Patrick B. McGuigan | December 12, 2008

North Tulsa Pastor Says Kids Need Educational Options

Patrick B. McGuigan

Dr. Donald O’Neil Tyler is the pastor of Greater Grace Temple in north Tulsa. But it was fatherhood, not his role as a pastor, which first made him a school choice advocate.

“Ten years ago, I moved here to Tulsa with my family from Los Angeles,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I began to look around for a good school for my son, who was then in junior high school. I soon knew that I could not put him in a Tulsa public school. I was not impressed with what I found there.”

Dr. Tyler had graduated as a leader in his high school class at Omaha North High School. His parents raised three children, each of whom went to college and now live productive lives. “None of us ever spent a day in jail or got into trouble,” he says. “I am married to Marcia Tyler and we have been together for over 34 years. We raised two sons who are married and very successful.”

Back in Los Angeles, he says, “I was making over six digits in salary and benefits. I was on my way to the next level in my career.” But things changed.

“The Lord spoke to me, and ultimately I accepted the job as pastor of a small church here in Tulsa. There were only 20 members when we came in 1998.” United Parcel Service, where he worked, “was very good to me in allowing me to transfer to Tulsa. Then I came here and realized what I had to face. I thought maybe I had lost my mind. But I know now why God sent me to this area. My wife and my family built our church with money that we earned at UPS. We paid for half and we got a loan for the other half. It would cost over 5 million dollars to build our church today.”

Remembering early days in Tulsa, he says, “We were able to get my son into the Union school district. He did very well, and went on to study at Oral Roberts University.” Despite that happy ending for his own son and family, Dr. Tyler soon had a growing church congregation full of young people who were not being adequately served in the Tulsa Public Schools.

“I’ve seen kids graduating from high schools in our community who cannot read or who read poorly. I’ve seen kids who can’t write or write poorly. Their skills in terms of being able to work and achieve are poor or not there at all.

“At the high school that primarily serves my community, McClain, only 80 seniors graduated out of the 250 freshmen who entered four years prior. There’s no way you can tell me that’s acceptable. The quality of education, even for those who graduate, is pathetic for a high school.”

Dr. Tyler has begun to speak out frequently about the need for better educational options for north Tulsa. “I can be specific,” he says. “The kids I’m thinking of are labeled as not the best kids. They are kids who give up, drop out, or are sent to alternative schools.

“I don’t blame the kids or even the system or the teachers,” he says, “I blame the structure that has been established.

“So many of these kids wind up incarcerated. It’s like we’re throwing them away. When I was in high school, I had some teachers who used to beat me with a paddle if I didn’t do what was right. I know it’s not that way now. But when you think about these kids, many people get scared. It could have been that you encountered some of these kids in a group of some sort, and that scared you. But when you encounter them or know them one on one, they’re just kids.”

Dr. Tyler continues: “The way things are now, the parents blame the system, and the system blames the parents. And that’s pretty much where things stand. It seems to me the church has to step into the middle, to have and to use a holistic policy to reach these kids in the entirety of their circumstances. But the problem is that the church as a whole has stepped back and taken the mistaken idea that this is about religion only. But that’s not our job, our job is the whole person, that whole kid.” He believes that education “is a matter of character, of teaching and training, of leading by example.”

Dr. Tyler blames past leaders in Tulsa Public Schools. “The TPS have tried to crush the move toward more choice, toward finding ways to help the kids that are not being helped.” Fortunately, “recently it has become possible to have charter schools with more diverse sponsors. Thank God for that.”

He notes that “private schools that exist have some strengths, such as Holland Hall, but they’re not the right choice for all our kids. Some kids are able, by using false addresses, to get into the better public schools—Union or Jenks or Broken Arrow—but there are kids who cannot go that direction. It’s just awful to see the number stuck in an environment with not the best the teachers, not the best facilities, and not the best environment for them to learn and grow in.”

So, what could happen if reform allowed scholarship programs or tax credits or perhaps vouchers?

Dr. Tyler answers carefully: “First, I think the program would have to be governed or in some way limited or controlled. The aim has to be at kids not being served in the public schools ... I believe change of this sort would first and foremost hold the TPS accountable. Right now they are not really measured or held to accountability.”

He elaborated, “Already, many of the pastors and others take upon themselves much of the responsibility to help these kids. If parents, often women alone, need help raising 13- or 14-year-old boys who are big and who need guidance, I often take that upon myself. A lot more things like this could happen, if means were created that would allow us to work directly with the kids.”

In short, market demand for educational services exists, but supply is lacking. If that changes, Tyler said, “what I can say for myself is that I would start with the kids, and there are hundreds of them, in our community who don’t go to school at all. I could start a school within three to four months if the resources were there. We could focus our initial work on 60 to 100 kids who are not now in school at all. But to do that and do a good job, we don’t want to be fighting with the Tulsa Public Schools. So, let us take care of the kids that right now aren’t even in school and for a start-up leave it at that, and see how we do.”

Models exist already, but need empowerment to become more effective. “Other pastors have done and are doing good work,” he says. “Many churches have mentor programs and are involved in after-school programs. The people to do this are in this community, and the mechanisms are out there in the church buildings and elsewhere. The problem is to have the funding.”

I asked if he had in mind a per-student dollar amount that would be sufficient to do a good job with the kinds of kids poorly served in the present structure of schools in Tulsa. He responded in detail, saying that if funding were $4,200 per student per year, “you will need about 200 students to break even. But we have a large advantage. We have a building that we could start working in today. We have 40,000 square feet, with a full gym. We have an Internet system that can be accessed from anywhere in the building. We have 14 acres that we can convert into outside play areas or even put in remote trailers for students.”

Here’s where the man is coming from: “If we don’t stop this cycle and educate our children, especially the young men, it will destroy our country. There will be no men for my granddaughters to marry. If the church does not stop sitting on its hands and do what the government will not do, then our future will be without character.”

OCPA research fellow Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is managing editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is the author of two books and the editor of seven. A state-certified teacher, for two years he taught middle-school and high-school students at a public charter alternative school.

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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