In a crumbling building north of downtown Oklahoma City, teen moms, former dropouts and kids who've been in trouble are trying to graduate from high school.
They're recovering class credits or recovering from maternity leave. They're looking for a different setting where they can be themselves. For many, Emerson High School is the last chance.
According to the new A to F evaluation system put in place by the state Education Department, this is one of the worst schools in Oklahoma.
It was one of only 10 schools in the state that received an F.
Principal Sherry Kishore was devastated, but then she refocused.
“I know what job I do,” she said. “I know what job my teachers do. I know what job my students do. That's why I'm OK.
“(The F) doesn't have anything to do with me. We're doing our job.”
About 1,750 Oklahoma schools received a letter grade of A to F this fall as part of a new school evaluation system created by the Education Department. The system replaces the Academic Performance Index, which is no longer required because Oklahoma received a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind laws.
Educators and community leaders have debated the formula used to calculate the grades for months. The state Board of Education finally approved the equation in October.
Parents and the community deserve to know how schools are doing, said Anna Graven, who teaches sophomore English at Emerson. But a mathematical formula can't always capture the good teachers and students accomplish every day.
When the F came out, the Emerson staff was crushed, Graven said
“It's demoralizing. I think it's unjust,” she said.
“And I don't think that grade is a true reflection of what we have in this building.”
Emerson has its problems, said Kishore, the principal.
The school struggles with parent involvement. More than 60 percent of students don't live with their parents, Kishore said. The halls are empty on parent-teacher conference night.
The school building is falling apart, but ground was broken this fall on MAPS for Kids renovations. Emerson is the oldest building in the district. It was built in 1894.
Another problem, Kishore said, is transportation. Emerson students have to provide their own way to school, regardless of which home school they come from. For some, the challenge can be too tough; absences pile up.
The school has many strengths, like hardworking teachers, she said. The students are motivated, too.
“When they get here, they're more serious,” she said.
“They know this is one of their last opportunities.”
Also, on-site day care services help young mothers stay in school. Parenting classes help guide students who might not have appropriate examples to follow at home.
Courtney Barnett has taught freshman English at Emerson for two years.
“I chose to teach at Emerson,” Barnett said. “I'm passionate about that program because I, too, was one of these teen moms at one time.”
Barnett had a child when she was 17.
She lived at home with her family, who supported her and pushed her to finish high school and move on to college.
“School was not an option for me,” she said. “It had to be done. My students, they don't have that push. School can be an option. They don't have that family a lot of the time.”
Barnett said she would like to see a different formula used for alterative schools like Emerson.
Four of the 10 schools that received F scores are alternative schools — Emerson and three in Tulsa.
Students can excel at an alternative school, even if the learning environment and their personal challenges are unique, Barnett said.
“I don't want them to think they came from an F school — because they didn't,” Barnett said. “They were a part of something greater. They were a part of something better than an F.”
The formula used to calculate grades takes into account how many students graduate within four years and within five years.
For many Emerson students, graduating can take even longer, but a diploma is better than dropping out, Kishore said.
“If you've got a student who's been out of school for two years, they may take five, six years,” Kishore said. “We are educating recovered dropouts every day. While it's a wonderful thing they're back in school, the school is penalized because they won't graduate within four years.”
Also, students who come to Emerson are usually academically behind their peers. Even if they make progress, they are still behind, Kishore said. The formula doesn't account for that.
“It needs to recognize student growth from wherever they are,” Kishore said. “They're miles ahead. They just aren't at the end.”
One Emerson student walks from the south side of town every day — blocks and blocks from his home all the way to school. He struggles with his English class, and he only has one state exam left to pass before he can graduate.
He is determined, said Elizabeth Cowan, who teaches government and U.S. history.
“He wants that high school diploma,” Cowan said, “and he wants to pass that English test. There are a lot of things you can't see in that formula.”
Confidence is lacking for many students, Cowan said.
Labeling the school with an F doesn't help.
“A lot of these students have not had a lot of people who tell them, ‘You can do it,'” said Cowan, who herself dropped out of high school and then later earned her GED and graduated from college.
“That's a huge thing with all of these kids — they need to learn they can do it.”
Students end up at Emerson by choice or circumstance, but their goal is the same, Kishore said. They want to earn a high school diploma. The F doesn't change that for them or their teachers.
“The end result's the same,” Kishore said. “We're trying to get these students graduated.”