Oklahoma City Schools - Edwards Elementary - Real Expectations a News OK Ndepth

A look inside the Oklahoma City school district

Editor's note: When people think about Oklahoma City's schools, familiar themes often come to mind: failing students, ineffective teachers and a string of administrators who can't straighten the schools out. But is that the whole story? What really happens inside Oklahoma City's schools?

Oklahoman reporter Carrie Coppernoll will spend a week each inside an elementary, middle and high school to report on the real expectations inside the Oklahoma City School District. Part three features Edwards Elementary.

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The teacher's cheeks got redder and redder as the class time ticked by.

The second-graders squiggling in the chairs in front of her weren't listening. Some sang along as the music teacher directed a hip hop song about respect, but others didn't. They talked, changed seats, walked around.

They twisted around in their chairs to hurl insults at one another.

It was a Tuesday afternoon near the end of the school year, and the music class at Edwards Elementary was derailing quickly.

The teacher shook her head. She pointed at students and then the back of the room, directing them to sit in the back row. She used musical breaks in the song to shout out directions for them to sit down, be quiet, turn around.

When the song was over, that's when things went south.

A girl with pretty braids and a dark spot on her cheek stood up in the back of a room. She stared at a boy who had been taunting her for nearly half an hour.

"He called me 'Scarface,' " she said with defiance. "I'm not."

Bravado melted into grief. Her eyes squinted shut.

"I was born like that."

She slumped to the floor, crying.

Two friends rushed to her side. The class descended into chaos.

"Who called her 'Scarface?' " the teacher yelled over the commotion, her face darting back and forth across the room. "Who called her Scarface? Who called her Scarface?"

Another girl started crying. One boy asked if he could call his parents. Everyone was talking or shouting.

No culprit was identified. No one was punished. The girl was comforted only by friends as the teacher continued yelling about how horrible the students were.

Fourth grade teacher Mr. Hull in his class, Friday, May 18, 2012. nDepth package about Edwards Elementary School.
Fourth grade teacher Mr. Hull in his class, Friday, May 18, 2012.

A change of tone

That same class filed back into Linda Merriweather's room in silence, heads hung, eyes on the floor. No one smiled. No one spoke.

Back in their regular second-grade classroom, they were different. The music teacher had told Merriweather they misbehaved. Merriweather waited, deciding what to say.

"Hold fast to dreams," she said calmly, quietly.

"Hold fast to dreams," they echoed.

"For if dreams die?" she said, urging them on. They finished reciting the Langston Hughes poem:

Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Edwards Elementary School students say the pledge of allegiance during an assembly, Friday, May 18, 2012.
Students jump during a cheer at an assembly
Prekindergarten teacher Carolyn Jones helps her students go to lunch at Edwards Elementary School.

They sat in silence again. Merriweather waited.

"We want a life that's full of dreams, dreams that flourish, dreams that take us places we want to go," she said in a voice somewhere between talking and a whisper. "Every place you go, you need to have your dreams in mind.

"I'm hurt.

"You go in there and act like you have no dreams."

Silence.

Merriweather challenged them to finish the last half-hour of the day with respect. Could they work math word problems together? Could they cooperate and focus?

Yes, they promised.

The teacher redirected the class, moving from chaos to math. They morphed back into eager learners with waving, shaking hands, begging to answer questions.

A girl in the front row smiled shyly with pride when the class applauded her for a right answer. A small boy in a white shirt pointed his fingers in the air and danced in his seat when he got a problem right.

They worked feverishly to finish as many problems as they could before the end of the day.

Edwards Elementary, 1123 NE Grand, is a small school of about 300 students that sits in a neighborhood mixed with tidy homes and boarded up windows. About 92 percent of the students are black.

The businesses are a patchwork of garages, nail salons, T-shirt printers, pawnshops, smoke shops, beauty shops, churches, payday loan offices, and check cashers. Men smoked and sat in beat-up recliners in front of a used tire shop.

A golf course is down the street, across from a rotting building with creeping ivy. A bicycle with training wheels but no handle bars sat in a yard across the street.

The state capitol and the state Education Department are three miles away.

After middle school, most of these students will go to Douglass High School, just two blocks away.

Learning doesn't stop

Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" played over the intercom to mark the beginning of the school day.

"When the Michael Jackson song comes on, you need to be moving," Coach Kim Edwards said, hurrying children through the halls.

Students and staff recite a long list of expectations. They defined the word of the week and recited the quote of the week, a Dr. Seuss excerpt: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose."

