Dr. Sean McDaniel, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, is not shy about speaking what’s on his mind, whether it’s about dictating school policy or taking on controversial state education leaders — all with the goal of pushing OKCPS, Oklahoma’s largest school district, forward.
You’ve been a clear advocate for the role and strength of public schools. Why?
Public schools don’t have qualifications in order to attend. We welcome everyone, no matter what. In public schools, we all work together to enrich each other’s lives, and we do so by respecting each other and by balancing self interests with the interests of others. In public schools, we don’t tell kids, “You’re not good enough or smart enough or wealthy enough to attend here.” To each of them we say, “Come on in. We have a seat for you.” Advocacy is important because we know that over 90% of our families choose public schools for their kids. It is critical that the 90% population is heard and served well. If we agree that our students are our greatest resource and that they come to us with wonderful qualities and talents and stories that inspire and challenge us, then we need to also agree that they deserve the best opportunities available to them in the public school setting. The role and strength of public school, and more specifically, teachers, has been to prepare everyone else for life. Our support for our public schools and for our teachers is more important today than it ever has been.
How does innovation play a role in your position?
To be successful with young people, we have to think more creatively than we ever have. We know that kids respond differently to different things, ideas and people. The good news is that teachers are the most creative humans on the planet, so we’re in a good position. We just need more of them. Teachers have always been wonderful problem-solvers and routinely do more with less than anyone. Success looks different for every student and the adults around them have to understand and be willing to accept that. When we recognize that a test score may not be the only indicator of success for a group of kids and that there are a dozen other indicators that are equally important and may tell a more accurate story, then we are onto something. And good or bad, not all kids excel in a traditional learning space, so the adults have to develop ideas that will reach every one of our students. Every one.
What initiatives have been game-changers for the district under your tenure?
Every superintendent that steps into a new district inherits a variety of successes and challenges. My first focus upon coming to OKCPS was on the organizational structure and succession plans. It was important to me to ensure I had the right leaders in the right places within the organization. I also wanted to clear pathways and remove obstacles for our students and staff to grow and develop within our district.
In 2018, we launched Pathway to Greatness which was a phased process to align OKCPS facilities and resources with instructional needs to chart a path forward to improve the health of the system and ensure equity for students.
Embrace OKC is a comprehensive approach to providing a school-based system of supports for OKCPS students and families that involve community partnerships, high-quality tiered academic and behavioral strategies and mental health services that range from prevention to treatment. This is not limited to students’ academic experience, but their overall health and wellbeing. Parts of Embrace OKC are just that: Support for our students’ wellbeing. If our students are well, they can succeed.
We are grateful to OKC voters who approved our $955 million bond package in November 2022. This is an historic bond for OKCPS and for the state of Oklahoma. This package includes over 400 projects and represents a monumental shift in how we deliver education. Through our bond package, we will be able to add transformational and flexible learning spaces to each high school allowing a strengthened focus on workforce development. Our business community relies on us to prepare our students for the workforce.
Public education has come under such scrutiny and also continued budget constraints. How do you find innovative ways to solve problems outside your control?
In general, we pay attention to the things we have control over and innovate where there is space to do so. We can’t and don’t wait for something or someone to swoop in and fix us or solve our problems. We pay close attention to what we can solve on our own.
For example, there is a teacher shortage nationwide. Through a partnership with our Foundation, we have a teacher pipeline program that prepares current employees to become classroom teachers. We have added an administrator pipeline to support the growth of classroom teachers who want to become principals or hold other leadership roles within OKCPS. And we have just recently added a Teacher Cadet Program for high school students who are interested in becoming teachers.
How does the role of public education help prepare the next generation of innovators?
Public education offers the absolute best set of resources to every kid. OKCPS is so diverse, but when I say diverse, I don’t mean just ethnically. I mean skill sets, beliefs and life experiences. When we put a student in a diverse environment and then teach them and provide them with resources and opportunities, we are setting them up for success. As I’ve said, public schools take all kids, all the time. There are no barriers to access to a public school. We love them all, and we don’t judge. We are in a position to surround them with resources, support and adults who care.
OKCPS functions with a kid-centric mindset. Public education is oftentimes a life changer and sometimes a life saver.