Oklahoma City Schools - John Marshal - 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 one features John Marshall High School.

Share this on Facebook

ndepth series brought to you by newsok advertisers

It's Thursday morning, and Principal Aspasia Carlson discovers students waiting in the hallway outside a locked, dark room at John Marshall High School. She calls for temporary help and for a sub.

Then she calls the missing teacher.

"You need to let us know if you're going to be absent," Carlson said.

Students began to wander, and Carlson tried to herd them back to the room while listening to the absent employee explain why she didn't tell administrators she would be out the rest of the week.

A girl walked by and a word of her conversation popped out above the chatter: the n-word.

Carlson's eyes flashed with anger.

"What did you say?"

The girl listed excuses as Carlson had to respond to the absent teacher on the other end of the phone. She called after the girl. But her attention was split, and the missing employee won.

"Mrs. Carlson, don't say my name," the girl said as she turned her back to the principal and sauntered into the classroom.

By the time Carlson's phone call was over, the word was forgotten. More fires were burning. More problems were waiting.

Principal Aspasia Carlson stands in a lobby of John Marshall High School.
Principal Aspasia Carlson stands in a lobby of John Marshall High School.

The students

The students at John Marshall are like all teens — somewhere between childhood and adulthood. They wear braces and Buzz Lightyear backpacks. They have ear buds and eyebrow rings. It's Mohawks, tattoos and piercings, and it's Hello Kitty hair bows and Mario Bros. phone covers. A girl's shoulder tattoo peeked out from her shirt: "Only God can judge me."

Boys carry girls' books to class. Older students take younger ones under their wing in electives like drama and JROTC. They take field trips to leadership conferences and community service activities. They smile. They laugh.

Literature teacher Shelly Campbell works with student Dacember Traylor at John Marshall High School. Campbell was named the Oklahoma City Public Schools Teacher of the Year last year.

Some live with drug-addicted parents. They live on their own. They have children.

Some come from loving families who support and encourage them. Parents come to games and show up for teacher conferences.

Many bounce between schools. Only about half of the students who start the school year at John Marshall will finish there, according to Oklahoma City School District data.

Teachers help students work through their circumstances instead of using them as an excuse, English teacher Shelly Campbell said.

"They are oftentimes pawns in the hands of adults," Campbell said. "I understand that, but the real world doesn't. ... Ultimately, they have to live what's been dealt."

The statistics

About 1 in 4 students is identified as being a special education learner at John Marshall. Districtwide, only about 1 in 8 students is identified that way.

Not every Oklahoma City high school offers special education programs for students who are severely disabled, so many of them come to John Marshall, Carlson said.

Students are kind to their peers with special needs, said Tina Rickner, a special education teacher.

"Most of the time the kids are really pretty good," Rickner said. "Usually somebody will step up and say, ‘That's not cool.'"

On a busy Monday morning, a high school boy helped part the crowded halls so two students in wheelchairs could navigate more easily.

The ACT score here was 16.4 last year, below the state average of 20.7 and the national average of 21.1. The high school's API score was 844 out of 1500, according to district statistics. The state average was 1138.

But academic scores improve nearly every year, according to state test results.

Special education teacher Tina Rickner laughs with students in her classroom at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Special education teacher Tina Rickner laughs with students in her classroom at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.

"It's our job to give them the best education possible," Assistant Principal Warren Pete said. "Right now, they have it. I think they didn't have it before, but they have it now."

John Marshall offers Saturday school twice a month. Students can make up lost class time, prep for state tests or catch up on homework. A special activity bus takes students home who stay late for tutoring. Teachers come early and stay late. They answer texted questions at night and on the weekends.

"There are a lot of smart kids here," said senior Ashleigh Jackson. "If they had the opportunity and people to believe in them, they could be something great."

Fighting poverty

Upper classmen gather for lunch in the cafeteria at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Upper classmen gather for lunch in the cafeteria at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
John Marshall High School math teacher Cassi Yarbrough teaches her class in the hallway to help keep the students cooler while there was no air conditioning at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30 2012, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
John Marshall High School math teacher Cassi Yarbrough teaches her class in the hallway to help keep the students cooler while there was no air conditioning at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30 2012, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

About 84 percent of students 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.