A boy with his face to the ceiling scurried down the hall, holding his nosebleed with tissues. A girl with curly hair sported a hot pink sash: Birthday Diva. A boy passed with a shirt tucked into his underwear.

Edwards is a mismatch of old and new. More than half the students who started the school year didn't go here last year. On the other hand, those who stay usually come from a long line of Edwards alumni.

"It's a neighborhood school," Principal Ronda Hamilton said. "People have lived here forever and ever and ever. The history is strong. The tradition is just tremendous."

Many shuffle among the schools on the northeast side: Martin Luther King, Thelma R. Parks, F.D. Moon and Edwards.

"We really do have good students," Hamilton said. "We do have some problems, but they really do try. We just have to take them where they are."

Students eat breakfast before school

More than 97 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunch because of low household income. For a family of four, the annual household income threshold for free lunch is about $29,000.

That means only about a dozen Edwards students out of 350 don't live in or near poverty.

The school pays for student supplies out of its general fund because administrators expect most families can't afford them.

"They don't have to worry about supplies," Hamilton said. "If you have five, six kids, that's a big chunk of money."

Boxes of tissue sat in Hamilton's office, ready for next year.

But teachers and staff at Edwards are quick to point out that their students still have the same expectations as any other children.

"Sometimes I think because of the kids' personal situations, the community thinks that impedes what they can do," said Carolyn Jones, a prekindergarten teacher.

For Jones, she still sets expectations for her children. But all the goals she set for the year were met in December, so her students plowed forward with more advanced work.

Poverty didn't matter.

"I don't think that's an excuse," Jones said. "They can still learn. There's nothing wrong with their brains. If you expect them to succeed, they do."

Staffing a school

Second grader Jeremiah Riley and his teacher Ms. Harrington in their class

At Edwards Elementary, teacher recruitment is harder than retention, Hamilton said.

"A lot of people don't want to come to the east side," Hamilton said. "But once they're here, they love it."

Teaching is a challenge anywhere, she said. Likewise, all students have needs. Those needs are just different in different parts of town. She looks for teachers who are caring and nonjudgmental.

"They need teachers to hold them to high expectations," Hamilton said. "Poverty, race, religion, nationality — you hold them all to the same standards."

Classrooms are packed and the pressure is intense, Hamilton said.

"The stress level is high," she said.

Some teachers are known as yellers. The students know who they are. Other teachers know who they are. Hamilton knows who they are.

"They should not be yelling and usually when they do I get a phone call," Hamilton said.

Sometimes volatile children are removed from classes to cut stress, Hamilton said.

"They know whose buttons to push," Hamilton said. "They can read us better than we can read ourselves."

Nevertheless, yelling isn't allowed, Hamilton said. Teachers are given a verbal warning, then a written reprimand and then finally put on a plan for improvement.

No teachers at Edwards are on a plan for improvement this year, Hamilton said.

"I have a good staff," Hamilton said. "Some people we have to work with."

The Faces of Webster Middle School

The newbie

Kimberly Dowdy

Kimberly Dowdy had to clear up a few things. The Ten Amendments weren't the same thing as the Ten Commandments, and it was the framers of the Constitution — not the farmers.

Once she had cleared up that confusion, her third-grade class was ready to practice. It was Wednesday morning, and their class was going to perform a rap about the Bill of Rights for the whole school on Friday.

They loved the idea. They folded their arms. They had swagger.

"I still can't hear the girls in the back," Dowdy said, smiling.

"Yeah!" the boys cried with excitement. "Come on!"

A girl with glasses belted out her line with pride: "Due process of law is given each time!" Everyone giggled.

This year was Dowdy's second as a teacher. She worked in sales and then decided to go back to college to become a teacher after she loved working as a substitute teacher in her daughter's school.

She took a big pay cut, but she doesn't regret it.

"It's something that's rewarding," she said.

Only 13 of Dowdy's 24 students she had this year began in her room in the fall.

Two of her students showed up at the end of April. Last year, she had a girl who came for the last week of school. She wasn't ready to move on to the next grade, but her family moved before the girl could be retained.

The revolving door can be frustrating at times, disheartening at others. Dowdy said she tries to do what she can while she has her students.

"I would rather work at this type of school," Dowdy said. "Here, they learn. They earn what they have. I like that. You feel like you make more of a difference."

The PTA President

Naomi Barnett's teacher called on her to read a passage out of the social studies book. The third-grader read a blurb with a picture of President Jimmy Carter volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity work site.

Naomi smiled, and her teacher asked if she wanted to tell the class about Habitat for Humanity.

