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Nelson Reynolds, with PbX Corporation, jackhammers an expansion joint on the North Peoria Avenue bridge over U.S. 75 on Monday. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

'This place is really going to give kids what they need': First public Montessori school in Oklahoma is poised to open

The hallways at Emerson Elementary School are clear. The walls haven’t yet seen the coming thousands of touches by children’s hands.

But a week before the school reopens at 910 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. as the first public Montessori school in Oklahoma, work continues until school starts.

Stephanie Jones’ prekindergarten and kindergarten multi-age classroom shows signs of the controlled chaos that will come with the school year. Jones spent Tuesday and the days before putting the room together, even though teachers weren’t required to report until Thursday.

The first day of classes is next Wednesday, and for Montessori teachers, the room is everything. Its design must support the hands-on, individual-learning model of the school. And so Jones worked even before her contract started to get her room ready for TPS’ new experiment.

As Jones sat on one of tiny chairs scattered across her room, Superintendent Deborah Gist walked in. Before the former elementary teacher-turned-administrator walked around the room, scoping it out, she acknowledged what Jones’ presence meant.

“This is the kind of time our teachers spend getting their rooms ready before they’re even back in school,” said Gist, exploring the room as she talked. She used her phone to snap photos of the room and the work being done there.

When Gist and other administrators toured the building Tuesday, they were positively giddy. It’s not often that Tulsa Public Schools opens a new, or at least newish, school.

The school has existed for more than 100 years, but this school year it will have renovated facilities and a whole new method of instruction.

At the main entrance, Gist noted the doors on either side, one set facing Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and another set facing Boston Avenue and the neighborhood beyond, something the Brady Heights neighborhood had wanted, Gist said.

The neighborhood and the area around the school have been growing in recent years due to downtown Tulsa’s resurgence.

School board member Gary Percefull said a school serving the burgeoning growth downtown is essential.

However, it’s the Montessori method that will make the school stand out the most. Montessori uses a largely self-paced, individualized learning model that uses hands-on activities to build real-world skills and concentration.

Jones’ classroom has an old-fashioned washboard, some pitchers and cups, and other household supplies. The items are there, she said, to help teach students to focus and to develop the fine motor skills they’ll need when they learn something such as penmanship.

“They have built concentration like you cannot imagine. They can sit with stuff for a really long time,” she said.

Jones thinks the Montessori method is better than the broader approach she has used previously at Skelly Elementary School.

“It’s everything. It’s respectful to kids. It’s tailored to each child. It’s hands-on, and it’s real life,” Jones said. “Sometimes when you use broad curriculum, like a math curriculum or a reading curriculum, you’re taking a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t respect where the child is.

“They might not have the knowledge that they would previously need to get that skill, so they’re not caught up to that level, or they might be so beyond it that they’re just sitting there, just bored out of their minds,” Jones said.

“This place is really going to give kids what they need.”

Law enforcement officials tell lawmakers 'there's so much confusion' on medical marijuana 'we don't know which way to turn'

OKLAHOMA CITY — A host of law enforcement agencies urged lawmakers to provide guidance on responding to State Question 788, telling a working group the measure has insufficient protection against the proliferation of a black market and creates legal conflicts for prosecution.

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and the District Attorneys Council, along with deputy chiefs from Oklahoma City and Tulsa, took part in a three-hour legislative working group meeting on Wednesday.

“This is medical marijuana, not recreational,” said District 8 District Attorney Brian Hermanson, who represented the DAC and oversees cases in Kay and Noble counties, of the situation.

Hermanson and the others described reservations they had with the state question, calling for a plan for addressing such areas as marijuana intoxication while driving, home grow, possession outside residences and consumption in the presence of children.

Tulsa Police Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks told the working group that “There’s so much confusion in every group that you talk to” because of statutory conflicts created by the passage of SQ 788.

The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office has said that those conflicts mean State Question 780, which decriminalized simple illegal possession of controlled substances, could still legally form the basis for criminal cases that seek jail time even though SQ 788 is also in effect.

Indeed, DPS Commissioner Rusty Rhoades told working group co-chairman Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, “We don’t know which way to turn on that right now.”

Echols has previously advocated for law enforcement entities to respect the expressed will of voters regarding SQ 788. He asked Rhoades whether a trooper today would be more likely to apply SQ 780 or SQ 788 if the trooper found 1.5 ounces or less of marijuana during a contact.

