Patrick B. McGuigan
TULSA – It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, goes the old adage.
There are reasons to be gloomy about north Tulsa, scene of a dreadful confrontation rooted in racial hatred 97 years ago.
Driving or walking around, you’ll find well-kept yards and homes adjoined by dilapidated structures (some empty) with tall grass. Every few blocks, it seems, there are schools with negative academic performance data. But all along Peoria and a few other main streets, there are clear signs of economic life. And, hope.
Like flowers rising through pavement cracks, human possibility lifts the viewer as he travels from high points in the northwest of that north side, rolling down into the Greenwood District where what was once called the Black Wall Street flourished, until the destruction of 1921.
In this community’s weary yet hopeful heart, the city’s newest private school quietly marked another milestone of existence this month. Last year’s seventh graders moved up to eighth grade. The new boys join the existing cadre of African-American lads and one Caucasian, for a new year.
Sixty or so students now build the school’s momentum. The leaders of the school plan to add one grade annually until, one day at its own facility, Crossover Prep educates grades 7-12.
Philip Abode, pastor of a Bible church with around 200 members, is the founder of Crossover Preparatory Academy. He is determined to shape the future, on a firm foundation of “healthy individuals, faithful families, peaceful neighborhoods, and thriving institutions,” as his wife, Rondalyn, puts it.
In recent years the need for Crossover Prep became evident, as discerning and attentive people in the community were disturbed and provoked into action by the reality of performance in government-run schools in Oklahoma’s second largest city.
Justin Pickard works alongside Abode, heading up “a nonprofit organization with multiple arms of ministry,” as the Tulsa World reported last year.
“Pickard said that based on a benchmark ACT score of 21 (out of 36), only 22 African-American senior boys were college-ready in Tulsa Public Schools in 2015.”
Not 22 percent, mind you. Twenty-two boys total.
Asked to update that data, the district took several days to reply. The question could not yet be answered, but new college readiness numbers will likely be available in September.
School spokeswoman Emma Garrett Nelson said that arguing from the statistical picture should be tempered. While all Tulsa Public Schools students are required to take exams, nationally, only those attending schools who are focused on college readiness typically do.
“From the git-go this was about our heart for the community,” Pastor Abode told me. “That’s what it’s about. Community transformation. I played football at the University of Tulsa and saw how many of my classmates were not really ready for college when they got there. As you pointed out, high school graduation rates and college readiness are really low among African-American males.”
He reflected, “From a discipleship aspect and the aspect of getting ready for college and for life, communities like north Tulsa get that way because people leave. Our efforts are modeled after a program in Newark, New Jersey, an all-boys school. Ninety percent of those young men go to college, and 87 percent finish college.”
Crossover Prep is by design tuition-free because “our philosophy is that we don’t believe that access to quality education should be dependent on a parent’s ability to pay.” Thanks to a school-choice scholarship program enacted in 2011, “these kids can go to our school,” Abode stressed.
State Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa was the Senate author of the 2011 legislation creating the program. Co-authors from Tulsa were state Sen. Gary Stanislawski, state Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, state Rep. Jabar Shumate, and state Rep. David Brumbaugh.
From last year’s modest start (which did include a football team), the second season brings programs both old and new — basketball, track, and chess, as well as biking, art, and soccer.
Pastor Abode continued, “The public schools have a hard time being able to deal with the needs of the kids. Seventy percent unwed mothers in this population. We can instill values to help them move ahead to meet those needs.” The school has academic coaches and mentors, he told me. “Each and every student has a mentor. We leverage our resources to meet needs.”
Despite the in-depth Tulsa World story last year, Crossover Prep has not garnered much attention. There has been some support and, thus far, no serious opposition.
The upbeat Pastor Abode is hopeful “that won’t happen. One thing is that we are not‘creaming.’ We take any kids willing to apply. Some of the people in our community do not know or understand the college-ready statistics are really bleak for African-American males.”
At entry, students sign “a covenant, an agreement about attendance and about behavior. That helps them understand they will be held accountable. They are not held accountable for things over which they have no control. They can control showing up and abiding by the honor code, which is really just the Golden Rule.” In that first year, the school had 95.1 percent average daily attendance, a remarkable reference point for any school anywhere in Oklahoma education.
Although classroom instruction had not yet begun when I visited, things were busy at Crossover Health Services, a companion nonprofit led by the Harvard-educated Pickard, a white man and Pastor Abode’s brother in spirit.
The clinic serves north-central Tulsa residents well, and the staff is trusted. Talking to a young couple in the clinic’s waiting room, I cooed with their baby for awhile, while learning about the services and vision for the facility.
Then, I drove to the John 3:16 Mission, where Crossover Prep Academy rents classroom space, and found (as at other faith-based entities) other dedicated men and women serving the poor and the challenged directly, one on one and face to face.
Crossover Prep exists because of that scholarship tax-credit program deemed “controversial” when it was created. Its work could not be sustained without a community of love — the Crossover Bible Church, the umbrella community-impact group that is the focal point for the academy, that health clinic, and a limited-liability corporation refurbishing homes on the north side.
The church has a racially mixed congregation, roughly 55 percent white and 45 percent black. Rondalyn says people in the pews build their lives around community, emphasizing reconciliation — “sharing skills, talents, and relationships.”
Pastor Abode told me the troubling data about college preparation and the economic doldrums hereabouts flow from many factors, but that afflicted “communities like north Tulsa get that way because people leave.”
So, he’s come to stay. So has his wife, and Justin Pickard, and his wife.
Housing rehabilitation, health care assistance, happy places to learn — holistic communities of faith working with others for a greater good.
Places and people that many hope will, indeed, help north Tulsa cross over, to that brighter future.