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Growing Oklahoma City charter school considers new building

October 15, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Adamari Hernandez felt a sense of calmness as she walked down the stairs of her new school, taking in the view of colorful flowers and rich-green vegetation that surrounded her.

Hernandez is one of the first students to attend the new middle school at John Rex, a downtown charter school that expanded into sixth grade this year, locating the new middle school inside the Myriad Botanical Gardens in downtown Oklahoma City.

“This place is truly beautiful,” Hernandez told The Oklahoman . “It was really satisfying for me to come down the stairs and to look at all the plants and the nature.”

While the school offers views of the surrounding garden complex, inside is a state-of-the-art facility with giant televisions, a green screen for producing visual effects and shelves full of gadgets, including drones.

“It’s a fantastic space with a beautiful view, really cool technology and an open concept school, so it’s going to be wildly different from any other school I’ve been a part of,” said Clayton Myers, one of four teachers at John Rex’s middle school, which plans to offer seventh-grade next year.

At a time when Oklahoma City Public Schools has faced significant budget cuts, dwindling classroom resources and discussed closing schools due to declining enrollment, John Rex charter school can seem like an outlier in the state’s largest school district.

While John Rex is a part of the Oklahoma City Public Schools district, its relationship is unique from other charters. John Rex elementary school is sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, but the district covers the school’s facility costs.

This year’s addition of sixth-grade is a product of growing enrollment demands and an indication school leaders plan to continue expanding into high school, which would create the need for additional facilities.

Located in the heart of the city’s downtown, the school is viewed as a catalyst for convincing families to move into the growing number of apartments and condos being built in the area.

Last year, 28 percent of John Rex students came from the downtown attendance boundary.

This year, John Rex will serve more than 600 students with another 500 on a waiting list, according to school officials.

Students living inside the school’s downtown attendance boundary are offered automatic enrollment, and while that includes some low-income neighborhoods beyond downtown, it also includes residential developments that can cost as much as half a million dollars.

Prekindergarten through fifth-grade classes are in John Rex’s five-year-old building at the corner of West Sheridan Avenue and South Walker Avenue, in the shadows of the Devon Energy Tower.

Just a couple of blocks away, the Myriad Botanical Gardens offered a natural fit for the addition of sixth grade, said Joe Pierce, the head of school.

But school leaders believe a new building will eventually be needed for middle and high school grades, which will also require additional funding.

“I don’t think we have any other available space for a high school, so we will need to be in the next bond election,” said Bob Ross, president of the Inasmuch Foundation and vice chair of the John Rex board.

During a ceremony earlier this summer to officially open the new middle and high school at Myriad Botanical Gardens, Ross said he envisions a mid-high facility near the Oklahoma River that could draw students from multiple elementary schools in the Oklahoma City district.

An effort to include a new downtown high school in a future district bond could put a spotlight on the district’s relationship with John Rex, especially as it continues to discuss the closure of other schools and overcrowding in some parts of the district.

John Rex’s contract also includes a partnership with OKC Quality Schools, a nonprofit that appoints some members of the school’s board.

Phil Horning, a former OKCPS board member and current member of the John Rex board, believes the relationship between John Rex and the district should include an effort to duplicate the school’s success at other Oklahoma City schools.

“This model is replicable,” Horning said.

Carrie Jacobs, an OKCPS school board member and a John Rex parent, said John Rex is a “successful school,” but she said replicating it at other schools could be a challenge given the demographic differences.

“When you look at John Rex, it is a school of great racial diversity,” Jacobs said. “But it is not a school of great socioeconomic diversity.”

Around 40 percent of John Rex students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch due to low household income levels, compared to more than 90 percent at most Oklahoma City schools.

Jacobs said the school also benefits from strong community and corporate support, which she would love to see at other schools.

“It’s a wonderful school but how could it not be wonderful?” Jacobs said. ”(Teachers) get paid some of the most in the state, they have the smallest class sizes in the district and there is really deep community involvement. That’s always going to turnout well and I’d love to see that type of support at our other schools.”

The John Rex middle school expansion was partially funded through a $1 million grant from the Inasmuch Foundation, along with another $600,000 through a U.S. Department of Education grant.

It’s list of sponsors also includes the Walton Family Foundation, Devon Energy, the Oklahoman Media Company and American Fidelity.

Part of the school’s attraction is its location in the heart of downtown and proximity to some of the city’s most prominent institutions.

Myers, one of the new middle school teachers, listed off numerous educational and cultural establishments within walking distance that he said gives students access to resources unheard of almost anywhere else in the state.

“Not to mention being on location at the Myriad Gardens and using the botanical gardens and having some science lessons and other things there,” Myers said. “The resources are abundant and I’m very excited.”

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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