"You can't really address a lot of the academic needs until you address the basic needs — food, shelter," said Carlson, the principal.

Sometimes she delivers food to students at their homes. She'll buy gas cards with her own money for families in crisis.

She recently dropped off groceries for one family with both parents in the hospital. She found dogs eating sliced bread on the porch. She came back the next day with some of her own dog food.

"There's so much of a need I can't imagine going anywhere else," Carlson said.

Some students wear the same clothes day after day. Some only eat at school.

When a new girl enrolled at John Marshall, Carlson slipped behind the cafeteria counters to point her out. She qualifies for free lunch, but her paperwork won't come through for a few more days. Carlson didn't want her to go hungry.

A storied past

John Marshall memorabilia on display at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
John Marshall memorabilia on display at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
John Marshall memorabilia on display at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
A John Marshall High School marching band uniform on display
A plaque of Clara Luper hangs in the Wall of Honor at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
A plaque of Clara Luper hangs in the Wall of Honor at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla.

The hallway outside of the gym is lined with trophy cases. The displays have jerseys from alumni who've gone on to professional football and basketball. A taxidermied bear is frozen in a growl.

The school has a celebrated history in Oklahoma City.

John Marshall has 33 state athletic championships, most recently back-to-back boys track titles in 2010 and 2011. It was where civil rights leader Clara Luper ushered in integration and finished her teaching career.

The old John Marshall High School was abandoned after a new, $25.5 million building went up a few miles west at 12201 N Portland Ave. The old building is a hulking, eerie shell at 9017 N University.

Parts of the new school opened while still under construction in 2006, and the entire building officially opened in 2007.

The new building wasn't ready to open, Carlson said, and neither were school leaders. Students were cramped and tensions were high.

"It used to be crazy," said James Schmidt, who is now a junior. "Back then, you didn't know what to expect each day. It was a very tense time."

The result was violence.

Fights broke out. Students were suspended and arrested. Officials assembled a task force. Parents passed around a petition to close the school. More than 170 students transferred out.

The community lost confidence, and the road back is long.

"At some point people need to look at us and see what we're doing now and not what happened in the past," Carlson said. "A school's not a building. We have different people than we had five years ago."

She sees it on Twitter. Her students see it on Facebook.

"My child got into whatever school. I'm so glad they don't have to go to John Marshall," she said, citing a social media post.

"The kids know what the community says," Carlson said. "We know what the community says."

Changing expectations

Carlson is the fourth principal of John Marshall since it opened in 2006. She was named interim principal when the previous leader resigned after the school board voted to put him on leave and considered firing him. Carlson was hired as the permanent principal in November.

"You can't make systemic changes if your leaders and their expectations keep changing," Carlson said.

Her predecessor was a yeller. The only time she yells is when trying to move students along.

"Let's go!" she shouts dozens of times a day. "Time for class!"

Discipline demands don't stop for Carlson or the other adults in the building.

Every bad behavior has to be investigated and weighed, Carlson said. Time out of school means time away from learning, and for students who are already behind, a few days out of class could tip the scales.

"I could make a life-altering decision for one of these kids," Carlson said. "You don't always get it right, but the first version of the story is not the whole story."

In one week, the school police officer was given a kitchen knife found in the bathroom and arrested a student who was found with a small amount of marijuana.

The same faces wander the hallways day after day. These students complain about everything — uniforms, going to class, listening to authority. They show up in the office over and over.

One girl was sent to the office before 8 a.m. on Tuesday. It was her first day back from suspension. She covered her eyes and groaned, "I'm ready to go home."

Suspended students even show up when they're supposed to be gone.

"They don't have anywhere else to go," Carlson said. "They don't have anyone at home."

A girl with pink hair showed up to school Monday morning even though she was suspended. As administrators tried to work out the logistics of how to get her back home, she walked the halls and talked on her cell phone.

"I'm already kicked out, so I might as well act a fool, right?" the girl said.

