HENRYETTA — 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.
Recruiting teachers can be a challenge, but those who are here want to be. Trower said the teachers are the reason students are doing so well.
Teachers pick students up in the mornings and take them home at night. They feed the kids, buy them clothes.
“I don't have any use for anybody who doesn't make it a priority to change these kids' lives,” Trower said.
Generational poverty persists
Most Ryal students are fourth-generation poverty, Trower said. Some families track back to the Trail of Tears. Everybody in school lives at or near the poverty line.
Students have the option of choosing what area high school to attend, but sometimes eighth-graders don't plan to go anywhere.
“Their families don't see a need for an education past the eighth grade,” Trower said. “How do you get past that?”
Poverty is different in the city than it is in the sticks.
Urban students face violence and gangs. Services are within reach if they can find them and if they qualify. But out here, Trower said, support is a long way away.
Some factors, such as hunger, are universal.
“We have kids who when they leave here, they don't eat again until they come back to school,” Trower said.
Alisa Holuby is in her second year as a Ryal paraprofessional. She works one-on-one with students who need extra help. She grew up here and went to school here.
It's hard for students to shut off their circumstances when they walk into the classroom, Holuby said.
“A lot of them are more worried about what's going to go on at home instead of math,” she said.
Cindy Pigeon's youngest daughter, Heather, is an eighth-grader. Her grandson, LeBryant, is in the third grade. The family lives outside the Ryal school boundaries but transferred in to get extra help for Heather and LeBryant.
They rely on a teacher to help bring the students to school every now and then.
“We all have to drive to get them here, and do we have enough gas to get them here?” Pigeon said. “Are we going to get them here on time?”
Food is scarce for some kids, Pigeon said. Health problems are common in the wider community.
She cried while talking about how caring the teachers and staff are.
“When they walk through those doors, they are Ryal students. They are Ryal family,” Pigeon said. “It don't matter who their family is.”
Trower, 41, was hired in May 2011. His office is covered in cowboy decor and John Wayne photos. In addition to his superintendent gig, he's also a minister.
When Trower came in, the finances were solid, but the academics weren't. So he did what he knew best: “We started implementing a pretty aggressive turnaround.”
In fall 2011, the “priority school” list came out from the state Education Department. Schools in the bottom 5 percent of academic achievement — 77 in all — were called out, and Ryal was one of them. Administrators were asked to come up with a plan or face possible state intervention.
Trower's plan was already in motion.
The goal is to combine educational technology with individualized learning.
Each student has a personal learning plan, Trower said, and teachers cater to academic strengths and weaknesses. Teachers test and adjust, test and adjust.
Joni Howk paced in front of her second-grade class. “Heavy,” she said.
Her six students poked out h-e-a-v-y on their iPads, which were paid for by grants Trower won for the district.
In the kindergarten class, students sat with headphones on, listening to phonics sounds and picking out letters and words on a screen.
The third- and fourth-grade students sat quietly and tapped away at their iPads and laptops. Their teacher, Beatriz Hodge, said she likes to personalize lessons.
“They're all focusing on time,” she said. “Some of them are telling time. Some of them are focused on elapsed time. Some of them are reading.”
Last year, the average student was two grade levels behind in reading. Now, most everyone is caught up.
“Kids will rise to the expectations,” Trower said. “It doesn't matter what their socioeconomic status is.”