Top school makes case for building funds

October 21, 2019

Ray Carter

One of the top-performing schools in Tulsa is also among the Oklahoma schools facing the greatest challenge when it comes to facilities—because it is a charter school.

Elsie Urueta Pollock, founder and executive director of Tulsa Honor Academy (THA), urged members of the Senate Education Committee to reform Oklahoma law so students do not have to give up decent facilities in order to pursue educational quality at a charter school.

“On average, we outperform the district and the state average on all the assessments,” Pollock said. “So we’re getting really great results.”

Tulsa Honor Academy is a college-preparatory charter school that serves east Tulsa. The 525 students currently attending the school are overwhelmingly low-income and/or minority children. The school currently serves children in grades five through nine, but plans to add a high school.

“Simply put, our mission is to get 100 percent of our kids to and through college,” Pollock said. “This is a very ambitious goal, but when families select our school they know that they want this opportunity for their children and that’s what we’re providing.”

Nationally, just 10 percent of residents in low-income areas have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. In east Tulsa, educational achievement is even lower—just 6.5 percent. That makes Tulsa Honor Academy’s service to those families even more important.

“Our goal is hefty and it’s a big challenge,” Pollock said. “Despite all this, we have been able to reach really great results.”

On state tests, the share of students at Tulsa Honor Academy who scored at grade level is far higher than the share achieving that status in the broader Tulsa district, and the charter school’s students often score well above the statewide average as well.

For example, 56 percent of seventh-grade students at Tulsa Honor Academy performed at grade level or better on state math tests, compared to just 33 percent statewide and 17 percent in the Tulsa district. The gap between Tulsa Honor Academy and the surrounding neighborhood schools is even larger—56 percent at THA versus 8-percent proficient in surrounding neighborhood schools.

“We are outperforming the state in terms of achievement and also all the neighborhood schools from which we pull our scholars,” Pollock said.

Those results are occurring even though the average student enters Tulsa Honor Academy performing 2.5 years below grade level.

“We do not ‘cherry pick,’” Pollock said. “We have kids with disabilities. We have kids who are ELL, or English-language learners. We don’t cherry pick. And despite that we’re still able to reach pretty high goals.”

She said only one middle school in “the whole metro of Tulsa” received a higher grade on its state report card than Tulsa Honor Academy, and that school was a selective magnet school that does screen students.

Tulsa Honor Academy is in its fifth year of operation. In those five years, its greatest obstacle has not been academic achievement but finding buildings to house classes.

“One of the biggest challenges has been finding a facility,” Pollock said. “We moved three times in the first month of our existence.”

Tulsa Honor Academy has leased empty school buildings from the Tulsa school district, but has outgrown those facilities and there are no more acceptable spaces left to lease. This year, the school had to use a portable building.

“There are very few facilities, and we don’t have any money,” Pollock said.

Traditional public schools receive local property tax as well as state funding, with the local tax used for buildings. But charter schools receive no property tax and are therefore often forced to operate out of buildings that might have otherwise been bulldozed.

Micah Ann Wixom, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, said charter schools in many states face similar challenges.

“In general, studies have found that charter schools are underfunded compared to the traditional district school,” Wixom said.

While there may be some exceptions, “generally charter schools are receiving less funding, and having less access to facilities funding is often a pretty sizable portion of that disparity,” she said.

“Because charter schools often have lower facilities funding, less access to funding, it means that charter school may have to dip into their operational funding” that would otherwise pay for other needs, such as teacher pay, Wixom said.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, agreed that a lack of local property tax impacts things other than buildings, including at traditional school districts that have relatively low property valuations.

“Schools with higher property value were able to pay higher teacher salaries because of that,” Hime said. “That’s a direct relationship.”

Other states provide charter schools access to a wider range of facility-funding options than what their counterparts in Oklahoma receive, Wixom said. In Colorado, charter schools get dedicated facilities funding, have access to grants, and can also use bond financing for buildings. In Texas, charter schools receive a dedicated funding stream for facilities’ needs that totaled around $60 million last year.

Pollock said Tulsa Honor Academy is now seeking grants from private entities “because that’s what we have to do in order to buy a building.”

“We can’t stay in that portable building,” she said.

By August 2020, the school plans to acquire a 40,000 square-foot site for 500 high school students. That will cost an estimated $6.7 million. By August 2022, Tulsa Honor Academy plans to add another 32,500 square-feet for 410 middle school students at a preliminary budget of $4.3 million.

“That’s a lot of money that we have to raise and finds ways and get loans and make it work,” Pollock said. “We’re going to make it work. We make really big promises to our families, so we will do whatever it takes to make it work. But it would be great if we could get support from public funds from the state to help us reduce some of this money that we have to raise on our own.”

Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, praised the work of educators at Tulsa Honor Academy.

“I think you have set a high standard for all schools in general,” Quinn said. “Maybe a large percentage of the people there that you are serving in some cases are used as excuses of why our tests scores are low or why our results are not where they should be. And yet you take that very same sector and turn it into the level of success that you have.”

He said the achievements of charter schools like Tulsa Honor Academy demonstrate the need for the state to provide equitable facilities funding to those schools.

“You’re making the case that somehow, some way, that we’ve got to find a way to provide a fair and balanced funding level,” Quinn said.