“It would be our recommendation at that point (that) we’d follow 780,” Rhoades replied. “But quite honestly, we don’t know. We don’t know because there is conflict and there’s confusion in that arena.”

SQ 788 indicates possession of that amount or less is punishable by a $400 fine, which doesn’t carry jail time, if a person can state a medical condition but does not have a license.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority will not accept license applications until 10 a.m. Aug. 25. Personnel there have 14 days to respond to them.

State Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami, who is a former district attorney, opined during an earlier dialogue with OBNDD Director John Scully that the working group seems to be “just scratching the surface” of laws that need to be repealed or amended in accordance with the vote.

Although Brooks asserted he had no interest in “negating” the point of the initiative, he maintained that law enforcement has legitimate issues with the new possession thresholds.

“We don’t want at any point someone in their neighborhood or on their streets with 3 ounces of marijuana. This will contribute to the black market,” he said. Scully, during his presentation, stressed the importance of OBNDD stopping the blossoming of a black and gray market and said he supports existing requirements in emergency rules for commercial licensees to register with the agency before beginning operations.

Brooks suggested the placement of home grow operations under their own category of licensure for the sake of safety and tracking, which could help mitigate growth of illegal transactions. Emergency rules for SQ 788 do not have any language regulating homegrown products.

Wade Gourley, a deputy chief for Oklahoma City Police, echoed Brooks’ comments, saying the permissive limits on simple possession currently in SQ 788 run the risk of making product supply greater than demand. Once that happens, Gourley said those products will likely be diverted illegally either to non-patients or across state lines, which makes it important for law enforcement to have access to some form of a tracking system for verification purposes.

A person with a medical marijuana license can have up to 3 ounces of marijuana in plant form, as well as 72 ounces of edibles, 1 ounce of concentrate and six each of mature and seedling plants.

Hermanson, who said he opposed SQ 788, talked to legislators at length about his displeasure with edible marijuana products being legal. He contended repeatedly that edibles present serious safety risks to children and that methods used to extract THC concentrates at home could also be harmful.

The state Board of Health adopted emergency rules Aug. 1 that stipulate products cannot be sold in a way that makes them attractive to minors. Products must also say “Keep out of the reach of children” somewhere on the label and have child-resistant packaging.

“I know of no reason under the sun why any type of edible marijuana should be shaped like gummy bears,” Hermanson said, also including infused brownies in his criticism. “There’s no reason that this medicine, marijuana, should look appetizing to a child.”

Scully, in response to a different question from the working group, said “I’ve used Google” to learn about the dangers posed by the use of butane to extract THC concentrates. He compared the potential damage to that seen by OBNDD agents during their work to eradicate methamphetamine labs.

“If we start having people who really don’t know what they’re doing … that can be volatile and cause explosions,” Scully said.

Rep. Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs, asked Hermanson about his views on edibles made from homegrown marijuana. Hermanson replied that “If they’re growing at home, the edibles they’re making are probably going to be brownies.”

The comment prompted some frustration from pro-medical marijuana advocates present in the room. Hermanson later told Kouplen that “You’ll have to excuse me” because “I’m not exactly aware of all the intricacies” of marijuana products.

He also said SQ 788 should have listed qualifying medical conditions because until lawmakers give guidance, law enforcement will likely have to take citizens’ claims about them at face value.

Rhoades said during his presentation that his agency is “sworn to protect the people of this state from, sometimes, themselves and certainly from others.”

He took issue with the lack of a standard mechanism that determines whether a person is under the influence of THC while operating a vehicle and asked for lawmakers to evaluate whether to create one through something like a saliva test.

Kouplen said he was aware of the challenges troopers face in detecting impairment on-scene but told Rhoades, “The subjective analysis that has to be made really concerns me.”

Hermanson later warned of his belief that DUI cases would double in the wake of SQ 788 and SQ 792, which affected sales of wine and high-point beer.

When Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, asked Hermanson to provide a basis for his claim, the attorney said, “There seems to be a feeling among at least some of us ... in the area of prosecution that we’ll see more people smoking in vehicles and smoking at work or other places.”

Marijuana use in public is prohibited under the current emergency rules, which Gov. Mary Fallin signed Aug. 6.

