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Fighting for education equity on the Tulsa School Board

When Amy Shelton (MA ’16) dismissed the class of TU education undergraduates, she walked across campus, and with each step, one thought was increasingly emboldened: Amy Shelton was meant to teach. Inspired by her students, Shelton is now on the frontlines of the fight for educational equity as a Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education member.

While working toward her master’s degree in educational studies, Shelton served as a graduate assistant for the TU Department of Education, which allowed her to teach a measurement and evaluation class alongside Associate Professor Tao Wang. “I walked out of that class every Friday with a spring in my step,” Shelton said. “This is what I am meant to do — work with future educators to help develop their thinking, inspire them and get them set on the right path before they are in the classroom.”

Amy with Kendall Whitter studentsA Michigan native, Shelton found herself in Tulsa through Teach for America, where she taught fifth grade at Anderson Elementary and Cooper Elementary. She then led the Reading Partners tutoring program at Kendall-Whittier Elementary. TU staff, faculty and students frequented her reading center as volunteers.

“I had a great impression of TU from those interactions, and I thought it was amazing that this university has committed itself to serving in its own community.”

Shelton, who majored in international studies as an undergraduate, had a learning curve as an educator. However, her experience crossing cultures proved invaluable in the classroom. While studying in China, she learned to be an observer of culture, and as a white teacher in majority-minority schools, she practiced the same techniques. “I tried to have that same perspective of being a learner alongside my students by observing, asking questions, trying to understand where they were coming from and their views of the world,” she said. “How could I best encourage them without jumping to conclusions or making assumptions?”

This question followed her into her studies at TU where she won awards for her research

Amy at Will Rogers High School graduation

at the TU graduate school research colloquium. For her research paper “My Mama Wouldn’t Give Me to the Count of Ten,” Shelton interviewed black male students at McLain High School who wanted to attend college and also served as tutors to neighborhood children.

When asked how they believed their teachers perceived them as young black men, one student explained that the teacher would give them to the count of ten to follow directions; but at home, there would be no count down. You simply did what you were told. TU Associate Professor of Education Diane Beals explained, “They felt that their teachers were patronizing … that the teachers didn’t expect anything of them.”

These are the divisive perceptions Shelton wants to mitigate on the school board. While on the campaign, Shelton repeated one idea: “Every child in Tulsa should be able to go to their local school, have a high-quality education and the supports they need to be successful.”

Amy Shelton on the campaign trail with her daughter.

When her neighbor asked her to run, her first response was “I’m not qualified to be on the school board.” But with classroom experience and a master’s in education, Shelton discovered she was well-equipped to discuss major education concerns. From the budget crisis to high-quality programs for all students, Shelton addressed her constituents’ concerns, but one question lingered, “What about the kids who are left behind?”

Whether a child attends a magnet school or a neighborhood school, no child should fall through the cracks. Yet, they do. “Education is one of those things that in theory, we can have the right solutions, but you’re working with little humans,” Shelton warned. “The way it plays out in the classroom looks different than how it looks on paper.”

Shelton has not given up her dream of teaching. The same day she was sworn in as a school board member, she received an offer for a Ph.D. degree program. Turning it down to serve Tulsa schools, Shelton plans to eventually receive her doctorate.

With every step forward, Shelton thinks about the faces of her students. “It’s really important to get to know the kids, to hear their stories, to know what they’re up against, to get to know the teachers and see what they face,” she said. That is what moves her forward. That is progress.