Implementing community schools would better serve child well-being in Oklahoma (Capitol Update)

The recent 2024 KIDS COUNT® Data Book – published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and its state partner the Oklahoma Policy Institute – is not good news for Oklahoma. The report is a national and state-by-state comparison of child well-being. Oklahoma ranked 46th overall with only Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico ranking lower. Oklahoma’s individual rankings on major categories were 39th in economic well-being, 40th in family and community context, 45th in health, and 49th in education.

Although all the numbers are discouraging, perhaps the most difficult to take is being in 49th place in education, ahead of only New Mexico. Among the disappointing numbers, 76 percent of 4th graders scored below proficient reading level (47th); 84 percent of 8th graders scored below proficient math level (48th); and 20 percent of high school students are not graduating on time (44th).

There are likely many explanations. One contained in the report is the number of Oklahoma children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These experiences include family economic hardship; a child’s parents having divorced, separated, served time in jail or died; witnessing domestic violence; experiencing neighborhood violence; living with someone with a mental illness or substance use problem; and being treated unfairly due to race or ethnicity. Nearly half (49 percent) of Oklahoma children have experienced at least one ACE, which was among the bottom three states along with Mississippi and New Mexico, both at 50 percent.

KIDS COUNT® cites studies showing that such traumatic experiences can have ripple effects in a child’s life directly affecting academic performance. Studies found ACEs predict repeating a grade and not caring about doing well in school; a correlation between ACEs and worse sleep, emotional and behavioral issues, and math and reading performance below grade level; and the likelihood of being chronically absent. The effects of trauma are keeping many children away from or distracted in the classroom.

Among the solutions suggested by the report is more investment in community schools. The report cited evidence that community schools have demonstrated their effectiveness in providing wraparound services for children and families and serving high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods. Schools should create supportive environments that address children’s history with traumatic experiences. Services should go where the children are.

Providing the help and support needed for the 49 percent of the children suffering with trauma, beyond the normal stresses of childhood and adolescence, should be a no-brainer, but there are few community schools in Oklahoma. An exception is Union School District in Tulsa that has eight. Community schools have a proven track record of transforming low-performing schools in other places.

There are good people in the legislature working to make community schools happen and to get children the help they need so they can do better in school. In 2022, Rep. Tammy West, R-OKC, a former Putnam City school board member, introduced House Bill 3374 proposing that the state fund pilot community school projects. Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, a former Norman teacher, introduced a similar measure the same year.

HB 3374 was co-authored by Rep. Melissa Provenzano, R-Tulsa, Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton, Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, Rep. Trish Ranson, R-Stillwater, and Rep. Rosecrants. Sen. Dwayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, authored the bill in the Senate and Sen. Carri Hicks, D-OKC, co-authored. The bill passed the House in 2022 but failed to get a floor hearing in the Senate. Rep. West introduced the measure again in 2023 but the bill didn’t get anywhere.

There are numerous things that would benefit Oklahoma’s 49th place education system, beginning with better funding. Adopting community schools would give many children a chance to overcome some of what life has dealt them, to have a better life, and to contribute back to society. It’s a shame, with all the resources Oklahoma has, that we can’t seem to make this happen. Sitting on billions in state savings accounts doesn’t help a single third grader I know.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.