It's a little after 8 on a recent rainy morning as dozens of young Millwood Elementary students clad in maroon and white uniforms line up in the cafeteria for what might be their only nutritious meal of the day.
It's a problem all too common in Oklahoma, which ranks fourth among states in the percentage of public school students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.
In Oklahoma, about six out of 10 students qualify for the federally subsidized program. Only Mississippi, New Mexico and Louisiana have a higher percentage of eligibility, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The harsh reality of those numbers plays out at places like Millwood. Housed in a drafty, half-century-old building on Martin Luther King Avenue in northeast Oklahoma City, the school's student body is about 98 percent black.
On this day, about 600 children, almost every student in kindergarten through eighth grade, will get their fill of chocolate-flavored cereal, buttered toast, breakfast burritos, milk and juice as part as part of the meals program. Lunch also is provided.
But full bellies don't guarantee full minds. Despite what the school's principal describes as a near-Herculean effort to improve academic performance, Millwood still finds itself on the state's list of struggling schools. Less than half of the school's third-graders are proficient in math and reading, while the statewide average is about 75 percent.
Millwood confronts many of the same hurdles that can hamper any school confronted with large concentrations of poverty, including a lack of parental involvement, a shortage of resources and students who enter school already behind in learning.
“It's catch-up for us,” said Gloria Griffin, district superintendent for more than 18 years. “What people don't understand is it doesn't happen overnight. It's not an easy task when during those formative years when children should be learning their colors, their ABCs, that's not occurring.”
In other ways, Millwood is subject to forces beyond its control, Griffin said. That includes a cratering economy that left many already-struggling parents unemployed, forced to work two or three jobs, or to move out of state in search of work and leave children with grandparents. That, in turn, led to even further declines in parental involvement, recognized as a key component in successful schools.
While turnout is typically high at talent shows, graduations and sporting events, “anything that showcases the children,” Millwood Elementary Principal Andrea Wheeler said parental support in other areas is a struggle.
When the school used a grant to offer parenting classes beginning midyear, only a handful attended.
Getting homework completed is a constant challenge. Wheeler said she doesn't know if that's because parents don't know that it's been assigned or don't know how to help.
Staying in contact with parents, who often have no phone, computer or Internet access poses a challenge. Many children have no books in their homes and arrive at school without pens or paper.
Helen Bennett, a third-grade teacher who's taught at the school six years, said parent-teacher conferences at Millwood are poorly attended, drawing maybe five people for her 25 students.
“It's not that they don't want to come,” Bennett said. “They're working.”
But even when she offers alternative meeting times or to talk by phone, Bennett said she gets little response.
Student behavior is also an issue. Wheeler called it her “biggest disconnect” with parents.
“Sometimes when we call home ... the parents argue with us, or they don't feel the consequence is appropriate or they feel their child should not receive a consequence,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes we even get backlash from discipline. They blame the school or the teacher or feel their child doesn't have an issue that needs to be resolved.”
Wheeler described many of her students as “restless” and said they tend to speak out in class.
“Traditional education doesn't work here,” she said “You need to let them move around.”
Wheeler said teachers in the building spend much of their time on issues that have little to do with reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, they're focused on more basic needs.
“Some of our kiddos come to school having not eaten, having not gotten health care they needed or visited the dentist regularly,” Wheeler said. They may need eyeglasses the parents can't afford.
All of those factors detract from a student's ability to learn, Wheeler said.
The school has partnerships with the city-county health department, church groups and other organizations to fill some of those gaps, including free immunizations, haircuts and school supplies. Each weekend, the school sends about a dozen students home with a backpack of nonperishable food to get them through to Monday.
Teachers frequently reach into their own pockets to fill a need.
“We try to help wherever we can,” Wheeler said.
Money at Millwood is tight. State funding has steadily declined for the last half-dozen years, Griffin said. In addition, many of the properties in the 10.5-square-mile school district, including the Oklahoma City Zoo, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and a National Guard armory, are exempt from taxes, further straining the budget. The small tax base also limits the district's ability to raise money through school bond issues without significantly raising residential property tax rates.
Those constraints have forced the district to delay building repairs, put off purchase of instructional materials and trim staff.
Both Griffin and Wheeler believe it is unfair for Millwood to be compared academically to higher-income districts that don't face the same challenges, saying Millwood has different students, needs and resources.
“We're really working hard here,” Wheeler said. “Our scores may not show it. We just have a different group of kids that learn differently and we're trying to adapt to that.”
Like most young children, the students at Millwood arrive with big dreams. They want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, firefighters, police officers.
“What breaks my heart is that our kids are behind,” Wheeler said. “I want them to be able to have the background through us, through their education to be able to do that. Some of them aren't there. It'll keep you up at night.”
New approach needed
Griffin said the problems Millwood confronts, including concentrations of poverty, the lack of good paying jobs for parents and a lack of health care for students, show a “great need for us to take a different approach in Oklahoma.”
“We need a system established where we can address the total family needs,” Griffin said, suggesting a social worker or health care worker that could serve as case manager to connect families with needed services. Today, that role falls to teachers, principals and school counselors, detracting from their ability to provide quality instruction.
“But I don't think it's a challenge we're ready to face,” said Griffin, who retires at the end of this month. “We have to look within and look at what we truly value.”
“We want our students to be successful because we know that for the success of this state, students must be ready to enter the world of work,” Griffin said. “Without that our state will be further challenged.”