"They build houses for people who need houses," Naomi told her class. "I'm getting a house from Habitat for Humanity."

Naomi and her family received the keys to that house less than two weeks ago. While she was excited to have a new home, Naomi said she'll miss her old school: Edwards Elementary.

"I'm sad to leave Edwards because I'm going to lose my old friends," Naomi said.

Naomi's mother, Stephanie Barnett, is sad to leave Edwards behind, too. She was the PTA president this year.

"Everybody knows everybody," said Barnett, a stay-at-home mother of three. "... It's a big family. I was accepted in immediately."

The Barnett family moved to Hope Crossing, a neighborhood of Habitat for Humanity homes in northeast Oklahoma City near N Kelley Avenue and E Wilshire Boulevard. They're moving from two bedrooms to four.

Their home was part of National Women's Build Week, a weeklong push for women's organizations to help construct Habitat for Humanity homes. Women from across the state, including State Superintendent Janet Barresi, helped build the Barnett home.

Even though Naomi is leaving her school behind, she's excited about the future.

"I didn't really want to move from my house because I'm used to it," she said, "but it's going to be exciting to have my own bedroom. ... My brother always messes up everything in my room."

The legacy

Kim Edwards

Kim Edwards is a big guy, and on a Monday afternoon in May, he was talking to a classroom of very small people at Edwards Elementary School.

"Crisscross applesauce, y'all," he said to a group of squirmy prekindergarten students. They sat cross-legged on the carpet, ready for the P.E. coach to get started. He reviewed the game plan: stretch, warm up and — if they behaved — go outside and play on the jungle gym.

The excitement was too much for a room full of 5-year-olds. They started their workout.

Calf raises turned into tiptoe teetering. Shoulder raises became adorable shrugging. Toe touches were an excuse to clap and count. Emergency shoe-ties were frequent.

The students ran in place and jumped whenever Edwards blew his whistle. When the drill was over, they were breathless and giggly.

This is Edwards's first year as an elementary school coach. He's a little gentler. He takes breaks to tie shoes.

"It's tough because you have to tell them five, six, seven times," he said. "I'm adjusting."

Before coming to Edwards, he coached middle school basketball at Oklahoma Centennial High School, where his teams only lost four games in his last three years. They went undefeated and won the All-City Conference title last year.

Edwards was a player himself. He won two state basketball titles as a player at New Lima in the late 1970s.

But coming to Edwards Elementary has been kismet for the coach. His cousin is Walter James Edwards, the man the school is named after, just like the surrounding neighborhood and a nearby park.

"He had a vision — a vision I don't think has been finished," Edwards said.

"It feels as though I'm fulfilling his legacy," Edwards said. "I'm sure he just wanted to make his contribution to education."

Northeast Oklahoma City is special to Edwards.

"Everything done in this community affects these kids," Edwards said. " ... They feel as though they're left behind and as if nobody cares. This is what they see."

He recently bought some commercial real estate and put it up for sale. He has 19 acres across Interstate 35 from the school, and nobody's interested. No calls. No lookers. Nothing.

"They fear the east side," Edwards said. "People don't want to take the chance."

He wants the property to sell to a company that will open a business and create jobs. Parents here don't have transportation, so they can't work across town, Edwards said.

"Until there are some advocates for urban renewal," he said, "these kids are going to live the way they're living."

The leader

Ronda Hamilton

On a Monday morning in mid-May, Principal Ronda Hamilton stood in the hub of Edwards Elementary, where the hallways meet like the spokes of a wheel.

Hugs came at her from all sides. She said good morning to everyone who passed by and then shifted to another hot spot: the cafeteria. She stood at the cafeteria doors, greeting students as they piled off the buses.

"You don't hit on people," she said to a first-grade girl. "You hear me? You keep your hands to yourself."

Another little girl walked past with a colorful scarf tied in her hair. "You got an Afro? Going back to the '70s? Looks good!"

She patted a boy on the shoulder: "I want to see you in class today — not in the hallways. Good choices, OK?"

The children who walk through her doors at Edwards don't choose where they live. They don't choose their parents or their circumstances. They don't choose whether they live in poverty.

However, they do choose how to act in school and what they'll learn that day. So Hamilton said she tries to know every child and encourage every one to do his or her best.

"They are just kids with the same wants and needs that every child has in life," Hamilton said. "They're just kids. At the end of the day, they're somebody's child."

The goal-setter

Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones does not use the word boo-boo. In her prekindergarten class, it's consequences. She doesn't have time for euphemism. Her kids need to learn real words.

