Education has always been a fixture in my life.
My mom was an elementary teacher and elementary basketball coach; my dad was an AP Physics and Chemistry teacher; my uncle was a high school counselor and basketball coach; my aunt was a teacher; my grandma was a teacher and eventually became a principal, and after retiring, my grandpa—wanting to join the rest of the crew—decided to try his hand at school bus driving.
To this day I still feel heart-racing excitement each time summer peaks into view; my lips automatically turn up when I notice Walmart’s Back-to-School section and, yes, I occasionally hum the tunes of School House Rock songs—not because I listened to them in class, but because they replayed regularly at my childhood home.
I guess you could say, when it comes to things that occur within the walls of a school, I “get it.”
Perhaps this is why I believe that Westfall Elementary’s Mrs. Brenda Stanley is such a rockstar.
In fact, when I heard about the principal’s retirement and Choctaw’s decision to decree a day of the year “Mrs. Stanley Day,” I wasn’t that surprised. Teachers deserve praise. They deserve fanfare and clapping and tiny gifts with handwritten notes. They deserve higher pay and shorter work hours and more respect than they can handle.
Mrs. Stanley Day was just one way a community got things totally right.
Regardless, Mrs. Stanley’s track record is something of a wonder. Without going overboard on her laundry list of accolades, she’s won Administrator of the Year for District 7C, the PRIDE of Mid-Del Award, “A TRUE LEADER” Award; she’s a member of the Oklahoma Association of Elementary School Principals and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administrators; she’s served as Chairman of Southeastern Association of the Accreditation of Schools; she has 21 years of classroom experience; she’s coached basketball, volleyball, track and wrestling. Wrestling.
After starting out as a fourth grade teacher in Georgia, she held many different education roles at many different schools. She’s done it all, and yet, she attributes most of her success to those around her.
“This school is fabulous,” said Stanley. “The staff and the faculty are incredible. They’re why this school has such a high level of success.”
Her fellow teachers have no problem touting her praise, though.
“Mrs. Stanley is amazing,” said Alli Fabrie, a teacher at Westfall. “She’s so encouraging and positive. She makes the school a special place to work.”
“Mrs. Stanley has the ability to make you feel like you can do anything,” said Westfall teacher, Amy Payton. “Even if you make a mistake and are in the wrong, she still believes in you and makes you want to be the best teacher possible.”
People respect Mrs. Stanley.
So, on May 13 the entire school took pause to show their appreciation for Stanley’s years of hard work. Children lined the walls and handed her little gifts—flowers, candy, handwritten notes. The mayor and Stanley’s old colleagues came and extolled the many ways she impacted her community, employees and students. She was even given a sash and a crown to wear, and she sashayed down the halls to applause and shouts of admiration.
And everybody said amen.
But after the fanfare faded and the balloons lost their helium, Stanley sat with me in her office with retirement ahead of her and a whole bunch of success behind her. Rather than relive her moment in the sun, she began talking seriously about Oklahoma’s education predicament.
A State in Crisis
According to an article in Reuters, Oklahoma’s $3 billion education budget has been sliced by $58 million since the beginning of 2016. The budget deficit adds fuel to the at least 100 Oklahoma school districts contemplating cutting weeks or days and the close to 1,000 at-risk school-related jobs. Athletics, arts, foreign languages and assistance for those with special needs have felt the harsh cutbacks due to a budget shortfall so large, it’s no wonder the state received a D+ grade and placed 48th among 50 states in 2015 for its annual education quality rankings.
“I think we’re in crisis in Oklahoma,” said Stanley. “For years I went to UCO and did mock interviews for their student teaching population, but there aren’t that many people going into education anymore. That is such a sad state of affairs.”
Sad, indeed. Many young people are either deciding against going into education or hopping across the border to Texas or Kansas for higher pay and a similar cost of living.
“You’ve got to pay people and compensate people for the work they do,” said Stanley. “People think teachers are off three months during the summer—that’s not true. These teachers work year-round preparing for the next school year. You can come by this school on nights, weekends and people are here working. There’s no overtime pay, but they do it because of their passion for children.”
Stanley knows Oklahoma’s struggles better than most, and she lamented shortfalls and budget cuts. Most notably, though, she lamented the impact these cutbacks have on her students. Her suggestion for improvement begins at the proverbial top of the heap.
“A starting point should be a wakeup call to our legislators,” said Stanley. “If they are not funding education then they don’t need to be sitting in there voting. We’ve got to have education as a top priority in this state.”
Attempts have been made. A $6.78 billion budget bill was proposed mid-May and was approved by the Senate in a 30-16 vote. Called “a workable budget” by Gov. Mary Fallin in a public statement, the budget reduced common education by 2.34 percent, a lower number than previously expected.
However, with the bill, higher education stands to lose close to 16 percent, and teacher pay increase was not addressed.
“We are very fortunate here,” said Stanley. “We have tons of parents and grandparents that come here and volunteer their time. That’s how we get it done at Westfall—it’s the parental involvement. [We are] so, so blessed with that.”
Indeed, a constant in Stanley’s dialogue was her love of Westfall—the teachers, the administrative staff, the parents and the students. She discussed how they all work as a team, how it was normal seeing multiple volunteer parents reviewing math facts or reading with students in the Westfall halls. Though Oklahoma’s education crisis is just that, a crisis, Stanley talked about how Westfall’s unique group could weather the storm.
In July, Westfall’s Assistant Principal will take over the principal position, and Stanley seemed confident about the state of affairs she would leave in her wake. Indeed, Westfall is different from many other local schools. They have the highest test scores in the district, they’re a Great Expectations Model School for 13 years running and they were named by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister as a 2015 High-Performing School. It’s no wonder Stanley seemed zen about her departure—she knew her kiddos would be okay.
“This isn’t hard,” said Stanley. “And how lucky I have been to go to a job everyday that I loved.”
It seems when all is said and done, Stanley won’t be the only lucky one.