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Poverty, mobility have ties to dropout rate, experts say

BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: February 26, 2012

Most of the time, the parents know their kids aren't in school, Sanders said. Education isn't relevant, let alone a priority.

“It's sad,” she said, “because that changes their final outcome. Ninth-graders — kids that have their whole lives ahead of them.”

Sanders and her staff are fighting that culture of indifference before it's too late.

“If they don't understand the value of a high school diploma, they will,” she said. “We have to keep them here long enough to know that.”

What works: prevention

One of the keys to lowering the dropout rate is prevention, said Linda Toure, the executive director of school turnaround for the Oklahoma City district.

Schools have to be prepared for students who float in and out of schools, Toure said. That's why common educational standards across the district and the state are key, she said.

“The students we start out with are not necessarily the students we end up with at the end of the year,” Toure said.

Even when students don't switch schools, educators have to intervene when they see a student struggling academically, emotionally or socially, Toure said.

At Grant, counselors try to intercept students facing chaos off campus. The library is open for an hour after school four days a week so students can make up class time.

A food pantry is stocked with vegetables, peanut butter and Pop-Tarts. An assistant principal packed up a bag of food Friday afternoon for a girl whose mother has cancer.

A clothing rack was lined with shirts and coats in school uniform colors. All of it was paid for by private donations — most of them from teachers.

Interventions aside, the most important thing is strong, positive relationships between school staff and students.

Students will return to school day after day if they know teachers notice and care about their absences, Toure said.

“It's so critical to build strong relationships where kids and parents know we care about them and we care about their future enough to go one step further,” Toure said.

Building those relationships can be difficult when staff turnover is high.

Nearly two years ago, half of the teachers at Grant were forced out as part of an overhaul of the school. New teachers were brought in.

What Sanders has now is a young staff — most in their 20s.

They're enthusiastic, energetic and passionate, she said. They put in extra hours left and right. But working at a school the outside world writes off as a failure is difficult.

“The pressure is debilitating if you're not paying attention,” Sanders said.

The solution is to create a team atmosphere where students can rely on teachers and teachers can rely on administrators.

Students need to be able to trust teachers year after year, and teachers need to stay long enough to teach siblings and even generations. Consistency builds trust.

“That's when you have a change in culture,” Sanders said.

Sanders and her team have already started changing the culture at the school, said senior Anthony Hartfield. The 18-year-old found out recently he was accepted to the architecture program at the University of Oklahoma.

“This year, the teachers teach more,” said Hartfield, who plays basketball for Grant. “We learn more.”

Last year, students didn't think twice about ignoring teachers or taking out their phones in classes. Now, the expectations have changed, Hartfield said, and students know it.

“The students are good,” he said.

Hopes of returning

Flory said she's only a few credits shy of completing high school.

“I really want to go back to school,” she said. “I want to finish and graduate.”

Her eyes widen when she talks about the possibilities of life with a high school diploma — maybe a job in the medical or veterinary fields.

She knows it will be an uphill battle.

Her family — her mother, stepfather and three sisters — moved to Oklahoma from California when Flory was in middle school.

Flory has been diagnosed with several learning disabilities and reads at a third-grade level, she said. Other students made fun of her relentlessly.

“I didn't like it,” she said. “I didn't like the schools. I didn't like the people.”

But high school was different. She liked going to Grant.

“It's not a bad school,” she said.

“It's not. Grant has some challenges and some flaws, but for the most part, they're really involved in your education.”

For now, Flory is staying at home.

Her fiance, Juan Velasco, is 19. He was working at a fast food job to support everyone — his fiancee, his mother, his 7-year-old brother and himself — since his father was deported. But he recently got a job as a carpenter.

They plan to marry this July, said Flory, wearing braces on her teeth and a bow in her hair.

Flory said she's trying to get her life back on track and leave the abuse, broken homes and poverty behind.

“It's all over,” she said. “It's all done with. Life moves on. If you don't move on, it will stick with you and drag you down.”