Proposed Charters Hope to Add Educational Options in Historically Black OKC Community

Three potential new charter schools aim to open in northeast Oklahoma City.

This is a photo of a meeting at the Oklahoma City Board of Education.
The Oklahoma City Board of Education reviewed four new charter applications for the first time at a Nov. 6 meeting at the Clara Luper Center for Educational Services. (Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

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OKLAHOMA CITY — With efforts underway to boost businesses and housing in Oklahoma’s City’s northeast side, LaTasha Timberlake saw a need to strengthen another core piece of the historically Black area — its schools.

That’s why the longtime educator and nonprofit director is part of a group trying to found a charter middle school in her home community.

Willard C. Pitts Academy is one of four potential charter schools seeking approval from Oklahoma City Public Schools to open in 2025. Three of the charter schools plan to operate in the northeast quadrant of the city.

“Any time when you are talking about expanding a specific part of town and creating more opportunities, I think that you have to look at it holistically,” Timberlake said. “You can’t just look at it from a space of just housing and just commercialism, but also education.”

Like Timberlake, Carma Barlow said she hopes to give back to her home community by founding a northeast-area charter school, Rise STEAM Academy.

The academy would incorporate its core disciplines of science, technology, engineering, arts and math throughout the school day. An example is learning to read by completing an engineering project, said Barlow, who was a founding principal at an Oklahoma City elementary in Santa Fe South Charter Schools.

Both Barlow and Timberlake said northeast Oklahoma City needs greater variety in educational models. Most schools in the area use teaching methods that are common to traditional public schools.

“I think one thing we can all agree on in education is every child is different,” Barlow said. “I think providing options for those different bands of students is an exciting thing. And to be able to do that in a community where there aren’t any options that stray from the traditional model is something I’m excited about.”

Timberlake called her charter’s concept a “school without walls.” Willard C. Pitts Academy would invite local nonprofits and businesses to take part in educating students, like having an area YMCA host gym class, she said.

The two other applying charter schools would deviate even further from teaching norms by implementing the Montessori method.

Montessori schools are known for their nontraditional classroom design and a student-driven structure of the school day with emphasis on individual, hands-on learning.

P3 Urban Montessori proposes enrolling students ages 3-5 primarily from the northeast Oklahoma City ZIP code 73111. Its founding group is led by the superintendent of Millwood Public Schools, Cecilia Robinson-Woods, who declined to comment this early in the application process.

The Oklahoma Montessori Initiative would enroll students in pre-K through fourth grade mostly from the northwest side of Oklahoma City. Representatives of the school did not return requests for comment.

Oklahoma City Board of Education Chairperson Paula Lewis listens at a meeting Nov. 6, 2023, at the Clara Luper Center for Educational Services. (Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)
Having as many as four charter applicants at one time was a bit of a surprise, said Paula Lewis, the Oklahoma City Board of Education chairperson. She said the board is open to the possibilities the schools present.

But, this is a district where at least three charter schools have closed in the past 10 years for poor academic or fiscal performance. A fourth charter school that the district rejected, Sovereign Community School, opened in Oklahoma City with the state Board of Education’s permission and closed three years later because of financial failure.

With that history in mind, Lewis said the district school board wants to see a strong financial plan from the new charter applicants.

“We want what’s good for kids, and if charter schools bring forward an option that we’re not providing that would provide opportunities for kids, then we’ll get behind that as a board,” Lewis said. “When it comes to charter schools, we’re responsible to make sure they have their finances in place and that it’s just a workable plan.”

The school district’s board and staff have raised questions about a lack of details in the applications about where the schools would locate and their start-up funding.

The board has until Dec. 1 to decide whether to accept or reject the applications, after which the applicants could reapply or seek out another charter authorizer.

Barlow said she’s exploring start-up grants and potential sites for Rise STEAM Academy, but she can’t secure either until the charter is officially approved. She and Timberlake said being authorized by OKCPS could be a beneficial partnership for both their charter schools and the district.

But OKCPS isn’t the only entity that could approve these schools. They could seek out authorization from the state government or a university.

“I’m willing to partner with whoever is willing to partner with me,” Barlow said.

The groups behind the four charter applications all were part of a new school design program from the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, which provides training and services to public schools.

The organization’s founder, Brent Bushey, said the program gathers educators and community members to develop new, innovative models of schooling. Although it was a coincidence that all four groups created Oklahoma City charter schools, Bushey said they would bring needed diversity to the city’s public-school landscape.

“That’s the benefit here is we have a growing city, we have a thriving city at so many different levels, and I think they’re trying to provide another option for families,” Bushey said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and Twitter.

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