The Oklahoma City school for pregnant teenagers and other at-risk youths lacks heat in some classrooms, has a computer lab infested with termites and a roof that leaks in the rain. Emerson Alternative School, which offers day care for the girls’ babies and also serves at-risk young men, was built in 1894 and will be one of the district’s last schools to be renovated under the MAPS for Kids program. "The students deserve a facility that looks like where they are trying to go, and that’s forward-looking and beautiful and clean and fresh,” said Sandra Bennett, an Emerson teacher. Bennett, whose science classroom serves as a space for mommy training during her planning periods, said she watches every day as her peers help 115 young women overcome poverty and manage motherhood to continue their education. The problem is that when they get to school, they must contend with cramped conditions and limited resources, she said. Originally, the Oklahoma City district had allocated $1.8 million for renovations at Emerson from the voter approved half-cent sales tax known as MAPS for Kids. "One of the things that we quickly identified was that the budget was not sufficient to meet the district’s needs,” said Eric Wenger, project manager of the Oklahoma City MAPS Trust. "We are recommending to significantly increase the budget to $3.5 million ... including a new building addition that’s 15,700 square feet.” The school board will vote May 8 whether to increase the budget by pulling money from an unallocated MAPS for Kids line item for "alternative schools” and adding it to Emerson. There are scores of teen mothers in Oklahoma public schools. About 7,600 babies were born to teen mothers in 2007, the sixth-highest birth rate in the nation, according to data from National Vital Statistics. Bennett said many teens have the support at home through a parent who baby-sits or they are able to afford child care to continue their education in mainstream public schools. However, for others the option is dropping out or finding a program like Emerson. Emerson offers mothers in Oklahoma City Public Schools a support system that includes an on-site day care and social workers. "I’ve always had the same dreams; it’s just Emerson has made it a lot easier to get there,” said Angela Banks, a 16-year-old sophomore with two children. Banks wants to study criminal justice at the University of Central Oklahoma and one day work for the FBI. However, before that, she has to complete school at Emerson, where the wall between math and language arts classes is so thin Banks can hear both lectures, and where she has to carry her bookbag and her diaper bag with her because there are no lockers. "A new building would give us something to look forward to seeing, something to be proud of,” Banks said.
‘Unsightly building’Emerson doesn’t just serve pregnant teens, however, the school also is a "second chance” for male and female students who have been kicked out of other schools or are academically far behind. That program operates independently of the larger program for teen mothers. "It’s hard not to get emotional about Emerson,” school board member Ron Millican said after several teachers and volunteers broke into tears at the last school board meeting. "It’s a very unsightly building. I’m embarrassed by it. The portables were damaged in the bombing 15 years ago and haven’t been replaced.” The two portable buildings, described by neighbors as the midtown trailer park, have leaking ceilings and little to no temperature regulation. "These teachers do not complain about these things,” Bennett said. "They pack up the girls when the heat is out in the modulars and move them to the cafeteria.”
Like a familySt. Anthony Hospital President Joe Hodges said Emerson’s renovation is an important piece of the Midtown redevelopment effort that the hospital has poured $200 million into since 2003. "Emerson has been a huge partner with St. Anthony, not only because they live in the neighborhood, but we work with them in their health technologies program,” Hodges said. "They have been such a great supporter of St. Anthony and all of our Midtown development.” Hodges said the outside appearance of the building is not appropriate for the direction in which the neighborhood is headed. Wenger said under the recommended budget expansion the long-standing temporary buildings would be removed. Construction at the school could begin in late spring 2011, Wenger said, but before that he said his team of architects will hold many meetings with the school to make certain the new building and the remodel address the student’s needs. "We have dreams about the things we want and the things that should be happening,” said Dr. Lorraine Harris, a gynecologist who has volunteered at the school every Tuesday for the last 15 years. Harris said chief among that dream are reinstituting the health clinic that was once at the school but that lost funding in 2009, adding a breast-feeding room and a sick room for children in the day care. "We really are in a way their family, the place they come for comfort,” Harris said. "It’s now time really for the city and the school board to step up and say, ‘We value the contribution you’ve made to our society, and you deserve a facility that reflects what you’re trying to do.’”