Posted Date: 08/13/2021
Welcome to the 2021-22 school year!
“As we enter into this new school year, I have a renewed sense of optimism and excitement. I hope you are as eager as I am about greeting returning students and introducing our new students and families to what we proudly call, ‘The Union Way,’ a relentless pursuit of excellence in all that we do,” Superintendent Dr.Kirt Hartzler said in a video message which was distributed to all employees today. “This was certainly played out in more than words last year like never before. The collective work done by you, our teachers, support staff, administration, and board was nothing short of amazing.
“Back-to-school means fulfilling our mission as a public school district to educate EVERY child that walks through our doors to the highest level possible. The hard work you do every day to support our students has a profound and lasting effect on their lives. As diverse as our jobs are here, each of us is an indispensable part of the total educational process.”
Around the district today, school sites gathered in groups to hear the message as they participated in a number of back-to-school activities as well as a special kick-off video, featuring Union’s Teacher of the Year, Support Employee of the Year, and performances from Choir and Drama. Donuts were distributed to the staff around Union as well. At the Education Service Center, several employees were honored for their years of service.
Below is the Superintendent’s Message. (You may download a copy as well.)
Reaching – Engaging - Inspiring
The theme of our kickoff: Reaching – Engaging – Inspiring – is not only our vision statement for our dynamic strategic plan, but it also speaks to the essence of what we are about in accomplishing our district goal of 100 percent graduation, college and career ready. We know that if we believe and embrace this for all students – regardless of circumstance or demographics – they will be assured a high-quality, more personalized, and supportive educational experience. Through a boundless strength, fierce determination, and bold leadership we are continuing to change our processes, learning delivery systems, programs, and structures to ensure student success and foster greater personalization, and school engagement. We have, and are continuing to prove, that when you have a talented staff, a highly committed Board of Education, and community, our students can succeed and are treated to a world-class educational experience.
Each of us – whether in the classroom, in the warehouse, driving a bus, cleaning our buildings, fixing our buildings, or mowing our grounds – plays a vital role in this organization. You all could be working elsewhere – but you choose to be in public education because you value its importance. It’s here – with the proper education and support – our kids will become the citizens of tomorrow who will keep America’s democracy alive, address our environmental and social issues, and learn to live peaceably in this world despite our deepest differences. I feel incredibly grateful to work with people like you who care immensely about our children and are willing to invest your careers in order for our students to have a better life and be able to make a positive difference in the world.
Challenging and Changing Times
We are now living in perhaps one of the most politically and culturally divided periods of our lives. This is why our work in public education is so critical. Educators like you help students build lives of great purpose and potential by instilling essential knowledge, skills, and character. We must believe in high-quality public education because America’s cultural, intellectual, financial, and national security stems from the work we do. Our public schools must continue to be the beacon of hope for America. It is still a place where students of all religions, ethnicities, socio-economic status, and ideologies can come together to learn and be enriched by diversity and our deepest differences.
As we continue to reach, engage, and inspire, we are dealing with changes that can have a destabilizing impact. Mobility has always been a concern here because our student body is constantly changing. Though some of our schools are stable, others change out more than 39 percent of their student population over the course of a year, which makes it extremely difficult to maintain continuous academic progress. Our average mobility was almost 23 percent last school year. Over 1200 students came from other Oklahoma schools, 412 came from other states and 50 entered from private schools. Though we welcome them all, repeated moves can have a devastating effect on school performance, and we know that our students are more successful when they stay in Union and profit from great teachers and a rigorous curriculum that allow no gaps in learning. That’s why we are so eager to expand our community school philosophy and other social, emotional, and academic programs and services in all grade levels to maximum impact.
Mass migration in our country has triggered demographic shifts, and Union is right in the middle. Over the past year we enrolled 87 students from other countries throughout the world which has challenged us to teach English to over 4009 students who speak 62 different languages at home. While increases in racial diversity can pose new challenges, they also provide an opportunity to help all of our students accept and appreciate cultural differences and equip our students to succeed in an ever-changing and increasingly global society. We are making strides in maximizing student achievement. Our job as educators, however, will not be complete until each of our students is successful. While it is true that demographic variables are directly linked to student achievement, it is also true that adult variables, including the professional development practices of teachers and the decisions leaders make, can be more important. One of the ways for us to meet this challenge and to improve overall instruction is for more of our staff to become ESL certified. One-hundred and thirty-three of our certified staff have already obtained this certification from the state. If we are to get serious about meeting the needs of our English language learners while also improving the overall effectiveness of instruction, we need to be growing our number of staff who are ESL certified. Starting this school year – if approved by the SDE using our ESSER funds - we will be offering a one-time $3000 stipend for certified teachers to obtain ESL certification. For those who have already obtained this certification you will be receiving a stipend as well. The research is very clear, the pedagogy within ESL instruction will enhance learning for all.
