An interview with Dr. Thomas Benediktson about TU's new focus on urban education

Students at Kendall Whittier Elementary School

The University of Tulsa recently announced that it is changing the name of its education department to the School of Urban Education. The change reflects an increased focus on the issues confronted in low-income, urban districts. OK Policy spoke with Dr. Thomas Benediktson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at TU and interim director of the School of Urban Education, about reasons for the change and what it means for Oklahoma.

Here is the transcript of our conversation, slightly edited for length:

First can you speak a little about what is urban education and how it differs from traditional curriculum?

In an urban setting, you’re dealing with a primarily poor population of students who often don’t have a strong family structure at home. In Tulsa we have a very high rate of female incarceration, so many of the students don’t have mothers at home. From week to week, teachers may have different students in their classes because the students move from uncle to foster parent to biological parent to somewhere else. There’s just not a stable environment for the students to learn.

They quite often have not had the advantages of more affluent populations in terms of parents who read to them. They’re economically challenged. When you get to middle school, quite often the middle school student goes home and is the parent in the house for the younger siblings. It’s a tremendously different environment than more affluent students grow up with.

What we have found is that the situation in Tulsa is about the same as the situation in a large urban population like Detroit, New York City, or Chicago. My sense is we’ve been kind of in denial. We think of ourselves as a nice Midwestern city with a fairly well off population, but in fact there’s a substantial poor population.

Some would say that Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) is even more challenged because they’re spread out. It’s a very large area of population. You have the one block at a time project in Harlem. We can’t do that here. We would never get finished if we were rebuilding the community one block at a time. So the response for the elementary schools has been a community schools model, where the school becomes a community center. They attempt to bring social services to families through the schools. They provide free lunches, often breakfast, lunch, and dinners to the students and try to give them some stability in their lives.

We get students who are interested in that kind of work, but when they get there, they find they haven’t been well prepared for the situation. On the other hand, we get students who don’t expect to work in that environment, but those are the only available jobs. They get there and they’re frustrated, so they move on, often leaving the profession or trying to migrate to a more affluent school. What we want to do is prepare students not only intellectually but also psychologically for that environment, where they’re wanting to do that kind of work and they’re actually prepared for what they’re going to find.

Was there a specific event or finding that inspired TU to make this change?

I can talk about a specific event for me. Diane Beals, who’s a professor in the education school, came to me. She said, “Tom, we’re really screwing up.” I said, “What are we doing wrong?” And she said, “We’ve got them doing their practice teaching at wealthy suburban schools because we want them to have a good experience. We want them to go into this profession with enthusiasm. Then when they actually get a job, and the job is at a poorer school, they’re not ready for it. They’re frustrated, and they leave.”

So we’ve made a commitment to really prepare our students. We do all of our observations at our neighborhood schools. Wilson just closed down, but we do our observations at Kendall-Whittier and the other schools which are near the campus, because we’re in a challenged environment ourselves here. We require our students to do at least one and if possible both of their practice teaching experiences at an urban school, Title I if possible. Most of the schools in TPS are Title I schools, but Booker T. would be fine. It would give them an urban experience, even though it’s not a Title I school.

We’re also negotiating with TPS. They have contracts with OSU-Tulsa and NSU-Broken Arrow to work with their students and help train them. We’re negotiating with TPS for the same sort of opportunity.

Is there anything else that you’re doing to change the department?

We are hiring a new director. We’re looking specifically for a director with experience in this area. We received an extremely generous donation from the Lobeck-Taylor Foundation that we’re using to hire a director. At that point, my impression right now is that we have multicultural and sociological issues raised here and there in our curriculum, but we want to make it totally infused with those sorts of issues. So we’re beginning with a new director, and we’re planning a curricular overhaul.

Do you think this is a significant issue beyond Tulsa in the state? Is it growing among districts?

Yes, many schools are talking about it. Many schools are adopting these sorts of programs. I think there’s a new recognition that that’s where the battle for the future really has to be fought.

There are universities with doctoral programs in urban education, and we may get to that eventually. For right now we’re really putting our concentration into the undergraduate teacher preparation program.

We have hired some new young people with interest and expertise in this area, entry-level tenure track people. We interviewed one candidate who was completing a degree in urban education at UCLA. I said, “Where’s the nearest Title I school to UCLA?” And he said “Oh, we have to drive for 90 minutes to get to a Title I school.” Well I can stand on the roof of my building and see three of them. So we’re in a special environment here. We can take advantage of this without leaving our community.

Are there any policy changes at the state or district level that we could be making to be more responsive to these issues?

The Oklahoma Commission on Teacher Preparation invited us to go to Oklahoma City about a year ago and make a presentation to them on what we’re doing. They’re very supportive. They know that this is the direction many Oklahoma teacher prep programs are going to have to go. They’re certainly not fighting this at all.

What has been the response at TU?

This idea did come from the education faculty, and they are 100 percent behind it. They agree that this is the direction that we really need to go.

I proposed at a meeting that we change the name of the department to urban education. We had maybe five minutes of discussion. The only concern was that we’re really not there yet. That is our direction, but we’re not quite where we want to be. But we decided that we might as well make it clear that this is where we’re going.

So the faculty is very supportive. Central Administration at TU is very supportive. This fits in with our True Blue Neighbors programs, where we do a lot of volunteer work in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood. The food bank for the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood is in the Methodist church right across the street here. So we really interact with our community quite a bit, and this fits in well with what we’re trying to do.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

2 thoughts on “An interview with Dr. Thomas Benediktson about TU's new focus on urban education

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.