Discipline challenges

A boy in a white collared shirt flashed gang signs on his way to the gym. Other students laughed at him and told him to stop.

Some students bring gang affiliations with them to school, either from their neighborhoods or their families, Carlson said.

"We just want to make sure it's taken care of as much as possible," she said.

That's why Monday morning was swift.

The hallways were quiet, except for the clack and echo of Carlson's high heels.

The principal escorted a student back to her office. She would have to suspend the boy for suspected gang activity, even though it was only words, just three hours into the school week.

Two boys had gotten into a shouting match in class, threatening each other. The teacher yanked one into the hall and left the other inside to fume. Carlson, the on-campus policeman and the two assistant principals circle up around the boy in the hall.

"It's some kind of gang stuff," the teacher said, exasperated, "and I won't have it in my room!"

This is what people expect of John Marshall.

Sometimes, it's what happens. Most times, it isn't.

Life inside this high school is complex, just like the needs of its students and the demands of its staff.

The odds predict some of these students will fail. But the adults in their classrooms and hallways expect they won't.

"All kids need structure," Carlson said. "When kids have clear expectations, they can reach those expectations."

The Faces of John Marshall

The Dancer

Bria Allen

Hurricane Katrina forced Bria Allen and her family out of New Orleans.

Allen and her family were on the road for a few months before landing in Oklahoma City, where a few of their relatives live. Allen enrolled as a seventh-grader at John Marshall.

"To leave your life on short notice, it's hard to deal with," Allen said.

After the waters subsided, the Allens returned to see their home on Morrison Road. Everything was ruined.

"I'm just glad we didn't stay," Allen said. "The water was up to the ceiling. If we stayed, we would have died."

Allen, now a junior, finds joy, solace and inspiration in dance.

"Dance is something I love," Allen said. "I never knew I had it in me to choreograph, but I did. ... It feels so good."

The Airman

Lt. Colonel Paul Bianch

The cadets stood at attention in ironed uniforms and shiny shoes. Wednesday means members of the Air Force Junior ROTC program are in uniform and ready to practice drills at John Marshall High School.

Lt. Col. Paul Bianchi ran a drill with them where they practiced shouldering rifles before marching off in formation.

"First element — boom," he said. "That's all it is. That's all it's ever been."

Students love to practice drills, like marching in formation or tossing rifles.

"They like the discipline," he said. "They like the teamwork."

Bianchi stepped aside with one of his older students to teach her how to toss her rifle.

"Did you just flip your gun?" her friend asked, impressed.

"It's a fancy right shoulder," she said, smiling. "I'm still getting the hang of it."

Bianchi hopes to build confidence and independence in his students, even though he knows the vast majority won't enlist in the military, he said.

"My whole purpose for being here is to instill character and self-discipline and expose them to service to others," Bianchi said. "That's the whole bottom line — to prepare them to be better Americans."

Bianchi expects discipline, and not every student will be allowed to enroll in the program again next year.

One boy sat off by himself and watched the rest of the class. He wasn't in uniform. He has mentally checked out and hasn't participated for weeks, Bianchi said. He's tried everything: encouraging, scolding, taking points off in class.

"At some point," he said, "it's their choice."

The Teacher of the Year

Teacher of the Year

Students huddle up in small groups and scribble out sentences to read in front of the class.

"Nate Robinson won the dunk contest in spite of his height," a boy read aloud.

English teacher Shelly Campbell praised him in her warm, clear voice. Her class is practicing contrasting transitional words for their essays. Conversely. On the other hand. However. In spite of.

"There's school going on here," Campbell said after class. "I expect them to learn. I expect them to go to school. I expect them to do great things."

Campbell has taught for 17 years — all at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City. She was named the district Teacher of the Year last year.

She knows there are students who live within the boundaries of John Marshall who choose not to come to her school.

Campbell has seen families who've chosen private school over John Marshall out of fear. Some choose private schools as a status symbol.

"That leaves the impression that we're not good enough for our kids, and we are," Campbell said.

The students who remain work hard in Campbell's classes, she said, even though some struggle outside the classroom. Some are homeless. Some haven't seen their parents for days. Some are hopping from bed to bed. Most work, many to support their families.

