New OKCPS superintendent Aurora Lora sits down with Oklahoma Gazette for a Q&A 

click to enlarge Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Aurora Lora poses for a photo, Friday, July 22, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Aurora Lora poses for a photo, Friday, July 22, 2016.

When Aurora Lora arrived in Oklahoma City three summers ago, she noticed something different from her public education experiences in Dallas, Portland and Seattle.

“With Oklahoma City, it’s the people,” Lora, Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) superintendent, told Oklahoma Gazette. “In this city, people genuinely care and want to do what’s right for the kids. I don’t think we all agree on how to do that, but we all want to improve the system.”

Lora has dedicated her career to boosting education outcomes in schools that are deemed chronically failing. Her own experience attending a low-performing high school propelled her into the education field as a Teach For America corps member. There, she tested and proved her theory that all students, including those from diverse ethnic backgrounds and impoverished communities, can succeed at high levels. Teachers with high expectations and classroom supports help make that happen, she said.

As the new leader of the state’s largest school district, Lora says she is a problem solver. The challenges she faces range from diminished state funding and low teacher morale to raising student achievement and leading the community through a public conversation on charter expansion. In a recent Oklahoma Gazette interview, Lora reflected on her path into education, the feedback from last spring’s listening tour with faculty and what students can do to be successful this school year.

Oklahoma Gazette: When did you realize you wanted to pursue education as your career?

Aurora Lora: The end of my first year teaching was a defining moment. I had a fourth-grade class of 16 students in inner-city Houston. The school was 100 percent free/reduced lunch. It was 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent African-American. The kids came from disadvantaged backgrounds. My principal told me I should pray to get 70 percent of the students to pass the state exam; that would help the school reach its acceptability rating.

I had come in — straight from college — with a fire inside of me. I didn’t want to give up on kids. I told the principal I wasn’t going to give up on 30 percent of my students. Nothing less than 100 percent would be acceptable.

That first year of teaching, I had this one student who became a success story. He started out in remedial reading. When the test scores came back, he tied for the highest score in the school on the state writing test. One hundred percent of my students passed the state writing test that year. … I realized education needs more people like me — people who believe kids from low-income backgrounds can achieve at high levels. That’s when I made my commitment to devote my life to education.

OKG: Can you describe what you’ve been observing inside the schools during your listening tour with teachers and staff? What is your takeaway?

Lora: One of the biggest takeaways was hearing staff say they had never had the opportunity to meet the superintendent and share their viewpoints about what could make the district better. It was neat for me to learn about their experiences and for them to get to know me a little bit better. We are fortunate to have great people working in the district. It is also important, as a leader, for me to be accessible and listening to people on the front line about what they can bring to the table. A lot of times at central office, we make decisions, but we don’t always know how they will play out or if there is a downside. It’s important to be talking to the people who will implement the decisions.

In general, I heard about the budget and its impact on the coming year. Teachers are scared about class sizes going up and decreased budgets for materials and books. It is going to be a hard year.

OKG: You named budget and teacher pay as the biggest challenges the district faces. How do you plan to confront those challenges this school year?

Lora: One thing that this budget has forced us to do is to look deeper into every dollar we spend. We’ve got to get creative with our resources, get smarter in our investments and think creatively on how to stretch every penny to go as far as we can. In the future, it will help us to be smarter as an organization. We have come up with some creative ideas to save money. When the money comes back, it can be better invested into supports for kids and not administrative uses.

Because of our crisis this year, we’ve worked with a lot of partners; people have stepped up to help our various needs. [The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools] has been a really great support to us. As I go and speak to different community groups, there are a lot of people who really want to be part of the solution. Ultimately, that will be great for our city as we learn how to partner together to help all of our kids.

We also need to focus on morale. This year will be challenging for teachers, even more than last year, because of larger class sizes. I think it is important that teachers feel valued, know we appreciate their hard work, are here to support them and we care about their voices. With the student, parent and teacher committees, people are part of the solutions for our district. I think that will go a long way for morale.

OKG: What has been your proudest moment in the time you’ve been with OKCPS?

Lora: Heading into the board meeting [July 18] with the charter [school] proposal, I felt like our community was divided, either pro-charter or pro-neighborhood schools. There was a lot of hostility and animosity. I wasn’t sure we would find a way to bridge and unite people around doing what’s right for kids.

I had been listening to families, trying to understand what families wanted and what KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program Reach College Preparatory charter school] wanted. There was a commonality that people want great school options in their communities for kids. What we are doing right now isn’t good enough.

