Wheeler described many of her students as “restless” and said they tend to speak out in class.
“Traditional education doesn't work here,” she said “You need to let them move around.”
Wheeler said teachers in the building spend much of their time on issues that have little to do with reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, they're focused on more basic needs.
“Some of our kiddos come to school having not eaten, having not gotten health care they needed or visited the dentist regularly,” Wheeler said. They may need eyeglasses the parents can't afford.
All of those factors detract from a student's ability to learn, Wheeler said.
The school has partnerships with the city-county health department, church groups and other organizations to fill some of those gaps, including free immunizations, haircuts and school supplies. Each weekend, the school sends about a dozen students home with a backpack of nonperishable food to get them through to Monday.
Teachers frequently reach into their own pockets to fill a need.
“We try to help wherever we can,” Wheeler said.
Money at Millwood is tight. State funding has steadily declined for the last half-dozen years, Griffin said. In addition, many of the properties in the 10.5-square-mile school district, including the Oklahoma City Zoo, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and a National Guard armory, are exempt from taxes, further straining the budget. The small tax base also limits the district's ability to raise money through school bond issues without significantly raising residential property tax rates.
Those constraints have forced the district to delay building repairs, put off purchase of instructional materials and trim staff.
Both Griffin and Wheeler believe it is unfair for Millwood to be compared academically to higher-income districts that don't face the same challenges, saying Millwood has different students, needs and resources.
“We're really working hard here,” Wheeler said. “Our scores may not show it. We just have a different group of kids that learn differently and we're trying to adapt to that.”
Like most young children, the students at Millwood arrive with big dreams. They want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, firefighters, police officers.
“What breaks my heart is that our kids are behind,” Wheeler said. “I want them to be able to have the background through us, through their education to be able to do that. Some of them aren't there. It'll keep you up at night.”
New approach needed
Griffin said the problems Millwood confronts, including concentrations of poverty, the lack of good paying jobs for parents and a lack of health care for students, show a “great need for us to take a different approach in Oklahoma.”
“We need a system established where we can address the total family needs,” Griffin said, suggesting a social worker or health care worker that could serve as case manager to connect families with needed services. Today, that role falls to teachers, principals and school counselors, detracting from their ability to provide quality instruction.
“But I don't think it's a challenge we're ready to face,” said Griffin, who retires at the end of this month. “We have to look within and look at what we truly value.”
“We want our students to be successful because we know that for the success of this state, students must be ready to enter the world of work,” Griffin said. “Without that our state will be further challenged.”