- or third-person point of view. Then, she quizzed them on synonyms and antonyms, encouraging them to try more expansive vocabulary, like using “lethargic” instead of “tired.”

In a classroom next door, two teachers from Eugene Field Elementary worked with third and fourth graders at Skelly. Fourth-grade students read a short story aloud and picked out its main conflict while the third graders played a game with prefixes and suffixes.

State tests are “part of our lives” every year in public schools, but this testing season is “important for its own outside reasons,” said Angie Teas, a TPS instructional leadership director. There’s been a renewed focus on both academic standards and preparing students to take the standardized exams, she said.

Teas said the OTEP program is one of many good things coming out of this year’s test preparations. Teachers who have spent years at the same school enjoyed meeting students at a different building, she said.

Tulsa Public Schools teacher Kyleigh Brewer leads a reading lesson with fourth graders at Skelly Elementary in Tulsa on Tuesday. Brewer teaches at Eugene Field Elementary but has been working with fourth graders at Skelly to prepare them for state tests.
Nuria Martinez-Keel
/
Oklahoma Voice
Tulsa Public Schools teacher Kyleigh Brewer leads a reading lesson with fourth graders at Skelly Elementary in Tulsa on Tuesday. Brewer teaches at Eugene Field Elementary but has been working with fourth graders at Skelly to prepare them for state tests.

“It’s nerve-wracking to feel the pressure of, ‘Oh my God, it feels like the world is watching,’ yeah,” Teas said. “But it’s also exciting to recognize that we’ve had an opportunity, like with OTEP, to be more all-parts-equal to the entire whole. We all see our part in the district that in a way I don’t think we have in a really long time.”

State Superintendent Ryan Walters suggested Tulsa connect its best teachers with struggling readers by tapping into OTEP funds, said Erin Armstrong, the district’s chief learning officer. The state Education Department offered its own classroom-certified employees to substitute for teachers traveling to other schools.

Eight days after Walters’ suggestion, TPS had a plan ready to deploy after spring break, Armstrong said.

Walters called the effort “one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in education.”

“What you’re seeing here is not a quick Band-Aid fix,” Walters said during a March 28 meeting with the state’s top school board. “They are really looking and thinking outside the box to find a way to improve Tulsa Public Schools, not just now but long term.”

At the same time, Walters is the source of the added pressure on Tulsa to perform.

He dropped numerous hints over the past several months that drastic consequences, including a state takeover of TPS, are possible if academic results don’t improve. Superintendent Deborah Gist resigned in September in hopes of keeping Tulsa’s locally elected school board in control of the district.

Principal Dee Tisdale walks down the hall at Burroughs Elementary in Tulsa on Monday.
Nuria Martinez-Keel
/
Oklahoma Voice
Principal Dee Tisdale walks down the hall at Burroughs Elementary in Tulsa on Monday.

Along with demanding better reading scores, Walters and the Oklahoma State Board of Education ordered TPS to elevate 12 of its schools off of the “F list,” a term referring to those that performed in the bottom 5% of the state.

To meet the state’s demand, the district provided high-dosage tutoring to 470 fourth and fifth graders, launched a campaign to combat chronic absenteeism and focused on credit-deficient seniors at struggling high schools to boost graduation rates, among other initiatives district leaders highlighted.

Burroughs Elementary is one of the schools identified for improvement. Principal Dee Tisdale said the school has added academic rigor, focused on testing data and added extra resources, and it “all ties back” to individualized, small-group instruction between students and their teacher.

With state testing only days away, the mentality at Burroughs is “now it’s showtime.”

“I think in terms of the big championship game,” Tisdale said. “We’re just preparing, and we’re hoping that all of our practices will give us the trophy in June or July when the results come back.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and Twitter.
Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and Twitter.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.