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Joe Pierce, the founding superintendent of John Rex Charter School in downtown Oklahoma City, has resigned and will leave his post February 14, 2020.

In a letter to parents sent around 1:00 p.m. Friday, Pierce said that he has taken a new position as the Superintendent of Oakdale Public Schools east of I-35 in Oklahoma County at 10901 N. Sooner Rd. His new responsibilities begin March 1, 2020.

“Please know that accepting this new opportunity is very bittersweet for me,” Pierce wrote. “It has truly been my honor to serve you and your children for the last seven years!”

He described being the founding leader of John Rex starting in 2014 as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“… it has been extremely gratifying to work alongside so many outstanding leaders on the JRCS board of directors for the last seven years,” wrote Pierce. “The leadership team, faculty, students, and families at John Rex have been a pleasure to serve.”

Key leader

John Rex Board Chair Nathaniel Harding sent an email to parents shortly after Pierce’s went out.

Harding praised Pierce and reassured parents that John Rex Charter would continue to be a strong educational presence in Oklahoma City.

“Since its inception, he has played a critical role developing our curriculum,” Harding wrote. “More importantly, he set the tone and high standards at our school. He created an exemplary educational environment by displaying a drive for excellence and genuine care for our children.”

Harding wrote that the current Director of Elementary Education, Heather Zacaraias, will become the interim superintendent.

Recruited

Many of the founding downtown business leaders recruited Pierce to be the “Head of School” or superintendent because of his strong career as a positive elementary teacher and then even more positive elementary principal in Edmond Public Schools.

The school has added a new grade each year. This year the school has started developing its middle school program.

Under Pierce’s leadership, a strong cohort of parents joined with engaged teachers to create a unique educational experience for the school’s students.

Change coming

Pierce resigns just when the school is on the cusp of what some believe to be a forced change to a more standard type of charter school.

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John Rex school representatives’ faces show their concern as changes to the school’s relationship to the district are announced Nov. 2019. R-L – Nathaniel Harding, Chairman of the John Rex Board of Directors; Dr. Joe Pierce, Head of School; Chloe Cumbie, Public Relations representative for the school from Candor public relations firm; Bill Hickman, the school’s legal counsel; Gary Jones, charter proponent and active supporter of John Rex. (Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press)

The school’s leadership had been in negotiations with OKCPS administrators for months.

Eventually, the parties came to an agreement to standardize their relationship with the district, which will be the new charter sponsor. Previously, the University of Oklahoma was the charter sponsor.

After five years of thriving on the special allowances given by the district in the initial agreement, the school will now have to pay rent to the district for use of the building and pay for its upkeep in the same way other charters sponsored by the district have had to do for years.

Donors originally raised significant money to help the district build at 500 W. Sheridan in the heart of downtown.

By the original agreement, the district provided maintenance for the building and the school paid no rent.

Like other charters sponsored by the district, they will continue to have their own board, raise donations, and control their own curriculum and operations.

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John Rex Charter School, 500 W. Sheridan, downtown OKC. (file photo by Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press)

Gentrification

One difficult aspect of the change for the school has been to come to terms with the gentrification of their Academic Enterprise Zone (AEZ).

Oklahoma school law requires an AEZ to give first priority to those students who live in the zone. And, the zone is required to have a 60% population of families whose children would qualify for free and reduced lunch if they attended the school.

But, it was being pressured to accept more students outside the zone from some of the highest-paid workers and executives in Oklahoma City who wanted a quality school for their children close to where they worked in downtown offices.

That has resulted in an inevitable strain, especially as those of limited means became more and more outnumbered. New real estate development gentrified the zone from 2014 to the present and pushed out some in poverty or close to it.

The district and school leaders eventually agreed to a plan.

A notch in the north end of the zone once excluded will be included. A new panhandle on the south end of the zone will be added.

And, instead of four tiers of student admissions, there will only be two: those students who live in the AEZ who will have first priority and those who live outside the AEZ.

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The new Academic Enterprise Zone for John Rex Charter School. (provided by OKCPS)

Controversy

But, especially in late 2017 and early 2018, the unity of the parents and community in their view of John Rex was strained when former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, on the school’s Board of Directors, made public statements about same-gender relationships that offended members of the community and parents.

Humphreys was one of the appointees made to the board by the University of Oklahoma, the charter sponsor.

He was removed from the Board by the university because of his statements.

Then, some community members and parents were angered when he was re-appointed by an LLC called “Oklahoma City Quality Schools” that did not publicize who was on its board.

Kirk Humphreys takes seat after decision by OKC Quality Schools (Brett Dickerson)
Kirk Humphreys takes a seat after the decision by OKC Quality Schools. (file) Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

It was the first time many had even been aware of just how much influence the LLC had on the school.

It would turn out to be a test of Pierce’s ability to navigate between the various parts of public and parental opinion on the matter and keep the school moving forward, which he did.

“Quality Schools”

The corporation “Oklahoma City Quality Schools, LLC” had played a key role in raising donations for the school when it was formed but had been forgotten by the public until the re-appointment of Humphreys occurred.

The secretive corporation had been given the power to appoint half of the Board of Directors of John Rex by design in the original organization of the school but the names of its board members were withheld during the Humphreys controversy.

Free Press created a stir when we revealed names that had been on the list around the time the LLC helped found John Rex.

It was a long list of some of Oklahoma City’s most powerful people in the finance, real estate, and legal sectors. No one ever challenged our version of the list.

After Free Press exposed who was once on the LLC’s board, public pressure led to the school finally publishing a current list although deep on the school’s website.

To learn more

Follow the links below to read the rest of our coverage of John Rex school over the last several years.

Update 12-22-19, 9:34 a.m. — We corrected the percentage of free and reduced lunch qualifying families in an AEZ. It is 60%.