"I try to be understanding of that," she said, "but I never let them use it as an excuse. I think that's what people think we allow."

The leader

Principal Aspasia Carlson

Aspasia Carlson's college diploma leans against the wall instead of hanging from it. A few unpacked boxes sit against the walls.

She's been the principal of John Marshall High School for nearly six months, but there's too much else to do. No time for lunch. No time for decorating. No time for sitting.

Carlson wakes up at 4:45 a.m. and makes it to school long before students arrives. She works 12 hours — sometimes 15 — nearly every day of the week. She does it in heels and with every hair in place in a tight ponytail.

“It's hard,” said Carlson, 41. “It's really hard. I could be here 24/7. There would still be work to do.”

Carlson has only missed four days of school this year.

She took a trip to Seattle for a stem cell transplant for her brother, who has cancer. He's been fighting Hodgkin lymphoma for two years. Carlson was a transplant match — the only one in her family.

She had injections in the stomach and took medicine to prep her body. All of her blood was cycled through a machine to pull out her extra stem cells.

When she got back to Oklahoma, she went right back to work.

“Really,” she said, “you're supposed to stay home.”

She was in a slower gear for a few days, but she had to be at John Marshall: “Some days are really, really hard, but I love my job.”

The Mentor

Choir Director Denise Caton

When Brandy Clark came in to interview for her job as a drama teacher, her old choir director was sitting in the room.

"She gave me the eyebrow just like she did when I was in school," Clark said.

Denise Caton has been teaching for 35 — the past 27 at John Marshall High School. She got that raised eyebrow from her mother.

"I don't have very many discipline problems in my class," Caton said.

Several of Caton's former students have returned to John Marshall as teachers and staff members.

Caton is a combination of task master and jokester.

Caton played piano for her students' warm-up in advanced choir. When they started into rehearsal, the choir spiraled into confusion on a new song.

"Nope, nope, nope," Caton said and she took her hands off the keyboard. "Train wreck."

She went around the room and gave advice, like "Don't rest on it like a dead elephant," and "Gentle on that S. I don't want you to sound like a hissing snake."

That's how she is with her fellow teachers, and Clark said she still relies on Caton as a mentor. She remembers one day when Caton stopped by Clark's room to offer advice. "I'm not done learning from you," Clark said.

Caton replied: "I'm not done teaching."

The Graduate

John Marshall High School drama teacher Brandy Clark shows students how to prepare a wig for an upcoming production at John Marshall High School on Friday, March 30, 2012, in Oklahoma City, Okla. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

Brandy Clark doesn't accept excuses. She's lived her students' lives. She knows poverty. She knows racism. She also knows what is possible.

This is the first year Clark has taught at John Marshall. High School, the school she graduated from in 2000.

“I came from the exact same circumstances,” Clark said. “My mom was on drugs. My dad had a bunch of kids he didn't take care of.”

Clark's mom bounced the family back and forth between California and Oklahoma. Her stepdad never kept a job. She survived abuse. One brother was in a gang. Her two younger brothers were sent to foster care. Her message to her students is clear: “If I can do it, you can do it.”

She was the first in her family to go to college. When Clark arrived on the campus of Oklahoma City University, she met students from suburban and private schools. She went from a high school full of black students to a college campus full of whites.

“I thought they were smarter than me,'” Clark said.

But they weren't. She was just as smart and just as capable.

“It's nice if you have more money and more supplies, but it's what you do,” Clark said.

She graduated and went on to teach in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Dallas. Then she came home to John Marshall. Now she reminds her students that they can succeed, no matter what hand life has dealt.

“This is my school,” Clark said. “I came out of this.”

The Senior

Student Ashley Clark

Ashley Clark's eyes darted back and forth as she read "The Joy Luck Club." She knew a quiz was coming, and she wanted to spend some extra time going over the text.

Clark, 18, is a good student. She'll graduate in May, and she plans to go to college to study business in the fall.

Clark has attended John Marshall since it opened, when she was in seventh grade.

