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 ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: February 25, 2013
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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.”

‘Aggressive turnaround'

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.”

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