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
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
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.
Most of the time, the parents know their kids aren't in school, Sanders said. Education isn't relevant, let alone a priority.
“It's sad,” she said, “because that changes their final outcome. Ninth-graders — kids that have their whole lives ahead of them.”
Sanders and her staff are fighting that culture of indifference before it's too late.
“If they don't understand the value of a high school diploma, they will,” she said. “We have to keep them here long enough to know that.”
What works: prevention
One of the keys to lowering the dropout rate is prevention, said Linda Toure, the executive director of school turnaround for the Oklahoma City district.
Schools have to be prepared for students who float in and out of schools, Toure said. That's why common educational standards across the district and the state are key, she said.
“The students we start out with are not necessarily the students we end up with at the end of the year,” Toure said.
Even when students don't switch schools, educators have to intervene when they see a student struggling academically, emotionally or socially, Toure said.
At Grant, counselors try to intercept students facing chaos off campus. The library is open for an hour after school four days a week so students can make up class time.
A food pantry is stocked with vegetables, peanut butter and Pop-Tarts. An assistant principal packed up a bag of food Friday afternoon for a girl whose mother has cancer.
A clothing rack was lined with shirts and coats in school uniform colors. All of it was paid for by private donations — most of them from teachers.
Interventions aside, the most important thing is strong, positive relationships between school staff and students.
Students will return to school day after day if they know teachers notice and care about their absences, Toure said.
“It's so critical to build strong relationships where kids and parents know we care about them and we care about their future enough to go one step further,” Toure said.
Building those relationships can be difficult when staff turnover is high.
Nearly two years ago, half of the teachers at Grant were forced out as part of an overhaul of the school. New teachers were brought in.
What Sanders has now is a young staff — most in their 20s.
They're enthusiastic, energetic and passionate, she said. They put in extra hours left and right. But working at a school the outside world writes off as a failure is difficult.
“The pressure is debilitating if you're not paying attention,” Sanders said.
The solution is to create a team atmosphere where students can rely on teachers and teachers can rely on administrators.
Students need to be able to trust teachers year after year, and teachers need to stay long enough to teach siblings and even generations. Consistency builds trust.
“That's when you have a change in culture,” Sanders said.
Sanders and her team have already started changing the culture at the school, said senior Anthony Hartfield. The 18-year-old found out recently he was accepted to the architecture program at the University of Oklahoma.
“This year, the teachers teach more,” said Hartfield, who plays basketball for Grant. “We learn more.”
Last year, students didn't think twice about ignoring teachers or taking out their phones in classes. Now, the expectations have changed, Hartfield said, and students know it.
“The students are good,” he said.
Hopes of returning
Flory said she's only a few credits shy of completing high school.
“I really want to go back to school,” she said. “I want to finish and graduate.”
Her eyes widen when she talks about the possibilities of life with a high school diploma — maybe a job in the medical or veterinary fields.
She knows it will be an uphill battle.
Her family — her mother, stepfather and three sisters — moved to Oklahoma from California when Flory was in middle school.
Flory has been diagnosed with several learning disabilities and reads at a third-grade level, she said. Other students made fun of her relentlessly.
“I didn't like it,” she said. “I didn't like the schools. I didn't like the people.”
But high school was different. She liked going to Grant.
“It's not a bad school,” she said.
“It's not. Grant has some challenges and some flaws, but for the most part, they're really involved in your education.”
For now, Flory is staying at home.
Her fiance, Juan Velasco, is 19. He was working at a fast food job to support everyone — his fiancee, his mother, his 7-year-old brother and himself — since his father was deported. But he recently got a job as a carpenter.
They plan to marry this July, said Flory, wearing braces on her teeth and a bow in her hair.
Flory said she's trying to get her life back on track and leave the abuse, broken homes and poverty behind.
“It's all over,” she said. “It's all done with. Life moves on. If you don't move on, it will stick with you and drag you down.”