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Pre-K on the Range, part 2: How public-private partnerships made Tulsa a ‘Sweden of the Ozarks’ in early learning

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This article, by Sharon Lerner, originally appeared in The American Prospect

While Oklahoma has a model statewide pre-K system, the city of Tulsa illustrates the public-private partnerships that can grow within that model. The state’s second-largest city, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Tulsa has great economic extremes. Some 84 percent of children in Tulsa public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning they live in households that earn no more than $42,643 for a family of four. But there is also great wealth here, much of it from the local energy industry. Because Oklahoma’s law enables private organizations to provide pre-K, a good deal of that wealth has been leveraged to bolster the public system.

Tulsa's public-private partnerships for early learning stand tall.

Tulsa’s public-private partnerships for early learning stand tall. Really, really tall.

Tulsa’s Community Action Project (CAP), which has created and runs McClure as well as 13 other early-education facilities, is a sort of turbo-charged Head Start provider. With an annual budget of more than $52 million, it has married private money—primarily from local oilman and philanthropist George Kaiser—with state and federal funds to serve young children. Because state funding covers the four-year-olds, CAP can devote much of its budget to children three and under. One-third of Tulsa’s qualifying three-year-olds are now in public preschool; the Union School District, which has gone the furthest in enrolling younger students, is on course to serve all three-year-olds within the next year. Plenty of kids in Tulsa may still be behind the curve on their first day of school, but here that first day often comes at age three rather than four or five.

The result is that Tulsa has become a sort of Sweden of the Ozarks—a magnet for the country’s best early-education providers and researchers and a place where preschool is a routine part of growing up. It’s a haven for both children and their parents. CAP works hard to engage adults who may have been alienated by schools in the past. To encourage parents to interact with the schools, the organization consciously decided not to provide busing. The schools’ daily schedules and yearly calendars are synced with nearby public elementary schools, with which some also share land and playgrounds, a setup that allows parents to drop off their preschoolers and scoot next door to drop off older siblings. In the same CAP buildings—which are carefully designed not to feel institutional—they can also take parenting classes, get career training, and receive financial services.

Though CAP is by mission an anti-poverty organization and serves only students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, its classrooms “don’t look like they’re for poor people,” as one mother remarked upon entering the pine cone–festooned space in which her four-year-old would be learning. Draped with natural-hued fabrics and brightened with “uplighting,” which radiates from standing lamps and is thought to be more calming than old-style fluorescent bulbs overhead, the room looks more like a spread from a Pottery Barn catalog than a traditional classroom. When you look out from its picture windows to the sprawling playground where the students are climbing and digging during outdoor playtime, and then beyond to the garden plots the kids will plant and harvest throughout the year, you can’t help wanting this for all young Americans.

The students who go to pre-K tend to emerge from the year recognizably ahead of their peers. Studies have shown it, and teachers know it. Laura Hamilton, who teaches kindergarten at Northwoods, an elementary school in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, says she easily picked out the 8 kids in her class of 25 this year who hadn’t gone to pre-K. “They’re the ones who don’t know how to line up. They’re not used to sharing, and they’re not used to drawing or writing,” she says, fishing out four of her new kindergarteners’ drawings. Three show recognizable scenes—a family of stick figures, a house with two girls in front, and a house with a sky in the background. The fourth, drawn by a child who didn’t attend pre-K, is of seemingly random scribbles. “It’s usually these kids that have to stay back and repeat kindergarten,” Hamilton says, pointing to the scribbles.

More Pre-K on the Range

Part 1: An inside look at Oklahoma’s amazing pre-k classrooms

Part 2: How public-private partnerships made Tulsa a ‘Sweden of the Ozarks’ in early learning

Part 3: The policy (and politics) behind Oklahoma’s pioneering preschools

Part 4: Proof, meet pudding: Oklahoma’s pre-K kids start nine months ahead of their peers

Part 5: Why can’t the rest of the country catch up to Oklahoma in early learning?

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