The concluding two sentences in Ben Felder’s new book Our City, Our Kids is an unmistakable commitment to public schools in Oklahoma City:
Any Failure in the Oklahoma City Public School district is our failure as a community and city. These are our schools, and these are our kids.
A prolific journalist covering everything in the core of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Gazette reporter has used his extensive knowledge of Oklahoma City Public Schools to fashion a very efficient 50 page book that succeeds as a quick source of information and a call to action for residents of the central part of the Oklahoma City metro.
The key question that he addresses is this: What should residents of the central part of Oklahoma City know, think, and do about their school district whether they have children or not?
Felder tells us that what we should know is that OKCPS has a high percentage of students who live in poverty every day of every year. What we should think is that this is not necessarily an impossible situation. And what we should do is commit to the district whether we have children or not, because those are our schools and collectively, our kids.
The striking characteristic of this short book is how Felder gets to the key question about any big, urban school district: Do the residents give up and just resort to all charter schools as has happened in New Orleans, Detroit, and Newark?
This is no small matter, especially as this comes out right at the end of the week when a bill to allow the city governments of Oklahoma City and Tulsa to authorize their own charters independent of their school districts has managed to stay alive.
A Senator and a Representative have pushed a bill in the Oklahoma Legislature that would give independent authorizing power to each of those city governments to simply do an end-run around their host school districts in forming new schools.
But as this author points out,
…even if we embraced a charter school solution, it would still leave us with a public school district and thousands of kids who would not be admitted into a charter school even if we increased the number of those offered by ten times.
After all, OKCPS is the largest district in the state, with over 46,000 students. Charters will not solve any problems and perhaps exacerbate them by further segregating the haves and the have-nots.
Chapter 1 is committed to bringing the reader up to speed on the realities that face OKCPS board members, administrators, and teachers every day.
- This school year Hispanic students will make up the majority of students.
- While only 16 percent of the student population is Caucasian, six of the eight board members are white.
- Students who live below the poverty line make up 90% of the total student body.
- A recent federal report shows that black students, whether from poor families or not, are much more likely to be disciplined harshly by out-of-school suspensions than any of their classmates in different culture groups.
But this book does not lapse into the wonkish world of education theory and practice. Instead it is a call to action by an author who is not only a journalist, but a resident within the district, and a parent of a small child who will one day attend OKCPS.
Felder’s tone is not argumentative, although his argument for support and engagement is strong.
Instead, it reads as a resident calling on other peers in the city to join him in taking action to rally around a district that is owned by all people who live within its boundaries.
In Chapter 3, titled Fix It, the author gives readers a specific set of actions that he proposes for residents of the district:
- “Consider OKC public schools as an option.”
- “The city has to rally around the school.”
- “Focus on each and every student.”
- “Fix our problems with African-American students.”
- “Long-term leadership.”
If there is any weakness in this book, it is in its dependence in Chapter 3 on ideas and statements by Superintendent Rob Neu.
My own interactions with Neu have made me sympathetic of the author’s desire to quote him often. He is a strong, charismatic leader. But certainly there are others in the district, namely building principals and teachers, who have insights as well.
In all, this is an excellent read, especially for parents who live in the district and are trying to work out what they think about their own involvement in the district.
It is also a good, quick snapshot of issues that not only affect OKCPS, but urban districts nationwide.
Congratulations to Ben Felder on branching out into the world of book authorship and making such a strong showing on his first project.
Update: Physical copies of this book are available at Elemental Coffee and other locations around OKC. Satchelbooks.com will have info on future sale sites and iPad and Kindle versions will be available in May.