Last night, I enjoyed the honor of speaking to a wonderful group of 458 high school seniors at this year’s commencement ceremony. This is a talented, smart, close-knit, and resilient group of Spartans. As we discussed last night, they have persevered through the teacher walkout of 2018, the flood of 2019, and the COVID pandemic of 2020, 2021 … and 2022. They are well equipped to flourish through the inevitable twists and turns of adult life and I look forward to hearing about their achievements as they depart the halls of BHS to make their mark on the world.
There is little debate that the past few years have been difficult on all of us - as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with recent national political and civil unrest, has left behind a wake of disrupted lives, strained relationships, lost trust, increased public discord, a volatile economy, and political polarization. Unfortunately, the Bixby community and school district are not immune to these trends.
As I have repeated multiple times over the past four years, I believe we have a responsibility to continually earn your trust through honest, transparent, and accurate communication. When we work together and maintain clear lines of communication, it improves the quality of our school district and ultimately benefits our children.
It is for this reason that I feel compelled to speak with you today about some of the issues you may be hearing about on various media outlets, political advertisements, and social media. I will be the first to admit that our district has numerous areas in which we need to improve. However, there are other issues being attributed to our district - or public education in general - that lack important context or that are being misinterpreted, mischaracterized, or misassigned.
Let me share a few examples. To begin with, we are not teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) at any level in Bixby Public Schools. Hard stop. We never have. We are not implementing curriculum to indoctrinate children on alternative lifestyles, gender fluidity, and other sex-related issues. We are also not mandating that any teacher participate in training or professional development on these topics. An additional piece of this false narrative is that social-emotional learning (SEL) is a “trojan horse” for CRT. This is simply not accurate. At BPS, SEL is defined as the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success. In support of this, we have implemented Great Expectations at all levels as a resource to reinforce good character and foster positive school culture district wide.
Relative to our libraries, we now have safeguards in place in each of our schools to empower parents to choose which books and resources, if any, their child has access to. This provides First Amendment protections for students while respecting the rights of parents to control their own children’s access to materials they find objectionable. This also supports the objective of providing engaging and relevant reading materials to a wide and diverse range of students at each campus.
We also share your concerns relative to inappropriate materials children are potentially being exposed to every day in this modern technology-centered world. As such, we have robust systems in place to monitor and restrict student’s access to online materials on school devices 24/7 or anytime they are on our internal networks. Pertaining to questions associated with student privacy and data collection, the district does not collect or share any individual student demographic information with any outside organization that would violate confidentiality standards set forth in FERPA.
Contrary to some recent comments I have seen about testing, the district does not profit one penny from administering state assessments to our students. Of course, we do encourage students to do their best on state-mandated testing (just as we do with everything else), and we try to do so without adding to the pressure and stress many of them already experience during these assessments. When parents make the decision to opt their child out of state testing, there is no attempt to coerce them into participation. If it were up to me, we would eliminate this requirement for annual testing completely and we would dedicate the extra time to providing additional, high-quality instruction to students.
I think it’s important that you know a little about me as the leader of this district. I have been a public school educator for 29 years. Prior to that, I served ten years as a Marine Corps Officer and led a combat unit during the Gulf War. I am grounded spiritually, morally, and ethically. I am a proud father of five and grand "poppie'' of six. Two of my grands will be Spartans starting next year. I love my family dearly and unequivocally. As a result, I strive to view all educational issues through the eyes of other moms and dads who love their families the same way. If anyone thinks for a second that I would intentionally take or approve of any action that might adversely impact ANY child at ANY time, they just don’t know me.
Let me continue by sharing what many of you already acknowledge about our school district. This is a great place for kids. We have incredibly talented, dedicated, and caring administrators, counselors, teachers, coaches, and support staff throughout our district. We care deeply about children and want every child to receive a quality education in a healthy, safe, supportive, and welcoming environment. Every single day.
The word “every” is critical. Every student matters. Every employee matters. We want Bixby to be a community where families are proud to live, where students are empowered to learn and develop, and where teachers and staff desire to work. However, “every” can only truly occur within a culture that embraces respect, promotes kindness, offers inclusivity, and values compassion for all individuals.
I also think about many of the other ways that “every” applies to our school district. My perspective is based on the simple premise that every child has value and should be afforded the same rights to a high-quality public education as any other child in our community.
I think about students with disabilities and their right to a solid education with appropriate support services in our schools. It was just a few decades ago that some students did not receive an education within the public school setting. I think about economic differences in families. I think about students in our community who are homeless. I think about students who are hungry or lack adequate clothing.
I think about the rights of women and the reality that it was not too long ago that female athletes did not have equal opportunities to compete and many others were steered away from interest in so-called “male” occupations. I think about the ostracization of some individuals based on religious beliefs. I think about children who for whatever reason do not feel safe coming to school simply because of the way they look, talk, or present themselves. I think about our students for whom a four-year degree is maybe not the best fit and how we need to help them find a better pathway. I think about the relatively small number of Asian, Hispanic, and Black students in our district and the importance of a school culture that supports “every” student. I think about students facing challenges with mental health and wellness. I think about the unique nature of 7,400 students and all that we need to do to truly accomplish the compelling mission of “every.”
The stated policy of Bixby School District compels us to have a culture of respect and equal opportunity for all people - students, staff, parents and community - regardless of race, color, religion, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, appearance, abilities, disabilities and more. Therefore, our practices and mindsets support the moral imperative to pursue a school environment where every single person feels welcome and connected. Strengthening a school environment for “every” will require engagement and support from our community. Working together, we can make that happen for our students. It is the language of “we” and “us” and not “them” and “they”.
If some see this letter as a pushback on their rights to criticize or question the district about our policies or practices, I assure you it is not. This is simply a call for us to return to more respectful and productive conversations about important issues that affect our children. This is a basic request for all of us - myself included - to assume positive intentions from each other and to seek understanding before making judgments or reaching any conclusions.
Of course, I will always encourage you to speak up when you have questions or concerns. We exist as a school district to serve our community, our families, and your children. As human beings engaged in human work, we will always be prone to mistakes. Ideally, we will learn from our errors and get better. That is why your input and feedback are always important to me and our district leaders.
Thank you for reading and for your continued support of BPS.