Patrick B. McGuigan | March 1, 2009

Making the Dream Real: Betty Mason's Choice

Patrick B. McGuigan

Betty Mason, public school educator for decades and former superintendent of the Oklahoma City public school system, is spending her "retirement" years as superintendent of St. John Christian Heritage Academy. The private school sits on the north side of the beautiful campus of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, high on a hill east of N. Kelley Avenue on Oklahoma City's east side.

I was a guest principal at Martin Luther King Elementary school during Mason's latter years in the city system, so it seemed appropriate to catch up with the venerable educator several days after this year's MLK Holiday observance, and as last month's Black History celebrations began at St. John's church and school.

At a Wednesday morning chapel service, retired Assistant U.S. Attorney John Green was the guest speaker. Seven sixth-grade students led the service. Each youngster guided a different part of the program, as they led the student body of 110 in the Christian Pledge, the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag, the Black National Anthem ("Lift Every Voice and Sing"), "My Country ‘Tis of Thee," and a school creed referencing "the priceless gift of another day of learning."

After the service, a young man who offered the opening and closing prayers with self-assurance told me he intends to be a preacher when he grows up. He seemed pretty grown up as he talked about it. The Scripture meditation was on Matthew 6:24 (King James Version): "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

Green asked the youngsters, "Did you start the day with a prayer? At night, do you end the day with a prayer?" He talked about his many ties to the members of St. John's congregation. He also described his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., his brother in Alpha Phi Alpha, the venerable black fraternity, when both men attended Morehouse College. His words were simple and direct. King was always smart, always worked hard in college.

Dr. King, Green recalled, dreamed of that day when people would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Green said that day is coming. He told the children they were blessed to be attending St. John Missionary Baptist. "Don't waste your time, and your parents' or your grandparents' money, on foolishness. Use this opportunity. Use your time." A little later, he added, "If you want to waste your time, go on to those other schools. Here you should use your time wisely."

Green was eloquent and hopeful for the future. "We have hope, and you should have hope to have a better life, over the tears and over the years," he said. "Some may look down on you because of your color, because of the hue of your skin. But you can overcome that. Remember, ‘I am a child of the King.'" Green praised his own parents. "They had six kids," he said. "All six of us earned advanced college degrees, and in fact there are 16 degrees among the six of us."

He said the children were incredibly blessed to be at St. John. "These anthems, pledges and salutes we say, these are things that will stay with you for the rest of your life." He noted that St. John Missionary Baptist has been called "the best church this side of Jordan."

He said, "I'm a Methodist from up the road," and admonished the children, "Never forget the Christian teaching and your Christian school. If you stick to them you'll never go wrong." Dr. King's example was referenced again: "You know, no one knew when Dr. King was your size that he would grow up to win a Nobel Prize simply for doing what was right. Imagine how proud Dr. Mason and your teachers would be if you came back here after winning a Nobel Prize!"

After Green spoke, principal Orlene Grant-Chaney delivered a few announcements and presented student-of-the-month certificates. The children sang "Joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart," of which one delightful verse included the words "if the devil doesn't like it he can sit on a tack!" After their fully decorous behavior for the entire chapel service, the youngsters took delight in acting out the words of the closing song.

In an interview, I asked Dr. Mason what she would like people to know about her school. "I would like them to recognize that we have here a Christian-based educational system, a good school," she said. "We work to give children every opportunity to develop into intelligent and worthwhile citizens. ... Every child here learns to speak in front a large group of people without being afraid."

She continued, "Twelve years ago I came here. I have watched these children dream, and succeed. It is a joy to have the privilege to work to educate these children in my ‘retirement' years. Pat, our community here, our school here, is like a great secret."

Founded in 1989, the school today is housed in a 17,000-square-foot addition to the church. An April 2007 groundbreaking was part of Pastor M.L. Jemison's program to emphasize educational excellence as part of the church's program. The building was finished last year. Mason and her students occupied it last fall. It includes a state-of-the-art computer laboratory with units donated, and installed, by employees of Chesapeake Energy Corporation.

Along with a quality core curriculum, St. John Christian Heritage Academy features quality programs, including Spanish, after school, Boy and Girl Scouts, and physical education. Through extended-care programs, some children arrive as early as 6:30 a.m. and stay at the site until after 5:30 p.m. The motto of the school is: "We stand tall, think tall, live tall."

I asked Mason, a woman of action not given to excessive introspection, what she considered her niche in the development of education in Oklahoma City. She responded, "I don't think about that too much, I just do it. ... I don't know what others draw from this work. I will say this. I keep this school focused on essentials. There are a lot of programs out there, a lot of things that use up time in the school day. We don't do those. We don't concentrate on outside or special projects. I want these children to read, write, speak well in public, work through problems.

"There are only so many hours in the day. The time we have is concentrated on the school and the children. My job is to keep the focus on instructional time, to keep the staff on course."

The 110 youngsters at the school range from age three through sixth grade. Graduates tend to feed into Classen School of Advanced Studies, Independence Charter Middle School, Belle Isle Enterprise School, and Northeast Academy-all among the best public schools in Oklahoma City. That's not all: "Right now we have a couple of our children doing well over at Heritage Hall."

Thanks to the generosity of Rev. Jemison and his parishioners, the tuition at St. John Christian Heritage Academy is kept at $3,000 a year (with a $500 discount for members of the church). But that comparatively affordable amount is far beyond the means of many who live in and around the east side of the city.

Betty Mason is not deeply involved in public policy issues these days, as she concentrates her energies on the school she clearly loves. She did say she supports the scholarship program advanced in the state legislature last year (and reintroduced this year) to create a private-school scholarship program that could be accessed by students at poorly performing public schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The measure is promoted by an alliance of Tulsa Democrats (state Rep. Jabar Shumate and state Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre) and legislative Republicans, including a bipartisan majority in the state Senate.

Mason told me, "I would be very much in favor of that. Many youngsters who could benefit cannot afford it at this time. I have in mind right now a mother who had her child in our school in the fall. She lost her job and just can't afford to keep her child here. That would be exactly the first person we would help with a program like that.

"There are so many out there in our community. These are hard times, with parents losing jobs. We have some come here that we do not even know, seeking a better school for their children.

"I am for a program like that, without question. I know that we could make that work, and make it real for our children. We have 110 students right now. If that program existed, we could help another 90 children get the kind of education we are offering here."

She chuckled as she told me, "Now, Pastor Jemison would probably tell you, ‘We'll take care of as many children as you bring us.' I'll just say that we have room for that kind of growth and could take that many children tomorrow. If that program existed, we would take advantage of it and make it real."

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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