Posted Date: 08/31/2022
Union Public Schools invited staff to “Bring On Tomorrow” during its annual employee kick-off show this morning as hundreds poured into the Union Performing Arts Center to watch students and staff perform, listen to special speakers and even laugh with a comedian.
Watch parties were also established around the school district for employees who preferred to watch in smaller settings.
“It is so good to finally see all of you – in person,” Superintendent Dr. Kirt Hartzler said, in his State-of-the-Union speech, “- as we set the stage for another outstanding school experience for every student we serve. To our new employees, welcome to the Union family.”
Hartzler said, “In less than 24 hours, … we will welcome over 15,000 students into our schools and our classrooms. As educators we are entrusted with a very special cargo. The children that we welcome are the best our parents have to offer. Whether they come perfectly prepared with language and academic skills or not – we have a huge responsibility to nurture, civilize, and educate all the children that come to us.” See his speech below.
Union High School math teacher Rebecca Peterson, who was named Oklahoma’s State Teacher of the Year for this year, also spoke, and talked about the importance of being civil discourse and being curious about learning new things, setting the stage for our future leaders.
New High School drama teacher Ericka McGhee led a team of professionals to direct lively performances from drama students, while a choir of employees sang a rendition of “Seasons of Love,” from the musical “Rent.” The number featured special solo spotlights from McGhee and Ellen Ochoa music teacher Sam Loney. Sooooo good! Union alum and now comedian, Cepeda Cheeks, made the audience laugh as he joked about his experiences in school but stressed the importance of teachers and the impact teachers make on the lives of students.
Employees were treated to donuts and refreshments, as well as small gifts from several local sponsors as they waited for the show, enjoying the chance to meet old friends. It was, after all, the first in-person kick-off show since 2019.
The show ended with a rain of confetti, but really, the show starts Wednesday – the first day of school. Bring on, tomorrow!
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Aloha Union High School! We spent the day getting re-acquainted with our faculty and staff! We are ready to put people first and welcome the classes of 2023, 2024, and 2025 back to the high school! Thank you to PTSA for helping us start the year off right! pic.twitter.com/vwNCCQlRzv— Union High School (@UnionHSTulsa) August 15, 2022
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Below is the text of Superintendent’s Dr. Kirt Hartzler’s speech.
Good morning. It is so good to finally see all of you – in person - as we set the stage for another outstanding school experience for every student we serve. To our new employees, welcome to the Union family.
In less than 24 hours, I know take a deep breath, we will welcome over 15,000 students into our schools and our classrooms. As educators we are entrusted with a very special cargo. The children that we welcome are the best our parents have to offer. Whether they come perfectly prepared with language and academic skills or not – we have a huge responsibility to nurture, civilize, and educate all the children that come to us. And let’s remember that regardless of how frustrating it might be – each one of them, I hope, is someone’s greatest blessing. Even those with multiple piercings, colored hair, or lousy attitudes – they all deserve a chance and the best we have to give.
The theme for our kick-off – Bring On Tomorrow – begs us all to reflect on what we have been through the past two years and challenges us to think about tomorrow, and what is important and commit to using our positive thoughts and actions to make every school day important in the lives of our students. As a learning institution, we have survived perhaps one of the most perilous and challenging times of our lives. We have proven that when you have a talented and caring staff, a highly committed board and community, our students and our schools can excel even through a world-wide pandemic. I thank each of you for your unwavering commitment, perseverance, and positive attitudes these past two years.
It has been said: to start a better world, a better life, or a better future is simply our belief that it is possible. Like many of you, school was the place that provided me with this belief. School was my respite, a place where I felt safe, a place to be fed, a place where people believed in me and saw more potential than what I was capable of seeing in myself. I highly value this statement as it speaks to the transformative power of public education. It speaks to the importance of each of you, from our teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, and administration to our board, each of you matter in the lives of our students. Now more than ever, I want each of you to know that you matter and that you are highly regarded in the eyes of our parents and community. One example of this is that in May, our Union Schools Education Foundation, under the direction of Shea Ludwig, with assistance from Kulsum Siddiqui, and our foundation board, raised a record $300,000 dollars to support you, our students, and our programs. This was remarkable and it is a true testament to their belief in you!
This past school year proved to be a challenging one on many fronts. Our schools are dealing with staffing shortages, supply issues, and construction costs unlike anything we have seen before. Still yet, school must go on and we will continue to be relentless in our pursuit of what we call “The Union Way,” excellence in all that we do. It is unfortunate the public does not always get to see close up the heroic things that you are doing during these times. Our public schools are no longer considered sanctuaries that are free from partisan politics. Contrary, they have become a political playground for some which primarily serves to distract us from our primary mission. We must stand strong in our values and be unyielding in our vision of reaching, engaging, and inspiring our students, parents, and community. I have full faith in you that we will continue to do what is right.