"It was very different at first," Clark said. "It was disorganized at first. We changed principals every two years, basically. It's better now."

Clark said she's seen a change in the time she's been at John Marshall. The school day is more organized. The students are calmer. The fights have subsided. And the teachers are better.

"The teachers, they're more helpful," Clark said. "If you need help, they're willing to help you. If you have a problem, you can talk to anybody."

The Cadet

Student Kevin Dockens

Kevin Dockens wasn't the best student, but things are different now.

"I want to graduate and go to college," Dockens said. "I don't want to be stuck here and be in the street."

Dockens, a junior at John Marshall High School, spent his middle school years at Classen School of Advanced Studies. He earned his spot at the school for his singing talent. But he stumbled in math class.

"Sometimes I didn't understand it," said Dockens, 16. "But sometimes I didn't want to do the homework. That was the first class I ever failed."

He decided to come back to John Marshall for a fresh start. His best friend told him to straighten up and study. Enough playing around. Then Dockens happened to enroll in a class that had just what he needed: discipline.

"I thought it was going to be an easy A, but it's more than that," Dockens said.

He learned he was in charge of his own success. He joined the wrestling and football teams. He even went to a leadership academy this summer in Wichita Falls, Texas.

"You can get the same education in any school you go to," he said.

The Advocate

Tina Duenas

Some students need alarm clocks, and it's the job of Tina Duenas to figure that out.

She's the parent liaison at John Marshall High School.

Duenas' job is to fill in the gaps. She helps students who need food, uniforms, school supplies or gas money. Sometimes she helps them find ways to pay their electricity bills. Some need tutoring because they can't study with two families crammed into one apartment.

And occasionally, she'll give a student an alarm clock.

If a student misses the bus all the time or comes into school late in the mornings, Duenas tries to decipher what's really going on. Sometimes it's something as simple as the family cannot afford to buy a clock.

"You've got to get inventive," Duenas said. "If it's stopping you, it's important to us."

Duenas grew up in a home where education wasn't valued. Her mother wasn't educated, so she only demanded her children earn a D or better.

"I was in Oklahoma City Public Schools," she said. "I didn't like school. I didn't care for school."

Duenas finished high school, but she wants more for her children and the children at John Marshall.

"We expect the best out of the students," Duenas said. "...We've got a lot of wonderful children here. If they come here, they can get a great education. Our goal is to set them up for college."

The mathematician

Billie England

"OK my babies, OK my darlings, OK my sweetie pies."

John Marshall High School math teacher Billie England settles down her class and starts in on her lesson.

Students calculate volume on the marker board as part of a state test review. It's a game England plays. Each corner of her room represents one of the multiple-choice answers on a state practice test. Students work the problem and then move to the corner they think represents the right answer. The class is almost always divided.

England weaves around the desks, peeking over students' shoulders. She pats a few on the shoulder. Her goal is to call on or physically touch every kid every hour.

"Kids have a tendency to melt into the wall," England said. "You can't just let those kids go unnoticed."

England wants her students to do well on state tests, but she also wants to prep them for life. Some of her students come from loving homes; others don't. She works at John Marshall because she wants to help them.

"They need me," England said. "I don't know what to say. I guess I need them, too."

Just as the students debated the answer to an equation, the bell rang.

"Clean it up," she said. "Go away. Love you. See you Monday."

The Coach

Track Coach James Hall

The John Marshall High School track team worked through warm up lunges and skips. They stretched in the warm sun. Coach James Hall passed through them: "Spikes on, spikes on, spikes on."

He spotted a girl drinking out of a Styrofoam cup.

"I know she is not," he said under his breath. "What is that?"

She reassures her coach she's drinking water — not soda — so he can calm down.

Hall is a sprinter, and sprinters are what he's cracking out. Hall has coached at John Marshall for two years, but this is his first as head coach. The school has a legendary track program that even he had heard about growing up in Fort Worth, Texas.

He doesn't necessarily want a bunch of runners — just the dedicated ones. That's how track meets are won.

"You give me five guys that want it and want to work," he said. "You can do it."

The team moved over to the starting lines for practice. The girls huddled up to pray. They ask for safety and good work ethic.

