Kevin Calvey | June 28, 2016


Kevin Calvey

Positive%20Tomorrows-07(1).pngBy Kevin Calvey

At a private school in a secluded, somewhat upscale backstreet in northwest Oklahoma City, children are arriving to begin their day.

Class sizes are small; there are about 16 children in each class. This school is exclusive; its daily capacity is 58 students. It has turned away hundreds more in the last few years.

As kids arrive, they see souvenirs left by various celebrities who have passed through. A Kevin Durant poster hangs in the cafeteria. His Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, Enes Kanter, visited recently, leaving his height marked on a giant poster. A signed picture from a former Miss America hangs on the wall. There aren’t any photos yet, but Governor Mary Fallin came through earlier this year as well.

When students settle into class, they are well behaved and—to the extent any 10-year-old is excited to be in a classroom—appear to be engaged and interested in their coursework.

Like teachers in many of Oklahoma’s private schools, those recruited to work here are the best in the business—they take calls after hours, put in extra time, and are passionate about their jobs.

But unlike students in other private schools, all those at this school are homeless, and no child pays tuition.

Positive Tomorrows is a private school that caters exclusively to homeless children. The work being done here can best be described as the daily performance of miracles.

The school offers free transportation to every student, recognizing that many of their parents do not have access to vehicles. Every student gets free, nutritious meals. If a child doesn’t have gym shoes, or clean clothes, or toiletries at home, Positive Tomorrows supplies them.

The services the school offers aren’t limited to children. Case managers connect parents to resources like food, clothing, and temporary shelter. They also help families increase employment and income levels and eventually achieve stable, independent housing.

“Our students and their families often have chaotic, stressful lives,” says Positive Tomorrows president Susan Agel. “We are providing the basic necessities so these children have a calm, safe environment to learn. We deal with a tremendous amount of social and emotional issues as well as academic issues. It requires a lot of work and a lot of resources.”

Funding the Miracles

All of the services offered by Positive Tomorrows are paid for by private donations. The major donor list includes a who’s-who of the Oklahoma City nonprofit and business communities, including 7-Eleven, Kevin Durant, the late Aubrey McClendon, the Mustard Seed Family Foundation, the Tom Russell Charitable Foundation, United Way of Central Oklahoma, and Vince and Marti White.

A significant amount of support also comes from the general public. More than 700 supporters attended the school’s most recent fundraiser, Cork & Canvas, at Science Museum Oklahoma.

Helping significantly to boost all of these donations is the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program, created by the Legislature and signed into law in 2011. The program gives individuals and businesses a 50 percent tax credit for contributions to nonprofit organizations that provide school scholarships to low- and middle-income students. In 2015, Governor Fallin signed a measure increasing the credit to 75 percent for those who contribute the same amount in two consecutive years.

Rob Sellers, executive director of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, says those donations are changing lives. In a tough budget climate, he wants my fellow lawmakers and me to know that the tax-credit scholarship program is the wrong place for appropriators to try to pinch pennies.

“In the 18 months that we have been operating, we already have more than 250 students receiving these scholarships and going to schools that meet their individual needs,” said Sellers. “Many of them would be in pretty distressed circumstances—both financially and academically—if it wasn’t for this program. Approximately 55 percent of the program’s recipients come from families eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Some of them, like the children at Positive Tomorrows, are actually getting food and clothing through their schools as well as an education. I just can’t imagine doing anything to diminish a program that is having such an obvious, and positive, impact in these students’ lives and strengthening the overall quality of education in Oklahoma.”

Opportunities for Growth

To be sure, Positive Tomorrows is “exclusive”—but not by choice. The school’s current capacity is capped by its finances. It receives no direct funding from the State of Oklahoma and is wholly reliant on donations. Without a significant change, it is inevitable that Positive Tomorrows continues to turn away applicants.

Every applicant turned away, says Agel, is a child in distress.

“When we turn away a child, we are turning them away from an education, food, and shelter,” she said. “We are turning their parents away from the help they need to find a job and a stable home. Every homeless child who can’t make it to our classroom is a child that may fall through the cracks.”

To help schools like Positive Tomorrows, and to expand education options for all children, a growing coalition of parents, state leaders, and education reformers is pushing for Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs.

ESAs offer a reimagining of public education funding, giving parents several thousand dollars per year in a government-authorized account to spend on tuition or other educational expenses, rather than simply funneling that money to local public schools.

ESA legislation was proposed in both the state House and Senate this year, and while it failed to advance, it sparked a lively dialogue and began the process of winning hearts and minds. It also won the support of high-profile backers, including Archbishop Paul Coakley, Oklahoma Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, and Governor Mary Fallin, who offered her explicit support in her annual State of the State address.

Renee Porter, director of the pro-ESA parent group ChoiceMatters for Kids, says ESAs would be a “game changer” for Oklahoma children.

“Parents and children need options,” said Porter. “Right now, if parents don’t like their local public school, the choice available to them is to move. Obviously, that isn’t financially possible for a lot of parents. The result is that we are sorting our children by ZIP code. One neighborhood will get a great education, and another will be trapped in a failing school.

“ESAs change that dynamic by giving every parent at every income level a choice,” she said. “If your child has special needs, or isn’t safe at school, or just isn’t learning, ESAs allow you to seek alternatives. For schools like Positive Tomorrows and many faith-based schools, ESAs will also help to dramatically increase capacity and their footprint in the communities they serve.”

Agel agrees and says she hopes legislative leaders will continue to push school-choice measures next year.

“Positive Tomorrows is changing lives, and it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of that,” said Agel. “If there’s a downside to this job, it’s knowing that we had to say ‘no’ to children and families that need help. If the legislature were to enact ESAs, we’ll be able to say ‘yes’ a lot more.”

Kevin Calvey (R-Edmond) represents District 82 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He introduced tax-credit scholarship legislation in 2002, nine years before similar legislation was finally enacted.

Kevin Calvey


Kevin Calvey (R-Edmond) represents District 82 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He introduced tax-credit scholarship legislation in 2002, nine years before similar legislation was finally enacted.

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