It was Thursday morning, and about a dozen teachers at Webster Middle School snapped on rubber gloves, looking a little bewildered.
“We've had two students go down,” Assistant Principal Joey Slate said.
Slate gave the game plan: search everywhere on
“I've been here four years, and nothing like this has ever happened,” one woman said.
Two boys were suspected of smoking marijuana, taking Xanax and coming to school. One passed out in the hallway; another blacked out during class. An ambulance with flashing lights was parked in front of the school.
Students were kept in their second-hour classes while teachers checked in trash cans and behind doors, in bushes and under doormats.
A girl with a hall pass was turned back on her way to the restrooms. A few moments later, an announcement squawked out of the intercom: no bathroom breaks and no trips to the water fountain until further notice.
After everything was checked, the teachers came back to the office.
“Thank you for your help,” Slate said. “Nobody found anything. Keep your ears open. Kids talk.”
For the rest of the day, anybody out of class without reason would be in trouble. Anyone found in out-of-bounds areas would be immediately suspended.
The incident was the talk of the school the rest of the day. Some teachers switched lesson plans and talked about how drugs affect the brain. Other discussed how drug use affected their families or friends.
Math teacher Kylah Fisk silenced rumors and whispers in one of her afternoon classes.
“We're all safe,” she said. “Don't do anything stupid. Don't do anything your parents wouldn't approve of, and we'll all be good. Until we all have facts, we're going to talk about math.”
Time of transition
Webster Middle School is a melting pot of ethnicities. About half of the student population is Hispanic, a quarter is white and a quarter is black. But social cliques don't split along color lines at the school, 6708 S Santa Fe.
Kids power through their lunches and head for the door, out to the empty acreage behind the building to socialize or play sports. The tables clear within minutes.
For now, most of the students are still in a time of transition. Some teens still look like elementary school students; others are taller than their teachers. They borrow quarters to buy M&M's. They have Mohawks and facial piercings.
For this age group, “life-or-death” moments happen many times a day.
“Omigod, Alex,” one girl gasped, as a friend handed her a worksheet during first hour Monday morning. “You just saved my life!”
In the same room, a moth flitted above a group of girls. “Eew,” one girl squealed as she jumped out of her chair. “I'm going to die!”
About 94 percent of Webster Middle School students receive free or reduced-priced lunch because of low household income. For a family of four, the annual household income threshold for free lunch is about $29,000. A food pantry behind Principal Brad Herzer's office is stocked with peanut butter, beans and packaged meals.
The student body is also very mobile, Herzer said. Families drift from school to school, district to district. Only about half of the students in the building were there on the first day of school, according to district statistics.
One student tried to enroll last month. The 14-year-old hadn't been in school for more than a year, and he hadn't completed the sixth grade. His parents had been homeless at one point.
“Where do I place him?” Herzer asked.
If they stay in the area, most students will go on to Capitol Hill or Southeast high schools, Herzer said. A few are looking to transfer out to other Oklahoma City high schools, where specialized freshman academies offer students the chance to pursue fields such as finance and engineering.
About 1 in 5 students at Webster Middle School speak English as a second language, Herzer said.
There's only one teacher for those 141 students.
But regardless how well Spanish-speaking students know English, they still have to take the same tests as their peers, said Martha Pierce, the lone English as a Second Language teacher.
“The hard part of this is they are at different levels,” Pierce said. “We've got to move fast. It's overwhelming to them sometimes.”
The number of Hispanic students has grown steadily during the past five years, according to district statistics.
About 45 percent of students were Hispanic during the last school year. About 38 percent were Hispanic in the 2006-07 academic year.
Throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools, about 1 in 3 students speak Spanish at home, according to district statistics.
Non-English speakers can squeak by in other classes because they are verbally fluent in English, said Rose Miranda, the school's Spanish teacher, and an immigrant.
“When they go back into their homes,” she said, “it's Spanish. They speak (English) fluently but they can't read or write.”
Some of those Spanish-speaking students sat in a language arts class before the bell rang, talking in a blur of English and Spanish. When class began, they quieted down and didn't say much for the rest of the hour. They sat outside of the discussion, and the teacher rarely made her way to their side of the room.
A new plan
Before school Tuesday morning, Herzer sat at a table with some of his teachers, discussing curriculum and state testing. He propped his Oakleys on top of his head as he reviewed how state officials would evaluate Webster this year on the new A-F scale.
“Right now, we're at a 1.67, 1.68,” Herzer said. “If there's any way our growth factor could be a C, we could get a C for the school. That would be really good.”
Posters dotted with colored stickers line the walls. Each poster represents a state test, and each sticker represents a student.
A quick scan shows how students are doing: a third are average, a third are below average and a third are far below average.
The posters have a few blue dots, representing students who scored above average.
When Herzer arrived at Webster in December 2010, he started focusing on two groups: the kids who were behind and the kids who could excel.
Students struggling in math or English now spend two class hours a day in those subjects.
The number of high school classes offered at the school was bumped up from one to five. Of the 200 eighth-graders, 117 are enrolled in at least one high school-level course, Herzer said.
Adding high school classes motivated the more advanced students, said Slate, the assistant principal.
“It changed the way the students felt about their school,” he said.
Structure and respect
It's Monday morning, and a boy was sent home before the first bell rang.
He set off the metal detector, but when he was asked to take off his shoes, he refused. A staff member told him to take off his shoes or go home. The boy left.
A teacher tossed another boy's jacket like she was fluffing a pillow — searching for contraband — as the boy passed through the metal detectors.
He collected his things and moved along to first hour.
Middle school students account for nearly half of all disciplinary actions in Oklahoma City Public Schools, according to district data.
“A lot of the kids we had at Capitol Hill that were discipline problems were from Webster,” Herzer said.
“They didn't have a lot of structure. That's one thing I've focused on — structure.”
But to have order, Herzer had to change the atmosphere of the school. That meant cutting out yelling, sarcasm and rudeness.
“We've changed the culture a lot since I've been here,” Herzer said. “One thing I've kind of demanded is the kids respect the adults in the building, and, by the same token, I expect the staff to respect the kids.”
The kids know Herzer means business, and they like him. The older students have seen the change since the principal arrived a year and a half ago.
This year has been Brandi Woods's favorite at Webster Middle School. Her sixth-grade year wasn't so great, she said. Students fought often, and the atmosphere was intimidating.
“After Mr. Slate and Mr. Herzer came, they set goals for us and things changed,” said Brandi, now an eighth-grader.
The fights have stopped, said Tiffany Tolson, a seventh-grader. The school is getting better.
“We usually have a pretty bad rap,” Tiffany said, “but we're improving. It looks rough from the outside.”
Herzer brought change, and there's another change on the way for his students and staff.
After this year, he is leaving.
This month, the school board voted to hire him as the new principal of Northwest Classen High School.
“My goal is to keep advancing in the district,” Herzer said. “That's one of the next steps. There's a progression in any job. ... It's not that I don't enjoy the kids I work with. I love the kids.”