For years, Emerson Alternative School was an invisible part of the downtown Oklahoma City community. Thousands drove by the school, but it wasn't discussed, and it wasn't a place folks visited.
The building itself is a rare example of historic architecture that survived the 1970s urban renewal era, and its presence on one of downtown's few hills gives it a stunning view of the skyline.
The school, 715 N Walker, has seen better days. The outside appears grungy and unloved. And if one were to take a closer look at the campus, one might notice that the makeshift “temporary” classroom trailers quit being temporary decades ago and look as if they're unfit for prisoners.
Of course, let's all be honest for a moment. When we think of an alternative school, aren't we thinking about dangerous, delinquent teens? We're thinking back to scary movies portraying schools with littered hallways, graffiti on the walls and quivering teachers terrified of their students.
I admit, at some level, I was guilty of this prejudice. I was wrong. It was about three to four years ago that I was invited to a community meeting at the school. I was stunned to realize how stupid I had been. These were good kids — girls who became pregnant, boys who made bad choices — and the only difference separating them from kids at other schools, in many cases, was that they lacked the support of family and friends that helps so many other kids survive adolescence.
Downtown is filled with great, generous people who shower their time, effort and money onto helping less fortunate folks in the neighborhood. But this school went without such attention for a long, long time.
Since that moment of clarity, I've tried to make up for lost time. Last year, I teamed up with Brianna Bailey (then my rival at the Journal Record), Clifton Adcock (then my rival at The Gazette) and Kelly Chambers (still my rival at OKC Biz) to provide mentoring to the school's journalism class.
I've also done my best to use my blog, OKC Central, to help provide readers a better understanding of the kids at Emerson. They include gifted artists as well as students interested in architecture, graphic design and the prospects for CNG vehicles. They're determined to overcome tremendous obstacles to earn their high school diploma and a shot at college.
For the pregnant teen students, add to the hurdles the prospect of having to interrupt the school day with a bus ride to and from a clinic for a prenatal exam because the clinic at the school closed a few years ago amid budget cuts.
Fortunately, times are changing. Two years ago, I encountered a downtown executive (he has since left his job) who argued against assisting Emerson, saying it didn't fit his company's “Midwest values.”
Guess what? We're not a Midwest state — we're a Plains state. More importantly, as evidenced 18 years ago this week, we've got “the Oklahoma standard,” which is better than any other regional values, in my humble opinion.
That translates into a sold-out inaugural “Starlight Supper” at the revamped Bicentennial Park that raised $10,000 for Emerson, and a commitment by Variety Care's new director, Andrew Rice, to get a new clinic opened at Emerson as part of an upcoming remodeling of the school.
Downtown is now engaged with Emerson. The obstacles are many, but the rewards can be overwhelming.