Northeast Academy leaders push for charter status

Northeast Academy leaders push for charter status
Garett Fisbeck
Pearl Barnett on the campus of Northeast Academy, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.

D. Pearl Barnett fondly remembers boarding her northwest Oklahoma City neighborhood bus for the daily, eight-mile journey to Northeast Academy for Health Sciences and Engineering.

As a magnet school, Northeast Academy accepted only the top Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) sciences students.

Launched in the fall of 1998, the sixth-12th-grade school at 3100 N. Kelly Ave. ensured all students had access to high-quality learning opportunities and prepared them to excel in science, technology, engineering and math beyond the school building, which was first opened in 1936 as Northeast High School.

Northeast Academy set Barnett on a trajectory toward her career in public health policy. Now, as the state’s ADvantage Medicaid waiver programs administrator, the 2003 alumna credits her success to the school’s innovative teachings and specialized programs.

Gone are the days when the city’s highest achieving students flocked to Northeast Academy.

In recent years, the state has recorded mediocre academic results, which troubles alumni and the community. Rumors spread that the school would soon close, and parents began enrolling their children in neighboring schools.

When Barnett joined the Northeast Academy for Health Sciences and Engineering Enterprise Board in 2013, she noted many differences from when she attended during its early days as Northeast Academy.

About 350 students were enrolled, a difference of about 560 students from the 1999-2000 academic year.

She also noticed current students ranked toward the lower end of academic performance scales when compared to other secondary schools.

“I saw a difference between the school’s academic rigor,” Barnett said. “When I was on the board, I first heard about the loss of faculty, loss of students and rumors the school would shut down.”

Now, the Enterprise Board wants to turn the tide by rebuilding a strong academic program and again creating a pipeline into science careers.

Fortune reversal

In mid-October, the board submitted its plan to reestablish innovative teaching and academic excellence. It proposes to convert Northeast Academy into a collegiate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) charter school.

As Northeast STEM Academy, the sixth- to 12th-grade facility would operate as a publicly funded charter independent from OKCPS.

“It’s the idea that each student can learn if they are given the ability and the access to learn,” Barnett said as she recently discussed Northeast STEM Academy plans with Oklahoma Gazette. “What we want to do at Northeast is deliver interactive experiences that are necessary in the STEM field to students.”

The 58-page charter application sent to OKCPS leaders includes Enterprise Board member Brian Corpening’s and Barnett’s signatures authorizing the petition.

They, along with longtime community leader Angela Monson, presented the charter request to the district school board during its Nov. 21 meeting.

STEM-focused charter schools are not a new concept.

If approved, Northeast STEM Academy would become the first school of its kind in northeast Oklahoma City, an area highly concentrated with low-performing schools.

Like STEM charter schools across the country, the board wishes to reestablish a learning environment with rigorous and relevant curricula that maximizes individual potential and ensures students are well equipped for their futures.

One of the school’s critical goals is building student self-efficacy, the belief in achieving.

The board sees a direct link between self-efficacy and academic motivation and success in the STEM field.

Under the proposal, Northeast STEM Academy would require students participate in at least 90 hours of community service each academic year.

Students who have attended at least two years will be required to complete 120 hours of work experience in a STEM-related field.

Also, graduating seniors must master an independent capstone project before receiving their diplomas.

Corpening said school leaders will establish relationships with the business sector as well as institutes of higher education, like the University of Oklahoma and Langston University, to help students accomplish the extra requirements.

“We all know if we want to truly impact our children, and all of our children, we are going to have to bring all the stakeholders to the table,” Corpening said. “We all must pitch in to provide the type of skill sets, experiences and resources to ensure that students have a quality education and are prepared for future opportunities, regardless of the field.”

Northeast Academy would integrate Project Lead The Way, a national curriculum model that empowers students to develop in-demand knowledge and skills through STEM pathways. Project Lead The Way will bring courses like cyber security and digital gaming to Northeast Academy, said Barnett.

Time for change

The school’s enterprise board is convinced the charter school model would be transformative for Northeast.

As a charter, the board has freedom to hire staff and pay above the state’s average teacher salary, which would attract highly skilled educators.

The board plans to extend the school calendar by 25 days an academic year, tailor curriculum and increase school resources by partnering with outside organizations.

In 2012, Oklahoma City’s school board awarded Northeast Academy the status of enterprise, which allowed for establishment of an enterprise board.

That board was granted flexibility in spending and staffing, but members said they hit constant roadblocks in their plans for reinventing the school.

District leaders again face a big decision that will arguably influence public education in northeast Oklahoma City for generations to come.

The district’s creative committee, charter school committee and legal department must review the charter application before a recommendation is shaped and presented to the eight-person school board.

The district could take 90 days to process the charter application.

As one of the biggest backers for Northeast STEM, Barnett is doing her part to help promote the charter proposal. She often speaks to alumni, parent, student and community groups, explaining what Northeast STEM Academy could mean for Oklahoma City students, not just those that reside in the northeast quadrant.

In August, there could be a new sign on the N. Kelly Avenue building. With a new school name comes higher expectations and a new curriculum model that could be the difference maker for many urban students.

“We want our students to be academically proficient, above the state ACT average,” Barnett said. “We want our students to have opportunities in the STEM field and graduate with internships. We want our students to be involved in the community. We want our students to be connected to colleges.”

Print headline: Northeast push, School leaders pitch a Northeast Academy charter plan to help deliver high-quality STEM education to urban students.

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