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Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters condemns 'attempt to circumvent' gender designation rules by Stillwater Schools

Ryan Walters at Oklahoma's State Board of Education meeting Thursday, March 23.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Ryan Walters at Oklahoma's State Board of Education meeting Thursday, March 23.

Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting highlights include more progress reports from Tulsa Public Schools, State Superintendent Ryan Walters condemning a guidance letter from Stillwater Public Schools on new administrative rules and denying student requests to change gender markers.

As part of its accreditation agreement with the State Board of Education, TPS is required to make monthly progress presentations to the board. This month, interim TPS Superintendent Ebony Johnson focused on reading proficiency, outlining the ways in which the district is providing professional development to educators and monitoring student outcomes.

TPS’ presentation included three methods to bettering the districts’ reading proficiency: science of reading professional development and classroom monitoring, requiring high-quality resources and monitoring their implementation, and using data to identify students needing interventions and track their progress.

Johnson said the district has a comprehensive plan to train more teachers in the science of reading. Very simply put, the “science of reading” refers to approaches that rely on phonics, phonemic awareness — that is, identifying and playing with sounds in spoken words — fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, as opposed to other methods that rely primarily on cueing and context clues.

According to Johnson, 82% of TPS elementary teachers have been trained in the science of reading. By March 2024, she said the district is committed to training 95% of elementary and secondary teachers.

She also pledged by May 2024: 90% completion of end-of-unit quizzes to understand academic progress, observing 95% of classroom teachers at least once a month, and 95% of kindergarten through eighth grade students receiving weekly reading interventions and supports based on their assessment data.

“We serve a variety of students at Tulsa Public Schools, and as a result, their needs are diverse and varied,” Johnson said. “As I stated before, we have a beautiful challenge before us. Each of these programs was vetted and serves different students based on their specific learning needs.”

Johnson referenced projections based on several models that say the district is on track to have 700 more students proficient by the end of the year, but their target is higher. State Superintendent Ryan Walters wanted more.

“We want bigger, right? We want much more than that, and again, I appreciate you saying that, as you always have,” Walters said. “So what happens then when you look at that number and say, alright, well, we want, you know, 4,000 to be there, or whatever the number may be. How do we move that number to be a much more aggressive amount of students that are reading?”

Johnson said the district is also engaging with parents and families to achieve academic goals, as well as working to address issues with chronic absenteeism.

Board member Kendra Wesson also asked about claims of district money being spent on “lobbying, lobbyists, communications.” Johnson said this was the first she had heard that money was going to lobbyists and she would “circle back” with Wesson.

In closing TPS’ presentation, Walters said while the district had walked the board through its “thought processes” and that they “sounded really good,” he wanted to see results. Walters referenced previous warnings he made regarding TPS when he said he was willing to do anything to turn the district around, and not to “test” him.

“I will do anything in my power to make sure Tulsa Public Schools are successful. There is nothing off-limits for what I will do to ensure that that happens,” Walters said. “If that’s not where we’re headed, we will intervene.”

Stillwater Public Schools draws criticism for letter

Also at the meeting, Walters said a letter from Stillwater Public Schools to staff and families undermines new administrative rules regarding gender designations.

Stillwater Superintendent Uwe Gordon sent a letter earlier this week providing guidance for implementing new rules from the State Board. The rules prohibit schools from altering gender designations on prior records, as well as require staff to report to parents if a student expresses information “reasonably expected to be important to parents.”

The letter lists several scenarios that would be included in the rules, such as students wanting to change their pronouns or indicating they are sexually active.

Despite the letter instructing how to comply with the rules, Walters gave the district words of warning at Thursday’s board of education meeting.

“This will not be tolerated and I will not stand for it,” Walters said. “The fact that [Stillwater Public Schools] would send out an email that would slam parents, undermine parents and attempt to circumvent these rules is a great measure of concern. … We will not allow any rogue administrator to undermine these rules, and we will take that on very directly,” Walters said.

The letter acknowledges some families may react negatively — or at worst, violently — to learning certain things about their child, but students will be told that information must be shared with parents. The letter ends by linking resources to local counseling options.

In a statement, Stillwater communications coordinator Barry Fuxa said the district is “somewhat confused” as to how Walters interpreted the letter.

“Knowing these rules have been met with some concern by citizens worried it would lead to schools ‘outing’ students, or releasing other sensitive information to parents that may not be receptive to such information, we included a statement about student safety in such situations,” the statement reads. “That portion of the letter is in no way a criticism of parents or any reasonable parenting styles.”

Fuxa writes the district acknowledges some children are not in safe situations or supported at home.

“We wanted any student who might see that message and who is in an unsafe environment to know that, while we are prohibited by the new rules (again, with which we fully intend to comply), from keeping their information private from their parents, we can connect them with resources for their safety,” the statement reads. “Student safety and wellbeing is always our primary concern.”

The letter also links directly to the new rules, and Fuxa said its intent was to provide transparent information to families about the new rules and how its practices would be changing to accommodate them.

“We intend to comply with OSDE rules, to communicate with parents, and to keep students safe,” the statement reads. “We are disappointed that this message was not clear enough in those regards, and regret that anyone could interpret this letter as anything other than a statement of care and concern.”

The district’s full statement and attached original letter are below:

Other agenda items: denying requests for gender marker changes, swearing in new member

Cushing and Moore Public Schools requested authorization from the board for two of their students to be able to change their gender designations on prior school records, as required by the new emergency rule approved at September’s board meeting.

The board’s legal counsel, Bryan Cleveland, recommended the board deny the requests without needing to discuss the individual cases in executive session. The board unanimously denied the districts’ requests.

The board also welcomed a new member after former member Suzanne Reynolds stepped down. Zachary Archer works as a financial advisor and managing director at Great Plains Investment Services, and he also serves as vice president of the Hammon Public Schools Board.

Archer was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt to be the board’s at-large member, which means he doesn’t represent a specific district.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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