Tulsa Interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson is tasked with transforming the largest school district in Oklahoma. (Photo provided by Tulsa Public Schools)
OKLAHOMA CITY — To Ebony Johnson, F stands for focused. It designates a school that needs time, money and talent from Tulsa Public Schools’ leaders.
Recent state report cards show 22 Tulsa schools need that level of focus from the district after being graded an F for their performance last school year.
Johnson has handled school turnarounds as a principal, but now she has to take it to a macro level. Since becoming Tulsa’s interim superintendent in September, her task has been to transform Oklahoma’s largest school district — all while under threat of a state takeover.
“Just getting all of our schools rowing in the same direction at the same time, I would say that would be definitely the challenge, but it’s a beautiful challenge,” Johnson said. “It’s not anything that we’re not already doing and not going to be doing at an optimal level soon.”
The district is under pressure from state Superintendent Ryan Walters and the Oklahoma State Board of Education to put more students on track toward proficiency in reading and to create a plan to move more schools off the F list, which tallies the 5% lowest-performing schools in the state.
Three fewer schools in Tulsa scored an F for the 2022-23 academic year than the year before, but the state report cards show the district still has a steep hill to climb.
Only 13% of its students scored at grade level on state reading tests last spring, and 10% did so in math.
“I’ve never shied away from saying that within our district we know that there is a tremendous amount of work to do,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to continue to be results-oriented, and we believe over time that we’re going to be resilient through this.”
Walters has promised to take “drastic action” if the district can’t self-correct. He said results of the state report cards, both statewide and in Tulsa, are a sign that “the status quo in education has failed.”
Tulsa’s former superintendent, Deborah Gist, resigned under pressure in September, and Johnson stepped up from her position as chief learning officer.
Walters said Johnson has been more open with his administration and willing to acknowledge Tulsa’s issues in a way previous leadership was not.
“She definitely is a it-can-be-done type of person, a problem solver,” Walters said. “And I think that’s really, really important when you’re looking at a problem the size of Tulsa Public Schools.”
But, ultimately, student outcomes will decide the district’s future and whether further state action is required, he said.
Walters has demanded recognizable progress in the short term, though Johnson said a measurable school turnaround typically takes three to five years.
The state Board of Education meeting Nov. 30 will be a “crucial” one, he said, where state officials will lay out the metrics of the board’s expectations and how they compare to Tulsa’s current performance.
The scrutiny adds an extra layer of urgency, Johnson said, but she characterized her interactions with Walters and his staff as a “good working relationship.” She said both sides want to see the district improve.
Part of that improvement process is redefining the A-F labels attached to each school, rather than labeling some of them a failure, she said.
Borrowing terminology from former Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Johnson referred to schools that scored a D as “developing” and an F as “focused.”
That focus involves establishing clear goals for each school, digging into academic data and teaching in response to it, she said. It means boosting professional development and support for teachers and having a transformation team leading the effort in each building.
Families also have a role to play by ensuring their students come to school regularly. About 43% of Tulsa students were chronically absent last school year, meaning they missed 10% or more of their school days.
Absenteeism played a “major role” in middle and high school students’ academic results, Johnson said. Her administration is launching an extensive effort to contact families to emphasize the importance of school attendance.
In the back of Johnson’s mind are the teachers and district leaders that have come before her, the people whose shoulders she said she stands on.
Fighting for the district’s future is “both personal and professional” for Johnson, who grew up, graduated, spent her entire career and raised her children in Tulsa schools.
“When I think about all those things, it makes me feel a sense of drive and motivation and encouragement that, our team, we’ve got this,” Johnson said. “We will get this done.”
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