Hall lined up the boys first. They had 45 seconds to get around the track as far as they could. "Mark. Set. Go!" he shouted. "Get out and go!"

The boys shot around the turns and Hall ran down the football field inside the track. He shouted out challenges to push harder, go faster.

Hall remembers what it was like on the track. He was a five-time All-American sprinter at Oklahoma Baptist University and was part of the OBU national championship team in 2007. But a torn hamstring cut his career short.

He tries to pass his love for running on to his students, but he knows they look at him for more than that.

"They're looking at you even if you don't think they are," Hall said. "You're not just a role model on the track and in class. You're a role model all the time."

The Cheerleader

Ashleigh Jackson

Some mornings when Ashleigh Jackson wakes up, her hands are clenched shut.

The senior at John Marshall High School was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in February, and she's trying to learn everything she can about the disease.

One thing she's discovered is that her diet can affect flare-ups. Now she plans to study nutrition at the University of Oklahoma.

"I want to help people like me," said Jackson, 17.

But Jackson stays active despite her arthritis. She's a cheerleader. She's ranked No. 6 in her class. She's on the student council. She takes honors classes. She's grateful to attend John Marshall.

"We have a lot of smart kids," Jackson said. "There are a lot of good people, good teachers."

The Outsider

Business Teacher Sharon Marker

Sharon Marker nodded her head as she watched two high school students demonstrate salsa dancing for the rest of the class.

"These are a bunch of kids wanting to have the good old high school experience," said Marker, a third-year teacher at John Marshall High School.

Before coming here, Marker was a corporate trainer for a mobile phone company.

"I was prepared for the worst, and I was like, ‘What is this?'" she said. "These kids are great."

Marker teaches business and computer classes. She also helps out two days a week with the ballroom dance program, which is funded with grant money.

She sat on a bleacher in the gym and watched the students practice their steps. The dance instructors took a break to talk about the word of the day. This day, the word was compassion.

Marker said she wished the community would have more compassion for her kids.

"Some of our kids, they know it," Marker said. "They know they're stereotyped as a bad school."

The registrar

Registrar Candace Porter

Candace Porter's office is a revolving door.

The registrar at John Marshall High School processes student enrollment and withdrawal paperwork every day, even in the waning weeks of spring.

"It's sad," Porter said. "It makes me sad for the kids."

The Oklahoma City School District has a 43 percent mobility rate, which means that about 43 percent of students don't spend the entire school year at the same school.

At John Marshall, the mobility rate is even higher — about 53 percent. Half of the students who came to class the first day of school won't be there on the last day.

Jumping into school mid-year can be academically tough on new students, Porter said. Some can catch up with online programs. Some quit.

"It's difficult — very difficult — to overcome," Porter said. "It makes it very difficult to fill in the gaps for those students."

The Shepherd

Special Education Teacher Tina Rickner

Students carefully folded paper airplanes in Tina Rickner's special education class. State testing was a few weeks away and she was reviewing practice questions with them. This practice question asked what tool you would use to measure how far a paper airplane flew. A ruler, they answered.

She moved on to the next question: what tool do you use to measure volume?

"Are we measuring sound?"

"Pump up the volume."

Rickner brought them back to task and talked about what the word volume means.

Rickner teaches at John Marshall High School, where about 1 in 4 students is identified as special ed.

Many students come from other high schools because those schools don't have the special education programs John Marshall does, said Rickner, who's been teaching at the school for 14 years.

Rickner and another teacher share about 20 students. Two other classrooms are filled with students with disabilities labeled "severe and profound." Some need feeding tubes. Some wear diapers.

Rickner's students learn all the basic subjects, like science and social studies. The more severely disabled learn things like colors and shapes. She and the other teachers try to focus on life skills as well.

"We do a lot of letting them talk, letting them socialize, because they don't always interact with the other students," Rickner said.

One sunny Friday afternoon, Rickner and the other special education teachers took their classes out to a courtyard for a picnic.

A senior girl with severe disabilities crawled across the lawn. One of Smith's co-workers unfolded a blanket on the grass and told them this girl didn't get to go outside very often at home.

