What Can Brown Do for Youth?

January 6, 2009

Patrick B. McGuigan

Educator Deborah Brown shares gripping stories about kids from north Tulsa whose educational prospects have been transformed over the past two decades of her involvement in both private and charter schools, teaching mostly black children from desperately impoverished circumstances. She says if the resources were created to support her approach to schooling, she could double the number of children who benefit.

Brown is a controversial figure among fans of the Tulsa Public Schools. But controversy is not the subject of this article. Here are some facts: In 2006, Brown's school full of poor and challenged black children scored 1500 on the Oklahoma Academic Performance Index. The state average is 1180. The school is 97 percent black, with 77 percent of the students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program.

In an interview a few days before Christmas, Brown shared reflections on her successes, primarily with students who spent more than three years in her schools. But she also shared candid tales of those who came and went too quickly to benefit, and thoughts about those she never knew.

Success Stories and Heartbreakers

On the bright side, she told me about a boy named Lee, who is now a young man. "He came along in kindergarten or first grade. He was a little bully, for reasons that can be understood. He had a bad uncle. The uncle and his experiences had taught Lee to use the ‘n-word' all the time. He was very hard to work with, but he was so bright. We could not give up."

She remembered, "His anger and his frustration gradually gave way as we worked with him on our program with its emphasis on language arts, on politeness, respect, dignity, pride in who he was and who he could be.

"After some time, his grandmother told us that he loved two things in his life: the church and our school. That stuck with me. At the age of 11, he went over to Carver Middle School. They tested him and found he was reading at the 11th and 12th grade level already." Before long, "I was able to help get him into Holland Hall, the elite private school. He blossomed and was a top graduate. I supported him, made calls to knock off some of the tuition costs when he applied to a private college in St. Louis. He was accepted there."

It gets better. "Lee went on to a summer fellowship at Harvard," Brown continued. "I worked with others to get him a vehicle so he could get around. He was then accepted to a graduate program at Harvard. This is a poor ghetto kid from north Tulsa who is now in graduate school at Harvard. His mom was a single mom who kicked him out of her house when he was in the 10th grade. She kicked him out because she chose a man over her own son, over this fine and precious boy."

Then there's Gennifer, all grown up now. In a recent letter, Gennifer told Brown, "I just wanted to let you know I often think about how fortunate I was to have such an influential teacher and mentor as yourself. It is good to know your school is still successful after all these years." Gennifer grew up poor and challenged, and is now a hospital administrator.

Brown continued, "Every now and then, there have been so many children that I might forget one. A girl stopped by a few months ago and asked right out if I remembered her. I didn't. Before I could think what to say, she said she could tell I didn't remember her. I couldn't lie. Then she said, ‘Miss Brown, I turned out well. I've made the honor roll at Oklahoma State this year. I'm going to be OK.' That got to me. She was such a quiet little thing, but she remembered her time with us and stopped by to tell me she was OK. It meant so much."

Some stories reflect both good and bad, like this one: "We had two little girls, sisters, from the third and fourth grade through the fifth grade. They both had a lot of potential, and they both did well enough on tests to get help to attend Holland Hall. One of them made it there, she is absolutely flourishing and they're delighted at her success. She is happy. The other little one did not make it-she worked her way out of the program, basically. They had to kick her out. In that case it's pretty simple. She just blew it. But the other one is on her way to the top. We can feed them, but we can't lead them."

Some memories break your heart. Cedric was a student many years ago. "He was from a single mom," Brown recalled. "He was an angry little boy. When frustrated, he would well up like a dragon, breathing deep and puffing out his eyes. His (biological) dad at that time was living in Texas. He loved and worshiped his dad, but the dad had a new woman in his life, and another set of kids. His mom punched him about."

Brown's eyes are downcast as she relates stories about Cedric's abuse and trouble: "He stayed with us for a couple of years, then went away. I heard later he had shot someone. Many years passed, but then he stopped into the school recently. He asked if I remembered him. I looked at him and said, ‘Cedric.' He smiled a great big smile, with a mouth full of gold and silver.

"He was 21 or 22. He told me about some of his troubles. He said, out of the blue, that he came to see our new school because he remembered us. He said, ‘That was the best two years of my life, when I was at your school.'"

She comments, "It is what it is. You feel you did leave someone like that with something good, things they can and will cling to." Elsewhere in our long exchange, she reflected, "We don't have kids that come to us from the middle class. They come from the streets, sometimes. They come from rough lives. ... It's heart-breaking sometimes. ... But we work for most of them, if we get them young enough to make a difference."

What Could Be

Brown says she could essentially double her number of "good news" stories, if Oklahoma embraced more robust forms of school choice to empower students, parents, and teachers to be more creative and innovative in delivery of educational services.

While Brown now has decades of experience in public school classrooms, including her current management of an acclaimed charter school on the north edge of downtown Tulsa, she advocates more robust choices, especially in the pre-K and elementary years.

She told me, "That's where and when I think we can save these kids. In my experience, waiting and working with older kids makes the situation next to impossible unless the individual child simply overwhelmingly desires to do better, really desires it. Some of the high school kids I've worked with were in the bottom one percent of achievement for English and math, plus their behavior and other problems, other issues, made it almost impossible to help them.

"My experience has led me to use a certain curriculum and to aim at the younger children. I've found that by doing that we can be proactive, preventative if you will, instead of trying to follow an intervention strategy that comes too late to save or redirect these kids. I am concentrating now on a quality pre-K experience to get children going in the right direction. We have found that working with two- to four-year-olds makes a difference. With a good curriculum, they can learn to read, write, spell, and recite poetry and do a lot of memorization."

Her private pre-K is the "Smart Kids" school. Brown works with three dozen youngsters presently, and channels them into her charter school for early elementary grades, where she and her team serve 221 students.

She explained, "College preparatory learning really begins in the early years. That's the focus of our private school. As we move these kids through our affiliated charter school, we are having success. We integrate our Smart Kids graduates into our charter school," which now runs through fifth grade. "We have been considering slowly taking the program back to the 8th grade because when they leave us before then, the quality in the public school system is simply not there. The drop-off is really pronounced at the fifth grade and thereafter. ... They are not given homework. The schools they go to, the teachers are intimidated, they are inundated with misbehavior, disrespect, and lack of learning."

I asked Brown how many more youngsters she could help if tax credits, vouchers, or a scholarship program empowered more youngsters to come her way. She answered, "I've said we could do a good job and could find the teachers to help us, for 550 kids, compared to the roughly 250 we have now. I'd like to have 550 students in those grades because I know we could handle that."

She continued, "I believe that number is realistic because I'd like to still have the kind of personal relationships that I have developed with the kids. I like to be hands-on with the kids and their teachers. The personal relationships with the children feed the quality of the education.

"For these kids language arts is the crux of the program. That begins in preschool with reading, writing, and spelling. After the second grade, from that foundation, you can move strongly into analytical and critical skills. The kids will falter if their basis is wobbly, if the language skills are not strong as they move into the mid-elementary and the middle school years."

A woman in her prime time of beauty and intellectual curiosity, Brown says for all the challenges, life is good: "I appreciate the opportunities I've had in life, and in my work. I am grateful to have started a private school with meager means, then to get the chance to enter the public school arena and have some success there. I am grateful to have been able to help masses of children, hundreds who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to succeed."

Why not, as a matter of public policy, give Deborah Brown the chance to help even more kids to succeed?

OCPA research fellow Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is an 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.