Our evolving student body continues to be more diverse each year. I love our diversity and I consider it a treasure! The make-up of our families is also interesting and may have implications for how we make connections to parents. The majority of Union student--51%--live with both parents. This leaves 39% who report living with a single mother and 5% who live with a single father, and more than 800 students who are classified as homeless. A small number of students need even more caring adult attention at school since 41 of our kids have no adult who takes responsibility for them. Regardless of home circumstances, school must be a safe haven for all students, and it is our responsibility to reach out to parents to help them reinforce a positive message about education. When we have parents working with us, it is a recipe for success, but if we alienate parents, we haven’t helped the student at all, and our work becomes more arduous. Therefore, it is so important for us to engage with our amazing PTA and seek to increase our parent engagement at all schools.
Another concern is that, nationally, the disparity between the haves and have-nots is increasing. And again, Union is a microcosm of our greater society. We now have 71 percent of our students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. This growth over the last 10 years has been steady. We are a bi-modal community with families who are very affluent to those who are disadvantaged by poverty. And regardless of their circumstances, we want them all to succeed.
Even though how much money a family has should not influence how well a child learns, it is misleading to ignore how poverty can influence learning in school. And unfortunately, poverty continues to be our greatest enemy in Oklahoma where two out of three students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Achievement gaps in schools are not so much the fault of “failing schools” as much as they reflect the differences in opportunities that children experience.
These line graphs show the percentage of regular students who have tested satisfactory on the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests in grades 3 – 8. Though there are differences between ethnic groups, the real difference comes down to economic opportunity. Regardless of race, educational attainment is a reflection of the opportunities that children have had to be exposed to language, stimulation, and a healthy lifestyle. In both math and reading, the gap that exists is determined by the vestiges of economic opportunity.
We Are Setting the Standard
Over the past few years, we have been fortunate to host a number of educational scholars and prominent school leaders. All have come to witness what a high-performance school district looks like in the face of poverty. The distinguished educational researcher, Dr. Linda Darling- Hammond, recently sent a research team to our district to learn more about our success in early childhood and community schools. To say her team was impressed by your collective work and our dynamic strategic plan would be an understatement. In addition, Mr. David Kirp, author of Improbable Scholars and columnist for the New York Times, has written extensively about our strategic plan in his new upcoming book called, Greater Expectations. This book features three public schools in America that are disrupting traditional education. Union is fortunate to be one of those three schools that will be featured. This is indeed a testament to the collective work we are doing on behalf of our students, families, and community. Clearly, we have an unabashed willingness to defy the conviction that high poverty results in poor academic performance!
As we prepare to return to a more normal school year, we will continue to focus on year four of our five-year strategic plan. Union’s Learning Model – learning the Union Way – along with our core values will serve to guide our work around literacy, cognitive capacity, engagement, and social and emotional learning.
Our community schools initiative is working to bring in community and agency partners to our lower socio-economic level students to provide greater equity. The Community Health Connections Clinic at Ochoa and the clinic at Rosa Parks have proven to be an overwhelming success. This past school year, despite the pandemic, they saw over 45,000 patients. The clinic is obviously meeting a real need for quality health care within our district and greater Tulsa community. We want all of our students to have the advantages of a fair and level playing field so they can all take advantage of good teaching and learning opportunities. This is why we expect more of our schools to become Community Schools in the future as we identify more partners to help us close the gap of economic inequity while we work on the academics. This school year will provide a great opportunity for us to reconnect and to form new partners as we seek to grow our community school philosophy.
Reaching – Engaging - Inspiring
I think most of you would agree with me that this past school year has been one of the most challenging school years ever! But despite its many challenges, I think we also learned some things that I believe we can capitalize on in order to maximize student learning, increase student, parent, and community engagement, and increase operational efficiencies. I believe our current dynamic strategic plan served us well as we navigated through uncharted waters due to the global pandemic. I cannot tell you how impressed I was with your collective ability to adapt throughout the school year. And while not perfect, we made the best of it, and for that, our students, staff, families, and community benefited. Our community and many of our colleagues from across the state and nation stood in amazement in what we accomplished. This year’s theme of reaching – engaging – inspiring was indeed playing out right before our eyes.
Our efforts to reach our students and community remain relentless!
Our long-term commitment to continuous school and organizational improvement is among the reasons why Union is one of the premier districts in the nation. Academically, we continue to trend in the right direction as evidenced by our three-year graduation rate of 90 percent. This is remarkable! We also saw 14 of our students recognized as commended or national merit scholars. For the ninth consecutive year, Union Public Schools was recognized by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education as the Oklahoma’s Promise Class 6A Champion for having 167 seniors from the class of 2020 qualify for the Oklahoma’s Promise Scholarship.
And in terms of preparing our students for the rigors of college, this past school year we celebrated 28 of our Early College High School students – the majority of them first-generation college students – earning an associate degree along with their high school diploma. This pilot program, in partnership with Tulsa Community College, will now be expanded within the Tulsa community to give more under-represented, under-served, and first-generation college students a chance to become college graduates. This is why we do what we do!
Staying relevant, innovative, and true to our college-and-career-ready goal, Union’s Career Connect Program – another innovative program created by Union – has garnered 758 nationally recognized certifications for 316 students in fields which include, but are not limited to, manufacturing, information technology, culinary, early childhood education, law enforcement, and construction. And, under the direction of Charlie Bushyhead and Dr. Josh Robinson, our construction academy program will now be expanding from the Freshman Academy to our high school to offer more opportunities for our students.
