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Oklahoma City educators help students face problems inside, outside the classroom

Oklahoma City's Taft Middle School teachers help students with their schoolwork and with their needs outside of school.
by Tim Willert Modified: February 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm •  Published: February 3, 2014

Heather Sparks will do whatever it takes to keep her students focused on learning.

The Taft Middle School math teacher often tutors struggling teens after school and then drives them home because there's no one to pick them up.

Sparks and others throughout the Oklahoma City school district fight a daily battle to keep students engaged, and spend much of their time — inside the classroom and out — tending to the needs of those burdened by poverty.

Last year, Sparks bought new uniforms, socks and underwear for two boys being ridiculed by classmates for smelling bad.

“The clothes were just so old. The soles were not in the shoes. The pants were three inches too short,” she said. “I knew that that family was doing the best they could so I did what I could to help with that.”

Nearly 90 percent of students at Taft and throughout the district qualify for free and reduced-price meals, according to a report released last month by the state Education Department. Most live in low-income neighborhoods where money and adult supervision are in short supply, and parents work more than one job to make ends meet.

“Their priority is to make sure there's a roof over their head, there's food and there's clothes,” said Taft Principal Charmaine Johnson. “Checking in on homework is secondary.”

Johnson and Sparks said students show up to school without jackets or adequate clothing in bitterly cold weather. Most district students walk or take the bus to school, prompting officials to revise the district's inclement weather policy to include frigid temperatures when deciding whether to close school.

Sparks and her colleagues at Taft — where 80 percent of seventh- and eighth-grade students read below grade level — work to help students overcome outside pressures that interfere with their ability to learn.

“You have children that are in a crisis state almost all the time because of the poverty situation and situations at home,” said Amber Dubuc, a seventh-grade counselor who runs the school's food bank. “It is not uncommon for a student to lack food, medical care, supervision and support at home, which makes it difficult to come here and make good grades and test scores.”

Some students whose parents can't pay their rent or were evicted change schools several times a year. Sparks said the high mobility rate is detrimental to a child's academic success.

“The parents don't realize that every time they have to move their child to a new school their child digresses significantly,” she said. “If you move four times in one year your child has lost track of two full years of academic growth, plus the year they're in.”

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by Tim Willert
Education Reporter
Tim Willert is a native Californian with Oklahoma ties who covers education. Prior to moving to Oklahoma in June 2011, he was as an editor for in Century City, Calif., and reported on courts for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and...
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