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.”
Homelessness compounds the problem for about 2,000 students in the district. Most stay with family and friends while others live in shelters and motels, said Kathy Brown, homeless education director for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
“We try to make sure that all the barriers are removed so they can access their education,” Brown said. “We do everything we can to make sure they are fed, clothed and transported and have school supplies.”
District parents often have to decide whether to buy pencils and notebooks or keep the lights on, said Lori Dickinson, president of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
The foundation distributes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in school supplies and underwrites the cost of arts and academic competitions for district students.
“If the kids don't have the basics to do their work, that impacts a teacher's ability to accomplish that high achievement in the classroom,” Dickinson said.
The district also partners with churches and other organizations that provide a variety of services, including medical care, food and clothing.
Taft and other district schools provide students with backpacks filled with food to take home on the weekends. Hungry students, however, can't always wait.
Shea Stark, a Taft coach and teacher, keeps a box of granola bars in his desk just in case. He recently shuttled a student from school to a shelter so he could play football, often stopping to buy him dinner.
“We're going to have kids that are hungry every single day,” he said. “Kids cannot be hungry in class and focus. It just doesn't happen.”
Dubuc, a former elementary school principal, is in her first year as an academic counselor at Taft. She spends much of her time listening to students share their fears and worries.
“As much as I want to support academics, and I do that, it's more important to me to help them out in dealing day to day and being OK knowing that going to go home to a certain situation,” she said. “I want to offer real advice that they can use to get past the crisis and be productive.”