School engagement is key to our success!
Seventy-five percent of the public does not have children in public schools. It is therefore critical that we work to re-connect the public to our schools and to invite them to partner with us. Our Education Foundation, under the leadership of Shea Ludwig, is doing an amazing job. But I want to challenge us to bring our PTA memberships up to a record level this school year. What a great testament this would be for our students and staff as our PTA is the booster club for our students, teachers, and classrooms. They too, are an amazing group and I want them to see firsthand how appreciative we are of them in all that they do for us.
We must continue to foster partnerships and grow the public’s understanding of what we do. It is up to us – through our excellent work and innovative programs – to convince the public that supporting and partnering with us is important stuff, as we know it is a moral imperative to our nation’s success.
Our success is incumbent upon our ability to inspire!
I like to think that we exist to serve, and I say this often in public. I also think that we exist to inspire. Public education can be the great equalizer if our stakeholders are provided with a quality learning experience. Vital to this experience is a feeling of worth and inspiration. And even though we have dramatically changed in our demographics, we have proven that one’s demographics in life do not have to determine one’s destiny. Poverty is not necessarily the absence of money; it is the absence of hope!
Therefore, we have invested in a department of hope, guidance, and social-emotional learning. We have also partnered with Dr. Chan Hellman from OU to assist us in becoming a hope- centered institution. Hope is not necessarily a core subject area, but it is at the core of every subject. Early research in this field is showing much promise and that is why we are striving to capitalize its potential for our students. Hope is indeed a science. Learning is a complex process; it is also highly diverse, dynamic, and distinct. Thus, balancing the cognitive and affective domains are essential to maximizing learning.
And speaking of inspiration, we are eager to learn what our new mascot will be at some point this school year. Chris Payne, Union’s Chief Communications Officer, is leading this process and is doing a great job in managing the variety – and I do mean variety – of recommendations that have been presented. Thankfully, we are utilizing a very robust computer program that is analyzing the thousands of responses we have received, and it will eventually provide us with a more-narrow field of recommendations to consider. Stay tuned!
Phase one of our stadium renovation will be completed soon – at least I hope so – and we finally get to put our fans back on the home side of the stadium to witness what should be an outstanding football season. We are also equally excited about the construction of our new Fine Arts facility that will close out the completion of this project next August 2022.
Our incredible band staff and program, under the direction of Charles Pisarra, is growing and preparing for another great marching season and will be representing us nationally this year at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
I would like to take a moment to thank our Board of Education for the work they do. I hope you were inspired by their approval of a five-percent challenging-year stipend, along with a five- percent retention stipend, and a two-percent raise. They greatly value each of you and the collective work we are doing.
I continue to be inspired by the work of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council as they seek to advise ways for us to support a heathy and diverse culture. I am also grateful for the work of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. These students have made some excellent recommendations to enhance a better learning experience for all.
And speaking of excellence, congratulations to our support employee of the year Myriam Puleo and our teacher of the year Rebecka Peterson. Both of these employees are inspiring and exemplify the unwavering commitment and pride represented within our 2000-member employee family.
We are living in a complicated time for public schools. People question EVERYTHING we do, and we are under a microscope. But let’s be very clear…the only institution that has ever been proven to make our communities and families strong is public schools. One of the perils of traditional education is the notion that one size fits all. At Union, we are proving that there are many pathways to achieving academic success. This is what is distinguishing us and allowing us to stay relevant for our students. Our pursuit of excellence at Union is never ending and our commitment and aim must remain high!
For many of us, including myself, we would not be where we are today without the transformative power of public education. Much like this broken vase, too many students today don’t get to fully experience this transformative power because they are viewed as too broken, either by themselves or others.
The reality is ALL of us are broken in some fashion--imperfect people living in an imperfect world. We can’t give up on ourselves and we certainly cannot give up on our students, nor would we want to.
When we all look into the sky - regardless of where we live – it is the same sky! But the difference for us all rests within the conditions that surround us. These conditions can serve to influence our lives in many ways. They can serve to enhance our lives, our dreams, our aspirations; or serve to impair them.
The Japanese culture offers up an inspiration for us all, particularly in how we need to view the students that fall under our care. The ancient art of Kintsugi teaches us that broken objects are not something to hide but are something to display with pride. When a precious vase falls and breaks into a thousand pieces, most tend to devalue it and even throw it away angrily and regretfully. Yet there is an alternative.
In Kintsugi, precious metals are used to bring together the pieces of broken pottery. By joining these fragments together with precious metals, it not only repairs the item, but ADDS VALUE to it. Most importantly, it gives the piece a new lease on life that provides even more distinction and worth!
Figuratively speaking, each of you in this room represent that precious metal; whereby, you step in to close and repair the brokenness – whether it be academically, socially, or emotionally - of our students and provide them with a renewed sense of hope, confidence, and a renewed lease on life.
In more ways than you will ever know, your ability to reach – engage – and inspire your students could make all the difference. As former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, once shared, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”
Let us continue to believe great things of each of them - for they indeed are worthy.
I wish you all a great school year!