"I'm not going to talk to them like 4-year-olds," said Jones, a first-year teacher at Edwards Elementary.

At the beginning of the year, her students arrived at school basically on par with other children their age, she said.

"They knew a couple of letters, a couple of sounds," she said. "They could count, sort of."

Now that the school year is over, nearly all are reading. They're learned to recognize many sight words and shapes. They're writing, though some letters are tough, like d and b or q and p. They can do basic addition and can count by 5s and 12s. They can read bar graphs.

"They're really smart," Jones said. "They're like sponges, so it's easy to push them."

Jones models her classroom expectations after Casady School, a private school in northwest Oklahoma City. Even though the families in her school can't afford the $11,430 annual tuition for full-time prekindergarten students at Casady, they deserve the same kind of education, she said.

"They deserve a private-school education in a public school," Jones said.

So that's what she tries to give them every day.

"I take a little joy in proving these kids can do stuff," Jones said.

The planner

Eugenia Kotey

Eugenia Kotey wants her students to be ready. She knows when her fifth-graders move on from Edwards Elementary to middle school, nobody's going to coddle them.

"It's important for them to get ready," Kotey said. "That's not where you go to learn to write. You should already know how to write."

Kotey emigrated from Ghana in 1985. She became a high school teacher, but when she started having children, she wanted to teach along with them as they grew.

She loves teaching fifth grade because students are beginning to hone their writing skills.

"We spend a lot of time on the writing process," Kotey said. "We realize there are a lot of kids who can read to you, but if you ask them to express their thoughts in writing, they can't. So we work on that."

Another thing she focuses on with her students is math. Mostly, math is a confidence issue for Kotey's students, she said. They don't know it, and so they think they'll never know it.

"Most of them don't know their multiplication and division facts, so it becomes difficult to do that," Kotey said.

So, free minutes in Kotey's class aren't that free. Her students spend time writing in their journals or practicing their multiplication tables.

The second-grader

Ce'Tara Leake

Ce'Tara Leake is quick to say what she loves about school: math, reading and jump rope. They're the best.

She needs a little help with social studies every now and then, but that's OK, she said. The second-grader just tries her best.

"Just do you," she said. "That's what I'm going to do. It just seems hard. I do me."

So how does Ce'Tara do Ce'Tara? Telling the truth, learning and helping friends and teachers, she said.

Last year she went to F.D. Moon Academy, an elementary school less than a mile away. She has three brothers — twin kindergartners and a first-grader — who also go to Edwards. "They're really irritating," she said, rolling her eyes.

Next year she'll go somewhere different, probably somewhere closer to her home in Del City, she said. She said she's excited to try a new school, but she'll miss her teacher, Linda Merriweather.

"She helps us learn more," Ce'Tara said, "and she lets us have a little fun."

The feeder

Jillian Mays

Jillian Mays knows her kids aren't going to be worried about math or social studies or science if they're hungry.

"I firmly believe that you've got to meet those basic needs before they can ever meet their academic needs," said Mays, a fourth-grade teacher at Edwards Elementary.

Mays worked for Midwest City-Del City before coming to Edwards two years ago.

At her old school, Mays helped coordinate the Food for Kids backpack program. It's organized and paid for by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Children who are chronically hungry receive backpacks full of kid-friendly food they can take home and eat during the weekend.

During the school year, Mays handed out anywhere from a dozen to 35 backpacks on any given Friday. Most of those students were identified by teachers. A few were on the list because parents ask for help.

"When a parent calls," she said, "we know it's pretty serious. We get them on immediately."

The dreamer

Linda Merriweather

Linda Merriweather was just a kid.

"I didn't know there was a war going on at Central," Merriweather said. "I'm so thankful I wasn't in that."

Merriweather, a second-grade teacher at Edwards Elementary, grew up in Little Rock, Ark., during the days of segregation.

The city became a national Civil Rights focal point when President Dwight D. Eisenhower took over the Arkansas National Guard and sent in the U.S. Army to escort nine black students into the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. Protests erupted. The city was in crisis.

But in Merriweather's home, all she knew was love and respect. Even as tension continued in the city when she went to school, Merriweather had black friends and white friends.

"I just don't even have that mindset," Merriweather said. "I just see people."

She carries that same philosophy to her classroom today.

"Everybody, they're all the same," Merriweather said. "They're just children. That's it."

On a warm Tuesday in May, she asked questions, and her students raised their hands with shaking fingers, desperate to answer. She called them by their last names — Miss Johnson, Mr. Martinez. She said she wants her children to know they can do whatever they aspire to in life.

