Woolley wins Tulsan of the Year award
By Kellie Matherly
February 1, 2024
Choctaw tribal member Stacey Woolley has been named Tulsan of the Year by Tulsa People magazine. The award is given annually based on issues that are important to Tulsa residents and how Tulsans are actively involved in them. Her standout work as the president of the school board for Tulsa Public Schools captured the attention and the hearts of her community.
Woolley, the middle child of five, grew up on the Choctaw Nation Reservation. From age four until she finished college, she lived in Durant. Because her grandfather was sent to boarding school as a child and was discouraged from keeping his Choctaw cultural traditions, the family was somewhat disconnected from their roots until later.
Woolley related a story to Tulsa People’s Tim Landes about attending a family gathering on her mother’s side where she was the only brown-skinned person in attendance. At four years old, she realized that she was different from others in the room, and she began to cry.
“Just the idea that we, as four-year-olds, internalize things like that and get upset about not feeling a place of belonging. It just reiterates to me how important it is for the kids who we serve to see people they look like in their schools, to have teachers, to have principals who look like them,” she said.
At age 17, Woolley became pregnant with her first child. Being a single mother, as well as a teenager, put her up against some tough odds. Rather than give up on her hopes of success and become dependent on government programs to survive, however, she pushed herself even harder. Today, she attributes her success to an innate stubbornness and her Choctaw heritage.
“Getting the idea that I couldn’t do something because of a situation or something that made me different made me feel more compelled to do it,” Woolley said.
By the time she graduated from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Woolley had a husband and two young children, but she was not done with her education. She headed to the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond to earn her master’s in speech language pathology, an area she had been interested in from childhood.
“I remember being in elementary school and having a teacher who kind of made fun of a student in my class who stuttered,” Woolley recalls. “I remember first being so offended and second taking up for him. I think that’s probably the genesis of my interest in speech pathology and working with kids who have different abilities and needs.”
When she finished her master’s degree, Woolley returned to Durant and worked as a speech pathologist in the Achille and Kingston public school systems. Since that time, she and her family have moved to Tulsa, where she serves the school system in a different capacity as school board president.
Her drive to stand up for students who need it most is what led Woolley to run for school board.
“I’m one of five kids in my family, and I think it’s just kind of who I am. I’m just inherently kind of a fighter,” she said.
When she was elected in 2019, however, she could not have imagined the fight looming on the horizon.
According to the Tulsa Public Schools website TPS serves over 33,000 students city-wide, and 84% of those students are economically disadvantaged. Success rates in schools with similar demographics tend to fall behind those of wealthier districts across the board. For poor students, learning can often take a back seat to problems like finding transportation to school, eating nutritious meals and having a safe place to stay.
“Anyone who is an underdog, I’m going to have a tendency to want to protect,” said Woolley.
And protecting TPS students from their own state government has been a battle for the school board. State superintendent of schools Ryan Walters has targeted TPS for state takeover, a move that Woolley believes would be detrimental to the students and the community.
“Tulsans, as a community, everyone from parents to business owners to educators and everyone in between have united around the idea of the need for local control of our schools,” said Woolley, who believes in the power of being able to pick up the phone and call a neighbor who is on the school board when there is a concern. “If our schools were to be taken over by the state, then we lose that direct connection to people within our community who are working on behalf of the schools.”
In addition to the threat from Walters’ office, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt recently rejected funding from a new USDA program that will help feed students throughout the summer if they qualify for free or reduced lunches. The program would serve roughly half a million students in Oklahoma by providing an estimated $60 million in federal dollars.
Woolley believes summer lunch programs are crucial for students in her district and many other poorer districts across Oklahoma.
“I just think it’s really important for Oklahomans to recognize that something that feels as ‘small’ as $40 a month to help pay for food for children while they are home in the summer literally can be the difference between feeding someone and having electricity. It can be the difference between having gas to go to a doctor’s appointment or buying baby formula,” she said. “We have to do all we can to protect these kids year-round, not just when they’re in school.”
Ensuring that students’ most basic needs are met allows the school system to direct its energy toward what Woolley says is “the really hard work of improving academics” that TPS has been focused on for the past several years. “We’re going to keep staying focused on what matters, which is literacy for our kids and college and career readiness.” To help identify its most important goals and work toward meeting them, TPS released a new strategic plan in 2022 that will be in place through 2027.
Native American tribes in the Tulsa area have done much to help bridge the gap for students who need nutritious meals and other academic support programs for economically disadvantaged students in the summer. Any child, regardless of tribal status, who lives within the service area of the tribes and meets the eligibility requirements for assistance can benefit from these programs.
The Choctaw Nation also serves students in the summer through partnership grants from the USDA. The CACFP program provides shelf-stable meals to children who visit one of distribution sites. In addition, CNO partners with the Chickasaw Nation to offer qualifying families $40 worth of free food per child for May, June and July. Visit the Chickasaw website for more information on the Summer EBT program.
The Tulsan of the Year Award is especially significant to Stacey Woolley, who sees the diversity and vibrancy of the community every day through the eyes of students, parents, teachers and administrators.
“What [the award] reinforces to me is that the people of Tulsa believe in what we’re doing in Tulsa Public Schools and don’t want divisive political stunts to be the center of what’s actually happening with our kids. We have a very diverse student population, and the community of Tulsa supports every single student in our buildings and recognizes that not everyone does. That’s really what this award is symbolic of. They want to elevate every kid, and they want to see people in positions like mine who agree with that.”