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Oklahoma students battle poverty in fight to learn

Ryal Public School is one of the poorest in Oklahoma, but students perform well on state academic exams.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: February 25, 2013

— Sometimes students climb onto the school bus wearing socks but no shoes, even in the wintertime. But when they get to school, they poke away at assignments on iPads in warm classrooms.

Statistics say Ryal Public School should be struggling academically.

An analysis by The Oklahoman shows a correlation between poverty and the state A-F school evaluation system. Schools with higher letter grades tend to have lower poverty rates, and vice versa.

But Ryal is one of the school districts bucking the trend. Poverty is rampant, but it doesn't rule. Technology, personalized learning and dedicated teachers are part of Superintendent Scot Trower's plan.

“We can save kids,” he said.

Trower said he likes the idea of the A-F evaluation, but the letter grade doesn't say enough about what goes on in a school and what it takes for students, teachers and staff to get there.

“You have a formula that you're filtering through all our data,” Trower said. “It's hard to use that same formula for Ryal and a school in Edmond. Ryal got a B and that school got a B. But we're totally different. ... We're dealing with different issues.”

Trower drives past lazy cattle resting in dried-out hayfields in this McIntosh County school district. He points to a herd of three whitetail deer bounding off for the cover of a tree grove.

“It's not unusual for these families to live off the land,” he said, referring to his school's patrons.

“They'll go kill a deer, whether it's deer season or not.”

He drives down into the Ryal Bottoms, a floodplain of the North Canadian River where many students live.

A maze of dirt roads is lined by tangled barbed wire and gnarly scrub oaks.

“Meth and alcoholism rule down here,” Trower said.

Enclaves of prefabricated sheds — the kind you see set up in the parking lots of big-box home improvement stores — dot the hillsides. There's no electricity. No plumbing. Mattresses line the fences to protect goats and horses from the wind.

Most parents who work have jobs at a casino or at Muscogee (Creek) Nation headquarters in Okmulgee. But many don't work at all, Trower said. He's had parents ask to have gasoline out of the school pump. Water has been stolen.

None of that matters when it comes to testing for the students.

“They're going to go home tonight and it's going to be freezing cold,” Trower said. “They won't eat until they come back to school the next day. And we expect them to score proficient or higher on state tests? It's survival. It's just basic survival.”

School offers haven

High blue skies arch over Ryal Public School, which serves students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. It is an island surrounded by other districts — Henryetta, Dewar and Graham.

The school sits among empty fields and forests dormant for the winter. The silence is stark.

The district has 70 students, give or take. The classes have a few students; some grades are combined. About 90 percent of students are Muscogee (Creek) Indians. About 40 percent are designated as special education.

All the students here qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Statewide, about 65 percent of students do, according to state statistics.

People here have a strong identity, Trower said.

“They identify with this school,” he said. “People say, ‘I'm from Ryal.' There's no Ryal town. There's no Ryal post office.”

The smell of baking bread drifts from the cafeteria through the halls of the school. Girls toss around basketballs in the gym, their laughter bouncing off the walls. Trophy cases in the lobby are crowded with basketball and baseball honors.

It's a place where the whole school hangs decorated lunch sacks in the hallway for receiving valentines. A boy walks up to Trower, never looking the superintendent in the eye. He shows Trower his Valentine's Day bag. The superintendent praises him and pats him on the shoulder.

“They're just so happy for somebody to love them and care about them,” Trower said later.

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