"No matter what circumstances you're in, education can get you out," Merriweather said. "Do you want a better life than your mother has? The only way out is education."

The volunteer

James Shaw hasn't missed a day of school since he started in August. At 78 years old, he's not wasting retirement.

"If He let me live this long, it's for a reason," Shaw said.

Shaw is a volunteer at Edwards Elementary School, where his great-grandson is in kindergarten. He helps the staff and works with students. He knows students whose parents are on drugs or in jail. He said he sees teachers who have too many students in one class. So he shows up every day.

"I do it out of my heart because I see a need," Shaw said.

Shaw is retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force. He recently published a book, "Boley: Oklahoma's Famous Black town." And he spends time tutoring his great-grandson on reading.

He said he pushes the idea among friends and especially members of his church.

"I tell them we're talking the talking but we're not walking the walk," Shaw said. " ... A teacher can only do so much. The community has to do their part. The home has to do their part. We're relying on one person to do everything for every kid."

The cook

Vivian Thomas

Vivian Thomas isn't supposed to serve extras, but she's not worried about the rules when she sees the face of a hungry child looking back at her.

"Picture yourself behind that line," said Thomas, a cook at Edwards Elementary. "The kid's already late and he asks for another bowl of cereal. What would you do? ‘Here, baby.'"

A few kids come in late every day, Thomas said, and they can eat breakfast until lunch starts at 10:30. They take breakfast to-go sacks of cereal, juice and animal crackers to their classrooms. They grab milk from the cooler.

More than 97 percent of Edwards qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch because of low household income. That means only about a dozen students in the school don't qualify.

For a family of four, the annual household income threshold for free lunch is about $29,000.

"You never know that child's situation," Thomas said. "You don't know what's going on in their lives."

So when it comes to seconds, Thomas usually says yes.

"You've got to love what you do, and you've go to love who you're doing it for," Thomas said. "It kicks my heart right out of my chest when I hear them say, "Miss Vivian, that was good!'"

The investigator

What some adults see as a problem child, therapist Jackie Thornton can see as a child crying for help.

"This age group is not good at expressing their feelings," Thornton said.

She's one of two full-time therapists at Edwards Elementary who are funded by Public Strategies, a private company.

She meets with children, but she also offers family therapy with the parents. She works with parents or grandparents who need guidance for parenting at home. She hosts group therapy classes at night.

Five behavior specialists are in the school, too. The behavior specialists sit in the classroom and help teachers deal with behavior problems as they arise. Sometimes that means sitting next to a wiggly student who's bothering others. Other times that means taking a student out of the class.

But even with all the extra help, there's still not enough time, Thornton said.

She started with 22 student clients at the beginning of the year. In May, she had more than 60. Thirty others were on the wait list.

Students have lost grandparents. For some of them, the grandparent was the primary caregiver, so they bounce from relative to relative until someone decides to take them in.

The children Thornton sees have survived all kinds of traumas: placement into foster care, family death, neighborhood killings.

"It's hard to focus," Thornton said. "It's like their development is altered."

For example, one boy was acting up over and over in school. Eventually he opened up to her about being neglected by his foster parents, who were locking him in a room by himself every day.

He was moved to a safer home and given more intensive help. The change in his performance and behavior at school has been phenomenal, she said.

"He's just happy to be free," she said.

Solving behavior mysteries like that make the job worthwhile, Thornton said, because children are safer and happier for it.

"It's hard and rewarding at the same time," Thornton said. "It's hard not to take it home with you. That's just reality."

The team player

Marcia Williams told a classroom full of second-graders to put on their thinking caps.

Nearly all of the students smacked themselves on the tops of their heads.

The counselor floats around the classrooms at Edwards Elementary, teaching life skills.

On this day, she came to talk to second-graders about the connection between school and work and the connection between work and money.

"You are now in your first job," Williams said. "Your job is school. Your grades are your pay right now."

They brainstormed all the jobs in a school — counselor, secretary, teacher, principal, librarian, volunteer, janitor, cook, nurse. Bottoms bounced in chairs. Hands waved with excitement as they thought up more and more jobs.

"Our school is a community," said Williams, who has short blonde hair and rectangular glasses. "Every community needs workers."

Williams handed out a puzzle worksheet. Students cut out the pieces carefully, tongues out in deep concentration.

They put the pieces together, revealing a picture of a school and all its workers. That's how a school works, Williams said. That's how the real world works, too.

"When you leave outside the walls of this school, you're a part of this community," Williams said. "And our community needs to work together."

Edwards Elementary Gallery

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