Coming up with a compromise to help everyone was a win-win. I was really proud. In order to make dramatic changes that are right for kids, we have to unite people in a productive way. I think this is the right way to move forward. I think people on both sides were grateful we got to this place.

OKG: What is your advice or words of wisdom to OKCPS students as they start a new school year?

Lora: My general piece of advice for students is about the importance of reading. Read everything you can. Your mind will become stronger, and it helps you in all subjects. Find things you love to read. Reading is what I do every night. I hope that each kid finds his or her passion in reading.

OKG: How would you describe the kind of student you were in elementary, middle and high school? Were you scholarly, the class clown, athletic or involved in any school activities?

Lora: Not athletic, but I was definitely a well-rounded student. I was very involved in student council and was elected to be student body president. I was studious and valedictorian of my high school. I had a wide range of interests, like Latin Club and show choir.

OKG: Thinking back to your time in school, what can you tell us about the district you attended? Was it similar in any way to Oklahoma City Public Schools?

Lora: My dad was in the army, and I experienced a variety of types of school districts. I did attend some school districts that were similar to Oklahoma City Public Schools. I graduated from a low-income district. It faced many of the same challenges, especially in resources and needing extra supports, as OKCPS. I feel a special connection to this district because it’s like what I grew up in.

I did have a chance to attend a smaller school on an army base in San Antonio. I also attended a school for the gifted.

OKG: What sparked your interest in becoming a classroom teacher through the Teach For America program?

Lora: I graduated valedictorian of a low-income high school on the [Mexico-United States] border. It had a big graduating class, but I made straight A’s all through high school. I had my choice of full rides to many of the state universities. I selected the state school after acceptance into the honors program at the University of Texas.

During my first college English class, it came time for the professor to pass back the first essay. My essay was the last one he handed out. Everyone’s essay had red marks, but mine had no red marks. [The professor] asked me, “Who taught you how to write like this?” He tore up my paper. I almost burst into tears. This was my first essay in college. I had graduated valedictorian. I felt I would do great in college. I was mortified.

I really struggled that first semester. I wanted to be a doctor, but I struggled in basic chemistry and biology. I realized I was coming in without any of the background knowledge everyone else seemed to have. My high school did not prepare me to go to college.

My story has a happy ending because I was able to get extra help — going to tutoring — and my parents told me not to quit. I turned my situation around. Not many from my high school went on to college, and those that did faced similar struggles. Some dropped out and went back to El Paso.

When I graduated from college, many of those that I graduated high school with hadn’t made it to their college graduations. I felt outraged. Had we been better prepared leaving high school for college, it could have made a huge difference. I felt the education system had done a huge disservice to children, especially from low-income communities, by not preparing them for college. That’s what drove me to Teach For America. I hadn’t study education in undergrad, but I heard about the program that allows you to teach for two years and become certified.

For me, it was about going back to prove that kids from low-income communities like the one I came from can absolutely meet high standards if the teachers hold high expectations.

I wasn’t planning on staying in education, but I felt I owed it to the system to try and be a good teacher for kids. That experience changed my life.

OKG: When you first began working at Oklahoma City Public Schools, was there something that stood apart or impressed you that was happening in the district?

Lora: I’ve worked in a number of urban school districts. With Oklahoma City, it’s the people. In this city, people genuinely care and want to do what’s right for kids. I don’t think we all agree on how to do that, but we all want to improve the system.

I’ve worked in places where politics gets in the way of doing right for kids. That’s the one thing I haven’t felt here.

We have a board that is supporting innovations to try to improve outcomes for kids. We have a community that cares deeply about kids. We have some of the hardest working teachers and principals. That is the perfect combination of supports you need to transform a school district.

Every school district has its challenges. Here, the budget is our big challenge. We have energy, support and people who are behind changes for kids. That’s really exciting. This is the first place and district where I felt that. This is the district I wanted to make my home and the first place I knew I wanted to buy a house.

OKG: What would you recommend a parent, grandparent or guardian do to get more involved in their child’s learning and their school community?

Lora: One of the most important things to do is sign up and join their school’s PTA.

There are a lot of opportunities the PTAs share with parents.

We have a district PTA, which will serve as my parent advisory committee. They should think about joining that PTA too if they want to give input into what we can do to improve the district.

The Foundation has Donors Choose and Partners In Action. Neighborhood schools are posting specific needs that could be donated for their classroom. That’s another way to help.

Print headline: Dedicated educator, The Gazette Q&A with OKC Public Schools superintendent Aurora Lora.

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