Following the meeting, Echols said it was his wish for the working group to begin to “hone in on possible emergency needs” to most efficiently implement the will of voters.

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2018 state tests: Owasso, Bixby lead Tulsa-area school districts in student proficiency; Tulsa, Liberty way off state average on most tests

Owasso and Bixby led Tulsa-area school districts in student proficiency for 2018, while the Tulsa and Liberty districts came in the furthest off state averages on most tests.

Still, a Tulsa World analysis of just-released results for the 2018 Oklahoma School Testing Program shows most local schools’ results reflect the state’s downward trend in the second year of higher academic standards.

Amy Fichtner, who just became Owasso’s superintendent after three years as assistant superintendent there, said the state has adopted a growth model for how to measure student achievement rather than a punitive one and teachers and schools need to adjust.

“We have really focused on not focusing on the test,” she said. “We have talked more about the new standards. We have asked our teachers to determine the main objectives that need to be accomplished during the year and we have let our teachers relax and focus on the standards.”

This was the second year that public school students across the state took new state tests aligned with Oklahoma’s new, higher academic standards, which were implemented in 2016-17.

Parents should expect reports on their child’s individual state test results some time in September, state officials said, and schools will get their first report cards with student growth factored in by the end of 2018-19.

“As a teacher over 20 years ago, I taught before the era of high-stakes testing. The culture that I taught in was, I had a set of standards, I had resources. And we had a test at the end of the year, but I never worried about that test in my 175 days of instruction,” Fichtner said. “My challenge as a leader is to replicate what I know was a joy of teaching environment. I think our state is leading us in that direction as well.”

Across the full spectrum of 14 state tests, either Owasso or Bixby posted the highest student proficiency rates on 10 of those tests, including a tie at 53 percent proficient in fifth grade English/language arts.

Still, many districts saw declines in student proficiency rates, compared to 2017’s test results, including Bixby, where proficiency rates were down across the board. Jenks was down in everything but seventh grade math, in which proficiency increased 5 points to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, Broken Arrow and Owasso saw a mix of gains and losses in a year-over-year comparison.

Bixby did post the highest rate of student proficiency by any local school at 66 percent in third grade math — 25 points higher than the state’s average.

Rob Miller, who just became that district’s superintendent after years of working in school administration in Sand Springs and Jenks, has long been a an outspoken critic of the state’s almost sole reliance on one-time student testing for accountability purposes.

He said Bixby has a singular focus on the quality and constant improvement of classroom instruction. And, he said the district’s high-standing among area schools is also attributable to the material support Bixby teachers get from their community that the school district could not otherwise afford.

“Really it does come back to high-quality teaching and obviously, we have a community that gives us a lot of support as well,” said Miller. “Whether it is through our educational foundation or community partners, if we have a teacher who needs classroom materials or supplies, our community will step up and do that. So even the last few years amid dramatic budget cuts, our teachers have had what they need.”

Fifth grade scores are still not finalized for Tulsa Public Schools, but either TPS or Liberty Public Schools, trailed the state averages by the most on every other single test except eighth grade science. On that test, Oologah-Talala posted the lowest student proficiency rate at 25 percent.

The lowest posted student proficiency rates across the area were Liberty’s 9 percent in eighth grade math and 11 percent in both fifth grade math and seventh grade English/language arts.

It is unknown what impact the widespread, two-week teacher walkout and related school closures had on state testing this spring. The walkout coincided with the start of Oklahoma’s main state testing window for students, forcing the state to extend its testing deadline.

At the walkout’s peak, an estimated 70 percent of the state’s 694,000 public school students were not in class because of the protests of state funding levels for teacher pay and other school operational funds.

But Miller in Bixby, for one, scoffs at the very idea that the walkout could have submarined student performance.

“My response to that is if that’s true, then that’s a shameful reflection of the state of where we are in education across the board,” he said. “We missed 10 days of school – I mean, we just came off of 90 days off school. Kids should be ready for those tests because we’ve taught well all year long. If our kids are forgetting skills and knowledge that quickly, we need to look at foundational issues.”

In this archive picture from 2016, a volunteer works on a home for Rebuilding Together Tulsa in Tulsa. The group is now called Revitalizing T-Town and today they held a ceremony marking their 2,000th clients been served. Tulsa World File