TVLSE, Okla. – Tulsa Public School is the largest school district within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and the state of Oklahoma. It currently serves over 33,000 students, of which roughly 3,000 are Native American. Within those 3,000 Native American students, roughly 985 are Mvskoke. August typically marks an exciting time for students and families starting a new school year of teaching, learning and growth. However, that is in jeopardy for TPS students as the district faces challenges in receiving their accreditation renewal for the 2023-2024 school year.
According to MCN Secretary of Education Kaila Harjo, there are over 70 tribes represented by the Native American student population at TPS. If the district loses its accreditation, it could have detrimental effects on students in an already low-performing state education system.
“For Native students and especially our Mvskoke students, I would have to say that removing their accreditation (TPS) would not only contribute to their learning loss that they’re already enduring from the pandemic, but it would also contribute to those traumatic factors that plague alot of our American Indian students within the school system.” Harjo said.
A majority of Native students already fall below average in standardized scoring and academic progress compared to non Native students. This could set students further behind if they have to relocate to another school district. This can also create a burden on families that might have to spend more on transportation costs to send their students to a district further away.
Families with special needs children and children with learning disabilities could also be affected. Not only would they potentially need to find a new district to enroll their students in, they would also need to find one with specialized learning programs as well.
MCN is required to do tribal consultations with all schools within its jurisdictional boundaries. According to Harjo, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist plays an active role in those tribal consultations. She claims Dr. Gist has demonstrated a genuine collaborative effort by working with the tribal governments to ensure Native students are receiving the best education her district can provide.
Education Leaders React
In a press conference at the TPS Education Service Center Aug. 7, Dr. Gist elaborated on the ongoing fight over accreditation renewal. She claims the state has not offered a plan in improving reading proficiency performance.
“There’s no question that Tulsa Public Schools has a plan for improvement, we’re working that plan and we’re seeing results,” Dr. Gist said. “We need a plan for how Oklahoma is going to pull ourselves out of the very bottom of performance as a state.”
Dr. Gist has asserted that TPS should be governed by a locally-elected school board since it is a public district. She has accused Walters of partaking in a “big government takeover” with the threats of revoking the district’s accreditation.
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters was direct in his opening remarks at a separate press conference on what he views as the problem with TPS’ accreditation renewal.
“In the last seven years we’ve continued to see failed leadership from Superintendent Gist here in Tulsa,” Walters said. “What we’ve seen are students continue to have poor achievement, financial mismanagement and a lack of specificity around academic programming.”
Walters proceeded to provide graph charts illustrating poor reading proficiency scores, high MRI, or failing school rates, financial mismanagement allegations, and per-pupil funding discrepancies. His presentation ended with a TPS improvement plan with the goals of “Re-orienting finances to serve students, increase reading proficiency scores to the state average, and get TPS schools off the F-List”.
After taking questions from journalists during the same press conference, Walters was clear on his position that Tulsa Public Schools needs a new superintendent.
Walters also published a video on his X, formally Twitter social media account regarding issues with TPS on Aug. 2. In the video, he claims the district has taken funds from the Chinese government in an effort to undermine the United States government.
TPS’ accreditation plight comes in light of a state-wide teacher staff shortage. According to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, the 2022-2023 school year saw over 1,000 teaching vacancies.
Regardless whether TPS’ accreditation is revoked, Harjo said the MCN will be there for Native families in need.
“Dr. Gist has always had a very great working relationship with the tribe.” Harjo said. “If her and her staff reached out, we could definitely try to work together to find and make accommodations for students if need be.”
The first day of school for TPS is Aug. 17. An official vote on accreditation status will take place in the near future after classes have begun. The date for the official vote is still to be determined.