Ray Carter | December 22, 2023

Rural charter school to expand into Okmulgee

Ray Carter

The State Board of Education has approved a request by The Academy of Seminole, a rural charter school, to open a new branch in Okmulgee after community leaders voiced support, citing parental dissatisfaction with the academic results produced by the community’s traditional public school.

“I love traditional public school. I went to public school. But Okmulgee Public School would disadvantage my children to put them there,” said Matthew Fibla-Yates, an Okmulgee parent who also works as the tribal services instructor at the College of the Muscogee Nation. “This is the same sentiment that a large percentage of parents in our community feel, and you will see that all of the school districts around us are stocked full of the kids that should be going to Okmulgee. And the private school has been a little oasis there, but they’re shutting down.”

“Over 350 people signed the petition saying they’d like to have the school come,” said Wren Hawthorne, superintendent of schools for The Academy of Seminole. “We held open houses, which were very full. There’s just lots of interest to have a change and have a choice in Okmulgee.”

The 350 individuals supporting a charter school in Okmulgee represent a significant share of local families. State records show the Okmulgee district had 1,180 students enrolled for the current 2023-2024 school year.

While Oklahoma has allowed public charter schools since the late 1990s, state law only allowed those public schools of choice to open in Oklahoma City and Tulsa for many years. It was not until 2015 that state law was changed to allow charter schools to open in rural areas. The Academy of Seminole, which was founded in January 2017, is the most prominent example of a rural charter school opened since that law took effect.

Hawthorne noted that The Academy of Seminole was recently ranked 37th best out of 396 Oklahoma schools reviewed by U.S. News, and that the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center has recognized The Academy of Seminole as one of three Oklahoma schools to see “extraordinary growth in reading and math.”

Those results are part of the charter school’s appeal to Okmulgee families.

On the most recent state report card, Okmulgee Elementary School was given an F. The district intermediate school received a D, and the high school received an F.

Only 18 percent of students in the Okmulgee Primary Elementary School, which serves grades pre-K to fourth grade, are proficient or advanced in grade-level content, while 52 percent test “below basic,” a category that indicates students are at least a year below grade level.

Just 8 percent of students at Okmulgee’s intermediate elementary school, which serves children in grades five to eight, test proficient or better, while 64 percent are “below basic.”

Just 10 percent of high school students in the Okmulgee district test proficient or better, compared to 60 percent who test “below basic.”

“As a professor and enrollment counselor, the students I get from Okmulgee schools have a harder time,” Fibla-Yates said. “On average, they have a lower GPA and this usually translates into having to take remedial classes. This burns through more of their Pell (grants), more of their aid, and makes it harder for them to go on and pursue a bachelor’s. And this is just because they’re not being taught properly before we get them in higher ed. Okmulgee Academy, I believe, is a correct step towards ensuring the future prosperity of the Okmulgee community. And as an educator, I would say that the current state of education in Okmulgee is not good enough.”

The Academy of Okmulgee is expected to open in the fall of 2024, serving students from pre-K to eighth grade. In many ways, the charter will replace Stonebridge Academy, a private school that has operated in Okmulgee for many years that is now expected to close at the end of the current school year. Officials with Stonebridge have voted to transfer the school’s facilities to The Academy of Okmulgee, and most current Stonebridge students are expected to apply for admission to The Academy of Okmulgee.

While children are assigned to traditional public schools based on geography, families must proactively enroll students in a charter school for them to attend. Under state law, admission to a charter school is done by random lottery if the number of applicants exceeds the total seats available.

From 2025 to 2028, The Academy of Okmulgee plans to add one grade each year until it serves students all the way from pre-K to 12th grade. Officials expect to serve 180 students in the first year, and between 250 and 320 students by the fifth year.

As with other public schools, there will be no charge to attend The Academy of Okmulgee.

During their December meeting, members of the State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve The Academy of Seminole’s request to expand to Okmulgee.

“People say that charter schools can’t work in rural areas,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. “We’re looking right here at an incredibly successful rural charter school that now has a very solid application to us to expand into Okmulgee.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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