She guided the girl across the ground and onto the blanket.

The teacher kissed the girl on the forehead and let her play on the lawn. The girl smiled and turned her face to the sun.

The singer

Student James Schmidt

James Schmidt remembers what John Marshall High School was like when it first opened in 2006.

"It used to be crazy," said Schmidt, 16. "Back then, you didn't know what to expect each day. It was a very tense time."

When he showed up as a sixth-grader, the school was in chaos, he said. School construction wasn't finished, so students were packed shoulder to shoulder in half the space.

But things are different now. The entire building is finished. The tension is gone. Some of the teachers have gone and new ones have come in.

"If you'd seen it over the course of time, you know it's getting better," Schmidt said.

Schmidt, now a junior, has found his place at John Marshall. He loves to work as the school's theater tech, adjusting the lighting and sound for rehearsal and performances. He shows younger students the ropes. He's also an accomplished singer. He credits his choir director, Denise Caton.

"She's my main inspiration for singing," Schmidt said. "She's helped me every step of the way."

The veteran

Dance Teacher Sherri Smith

Girls scurried on and off the auditorium stage in the dark.

The big end-of-the-year dance show was the next day, and John Marshall High School dance teacher Sherri Smith was still reminding them not to talk or giggle between numbers.

Smith doesn't get nervous when she performs, but she does when her students do.

"You just work them and pray that everything goes well," she said, laughing.

Teachers fill a lot of roles for their students, Smith said, like nurse, parent and counselor.

"I love to teach," Smith said, "but I'm getting worn."

Smith's daughter attends an Oklahoma City elementary school. After elementary school, Smith said she'd send her daughter to private school if she could afford it.

"Life has changed since I went to school," Smith said. "People have changed."

The athletic director

Bruce Troxell

Bruce Troxell shouted down the hall in the booming voice of a coach: "Where are you supposed to be?"

The ocean of students shuffled to class before the tardy bell rang. The 6-foot-1 athletic director ambled down the hallway, encouraging kids to move along.

Troxell knows what people think of his students.

"It's a wrong perception," he said. "Do we have some things to work on? You bet."

Troxell has been at John Marshall High School for five years, but he's been all over the state — Apache, Woodward, Anadarko, Wagoner, Chickasha.

When students don't behave well, it's reflected on a school's sports schedule, Troxell said. Schools don't want to travel to places with horrible fans or bad sports. Officials don't want to invite students to play on their fields if they're destructive.

And colleges don't want those students on their teams.

That isn't a problem for John Marshall teams.

"We've got a lot of universities walking through here wanting our athletes," Troxell said.

The exchange student

Student Maela Valbert

Maela Valbert discovered something she loves about her new school in America: multiple choice.

She's an exchange student from Rennes, France, and in her hometown, multiple choice isn't an option on exams. Everything is essay. Multiple choice questions have been helpful for someone who is still learning English.

"Even if you didn't learn, you can find a word you've seen," said Valbert, who is classified as a junior.

Making friends was tough because of the language barrier, but students have been kind to her, Valbert said. The interaction with teachers has been good, too.

Teachers and administrators are stricter in France, but adults here are more open.

"In France, we're writing everything," said Valbert, 16. "Here, it's more oral. Here it's better because you can ask your teacher anything."

The transfer

Brandi Wood

Brandi Wood didn't like the way things were going at John Marshall High School, so she got out.

Wood, now a senior, spent her junior year at Putnam City North High School. The academics were just as tough there as at John Marshall, but a lot of her fellow students didn't think too highly of where she came from.

"John Marshall is not as bad as they think," Wood said. "It's a regular school with regular kids. To me, it's a great school."

After a year away, she decided to come back to John Marshall for her senior year, especially for the dance program. With a new principal, the school has improved, Wood said. She knows she's where she should be.

"They don't think it's a great school," Wood said. "To me, it's a great school just like any other school."

John Marshall Photo Gallery

Comment on this story

Leave your thoughts and comments on the first part of this three part series taking an in depth look at the life and culture inside Oklahoma City schools