Besides the political turmoil, we have witnessed first-hand what happens when a state allows a for-profit virtual school to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of our students.
This is wrong and we must, and we will, continue to hold our elected officials responsible to ensure greater regulation and oversight with these types of programs. Perhaps the first place to start would be making sure these programs are not for-profit! Every dollar that is siphoned away for these for-profit virtual schools, or voucher programs, results in less operational dollars for our schools and students.
Even with the historic increase in state funding for schools in recent years, thanks in large part to your efforts, we still lag behind other states in our region in operational funding. If we were funded at just the regional average, Union would have roughly 23 million new dollars to spend on staff and resources each school year. Did you catch that? 23 million new dollars each school year! It is now time for the Governor and our elected officials to fulfill the promise of making Oklahoma a top-ten state by investing more heavily in our educators and provide schools with more operational dollars. This is the surest way for a state to become more economically viable while also improving the quality-of-life measures for its citizens.
Despite the negative rhetoric that we hear too often, public education is still a right and rightful thing. And it continues to be one of the greatest equalizers in this world. Our public schools are about the only institution where students and families from different cultural values, wealth, and ethnicity come together. Union is a continuously growing and changing district. Over 4000 bilingual students report speaking 62 different languages in the home. We are more diverse today than ever before. I hope you feel the same, as I believe Union’s diversity continues to be one of our greatest treasures. In addition to our ever-changing demographics, our programs are growing in many exciting ways keeping us a vibrant and progressive school district.
We are honored that agencies, private donors, national publications, and authors have invested in and are writing about the incredible work we are doing. One of the most notable recognitions is the upcoming book by David Kirp. The book, “Disrupting Disruption,” is set to be released next month and will feature three exemplary public schools in America that are making a positive difference. Union Public Schools is one of those school districts. Without question, it is because of your work, your reputation, and your unwavering commitment to our educational mission to graduate 100 percent of our students, college and career ready. The book will feature many of our programs, innovations, and measures that we have created to ensure that our students are well suited to maximize the educational opportunities and experiences we provide for them. It affirms things that I have witnessed – time and time again – over my long career at Union, in that we stop at nothing when it comes to making sure our
students’ needs are met. I firmly believe this is one of the distinguishing features of our district. Our successes are a direct correlation of our focus and execution – that stems from our dynamic strategic plan and district values - that place the student at the center of everything that we do.
Our students are our primary focus, but you are also equally important. This is why the board and administration are striving to ensure that our benefits and employee compensation remain one of the strongest in the state. Our Board of Education at Union has consistently rewarded our employees with competitive salaries with the funds available and added to that a one-time stipend to distribute available funds we have at the end of the year to our employees. We are thankful to our board for the 5 percent retention stipend that qualified employees received in July. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the Board of Education members to you and ask them to stand so you can show them your appreciation – President Ken Kinnear, Stacey Roemerman, Joey Reyes, Chris McNeil, and Heather McAdams. And I am pleased to announce the board recently approved a two percent raise for both support and certified staff. Our Board and this administration remain committed to keeping your salary and benefits strong and will continue to work hard on your behalf.
And speaking of remaining committed. Because of your work, we saw a seven percent improvement in our third grade reading scores. Thank you to all of our elementary teachers, staff, and administration for this increase. Without question, this increase will improve the academic achievements of our students over time.
And once again, for the 10th consecutive year, Union High School was named the 6A Oklahoma Promise Champions. Also, 11 of our seniors this past year were named National Merit Finalists. In addition, we saw 28 of our EDGE students graduate with an associate degree. Many of these students are first-generation college students and we are so proud of them. We know that poverty and achievement correlate, but it does not have to be causal.
Words cannot express how grateful and proud I am of you for the belief that you have in all of our students. The high personalization, caring and nurturing culture that we have created, collective speaking, is truly uncommon. Without question, it is continuing to make a difference as evidenced in our five-year graduation rate of 90 percent – even through the first year of the pandemic. Schools are not responsible for meeting every need of their students. But when the need directly affects learning the school must meet the challenge.
Our community school philosophy is doing just that, as we are continuing to address learning barriers and enhance learning through community and agency partnerships. It is making a positive difference. Darnaby’s Club Expo is a shining example of creating innovative opportunities for students with an emphasis on STEM. I know there are many more great examples of our community school philosophy at work in our schools and I hope that we continue to build on this work.
We also ventured into some tough decisions this past year. We managed to create – what we hope will be – better school start and end times for all schools. And with the input of thousands of stakeholders – of course not all in agreement – we manage to show what it means to have civil discourse and dialogue in selecting a new mascot – The RedHawks. And thanks to our very own high school student, Caiden Morales, we now have a very impressive logo. We managed to also enhance the district’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by passing a board policy – unanimously I might add by our courageous board - that further affirms our commitment to this work. The policy espouses our organization’s belief that all members of our organization and community are valued not only for what they are, but who they are.
