Poverty, mobility have ties to dropout rate, experts say

BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: February 26, 2012

Renae Flory didn't want to quit going to high school, but life got in the way.

She and her sisters had just been reunited with her mother when thieves broke into their southwest Oklahoma City apartment and stole nearly everything, even tables.

Flory, 17, and her three sisters had spent years bouncing from shelter to shelter, foster home to foster home, after state social workers saved them from an abusive relative.

Flory had survived chaos, uncertainty and worse only to see her family fall apart again after the burglary last October.

That's when Flory became one of the students who've fallen off the rosters this year at U.S. Grant High School, where nearly 1 in 10 students drop out every year, the highest rate in the Oklahoma City School District.

“My mom moved us out immediately after it happened,” she said, but her mom's new place didn't have room for the girls.

The family split up. Everyone fended for herself.

“I had nowhere to go,” Flory said. “I had nowhere to stay.”

Flory moved in with her boyfriend in northwest Oklahoma City. Life is stable, but she lives nine miles away from Grant.

She tried for a few weeks to go to school, but couldn't make it across town without a ride. She wasn't sure how to navigate the bus system. She couldn't afford a car. She couldn't afford new clothes to replace her stolen ones. She was supposed to graduate this spring.

School took a back seat.

“Surviving,” she said as she stared at the ceiling, “That's all I care about.”

For many students at Grant, survival comes first.

“It consumes them,” Principal Tamie Sanders said. “They handle adult issues that kids should never have to handle, and they do it every day.”

A high school diploma can make navigating the adult world easier, but making it all the way to graduation can be difficult for students in southwest Oklahoma City.

Grant has the highest dropout rate in the Oklahoma City School District: 9.5 percent.

Last year, 147 students quit — about twice as many as the next highest school, Capitol Hill High School.

For Sanders, the numbers are unacceptable.

“It is extremely daunting because there is no one answer to stop a student from dropping out,” Sanders said. “If you look at the big picture, it's insurmountable. You have to attack it one piece at a time.”

What hurts: poverty, mobility, indifference

Small homes with clean red brick fill the neighborhood around U.S. Grant. Laundry blows in the unseasonably warm winter wind. Some yards are tidy and bright; others are dotted with trash and old tires.

The main streets near the school are lined with pawnshops and payday loan stores and rent-to-own furniture sellers.

Paint peels off old buildings.

Nearly 1,400 students attend U.S. Grant High School, the largest school in the district.

The school has been on the federal “needs improvement” list for the past six years. Some people have written Grant off as a failure, and that makes Sanders angry.

“I hate how people look at my kids and my teachers,” said Sanders, who Oklahoma City School District Superintendent Karl Springer calls his top general.

Students at U.S. Grant file out of the building at the end of the day. They wear a mishmash of red, white and gray — the colors of school uniforms implemented for the school's students a year and a half ago.

They mill around, gossiping and giggling as they wait for buses or rides or friends. Girls with ponytails chatter and hold hands with their boyfriends.

A group of boys starts shouting until the school police officer calms everyone down and breaks up the crowd.

Students disappear down neighborhood streets as they walk home. Kids make laps around the track wearing street clothes. Soccer players stretch on the grass.

Sanders' students have hopes and dreams like other high school kids, but most are drowning in poverty.

About 98 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, according to district statistics.

Mobility goes hand in hand with extreme poverty, Sanders said.

Family turmoil, unemployment and crime can send students hopping from relative to relative, couch to couch.

“A lot of times,” she said, “the priority in the heat of the moment is not school.”

Keeping track of kids is vital to keeping them in school, Sanders said.

The school has four full-time attendance advocates who keep an eye on students with mounting absences. They make phone calls and make home visits.



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