We will also see a restructured sixth and seventh grade this school year. Through much analysis – changes are being made in order to create a more age appropriate - more elementary like, safer, and more positive learning environment. A district committee has been hard at work looking at a new structure and programs for this site. With next year’s new five-year series bond, we have an opportunity to redesign the campus in order to have two distinct buildings, one for each grade level; thus, creating a building that will be more functional and conducive to teaching and learning. Stay tuned…
This past year has also been historic in terms of recognizing the teaching talent within Union. We know that our staff represent some of the brightest and most talented teachers in Oklahoma, as well as the nation. You just heard from Rebecca Peterson, Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year. Union was also represented nationally this year in the naming of 8th Grade Science Teacher, Tamra Danzy, as a Milken Family Education Award recipient that represents the best teachers in America. This award is so distinguished that you cannot even apply for it – the organization finds you! We are also equally proud of this year’s district support employee of the year, Chef Candice Walker Murray, and this year’s district teacher of the year, Kelsey McAfee.
Without question, these individuals and their distinguishments are shining examples of the excellence found among such a dedicated, talented, and committed staff. Our students are very fortunate to have you working on their behalf. As a proud parent of three Union lifers, I would not trade their education at Union for anything!
School year 2022-23 brings a lot to celebrate. We have already started the year with great summer programs for our elementary and secondary students. Student engagement continues to be an antecedent to student academic success. Our fine arts and athletic departments continue to make us proud on both the state and national level. Just recently, Union’s athletic department, under the direction of Emily Barkley, received the National Athletic Administrators Association Quality Program Award that recognizes athletic programs of excellence. Union is the only school in Oklahoma to receive this award and only one in five throughout the nation. Congratulations on building a program of excellence as we continue to build champions of character.
And we are continuing to blur the lines between K-12 and Higher Education in the best interest of our students. We will have our sixth Early College High School cohort this year with over 60 students – many of them first-generational college students. The program has quickly become a model program and we are working hard to establish it as a statewide program for all. We will also be expanding our Construction Academy ensuring that we are providing more relevance and opportunities to our career ready initiative.
Our fine arts construction and remodels funded by bond dollars have almost been completed. The stadium renovation and new band building are now finished and look amazing.
We also have three district committees at work preparing for our next five-year series bond as well as a redraft of our dynamic five-year strategic plan. This plan has served us well over the last 10 years and we are excited about what it will bring for us in the next five years.
The true character of an organization is not in so much how we treat the wealthy or those most suited for success. It is in how we treat those who are not as prepared and struggle with the relentless grips of poverty. Unfortunately, poverty continues to be our greatest enemies in Oklahoma where 1 in 4 students live in its grip and 2 out of 3 qualify for free or reduced lunch. But as we have learned, poverty is not necessarily the absence of money, it is the absence of hope. Our work in becoming a hope-centered institution is growing and providing our students with an understanding of how hope is a science. The objective is for them to learn how to generate and sustain hope in their lives.
Schools are highly complex social systems in dynamic settings. Unfortunately, our work as public educators in today’s political climate is not going to get any easier. But, I am hopeful and excited about Union’s future. We have learned that if we are to flourish, we must maintain an unwavering faith that we can and will prevail in our mission to graduate 100 percent of our students, college and career ready. Navigating the difficult times is not about waiting for them to be over. It’s about understanding that we have to adjust to the difficult times. I can say, without equivocation, we have!
I hope that you are excited about this new school year. I hope that you are ready to make this the best experience possible to actualize our student’s greatest dreams. They all come to school wanting to learn. They all want to be successful. They all want to be recognized by you and liked by you. Of course, some of them have different ways to show it, but they all need your acceptance and guidance – regardless of their ages. Some are fragile and some are tough; some have had great preparation and some – due to no fault of their own – have not. So, it is our job to get our students ready and help them succeed. A vast majority of our students will even find their calling in life through the experiences at school. What an exciting job and responsibility bestowed on us. This is why each of you matters…greatly! This past year, we lost a beautiful soul, 7th Grade Teacher of the Year, Nick Griffith. Nick understood the importance of our work with students. He would hear teachers at times say, “well I have to teach today.” Nick would quickly correct them and say, “no…. you get to teach today.” What an inspiration for us all to think about! Nick was indeed a champion for all students. I am truly honored to work beside each of you. Yes, I am so very proud of our students, but I am equally proud of you.
We are all shaped to some degree by our own biographies and cultures and it’s easy to believe that what’s happened before determines what has to come next. The American poet Emerson thought otherwise. “What lies behind us,” he wrote, “and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
“Bring on Tomorrow,” embodies the Union spirit in many ways. It affirms what lies within us in our unyielding commitment to staying relevant as a learning institution, standing firm on our values, and continuing to enhance “The Union Way.” This is what great enduring organizations do. As FDR once stated, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” Our students are trusting in you!
“Bring on Tomorrow” – I wish you all an amazing school year!