It was Thursday morning, and about a dozen teachers at Webster Middle School snapped on rubber gloves, looking a little bewildered.
"We've had two students go down," Assistant Principal Joey Slate said.
Slate gave the game plan: search everywhere on campus.
"I've been here four years, and nothing like this has ever happened," one woman said.
Two boys were suspected of smoking marijuana, taking Xanax and coming to school. One passed out in the hallway; another blacked out during class. An ambulance with flashing lights was parked in front of the school.
Students were kept in their second-hour classes while teachers checked in trash cans and behind doors, in bushes and under doormats.
A girl with a hall pass was turned back on her way to the restrooms. A few moments later, an announcement squawked out of the intercom: no bathroom breaks and no trips to the water fountain until further notice.
After everything was checked, the teachers came back to the office.
"Thank you for your help," Slate said. "Nobody found anything. Keep your ears open. Kids talk."
For the rest of the day, anybody out of class without reason would be in trouble. Anyone found in out-of-bounds areas would be immediately suspended.
The incident was the talk of the school the rest of the day. Some teachers switched lesson plans and talked about how drugs affect the brain. Other discussed how drug use affected their families or friends.
Math teacher Kylah Fisk silenced rumors and whispers in one of her afternoon classes.
"We're all safe," she said. "Don't do anything stupid. Don't do anything your parents wouldn't approve of, and we'll all be good. Until we all have facts, we're going to talk about math."
Webster Middle School is a melting pot of ethnicities. About half of the student population is Hispanic, a quarter is white and a quarter is black. But social cliques don't split along color lines at the school, 6708 S Santa Fe.
Kids power through their lunches and head for the door, out to the empty acreage behind the building to socialize or play sports. The tables clear within minutes.
For now, most of the students are still in a time of transition. Some teens still look like elementary school students; others are taller than their teachers. They borrow quarters to buy M&M's. They have Mohawks and facial piercings.
For this age group, "life-or-death" moments happen many times a day.
"Omigod, Alex," one girl gasped, as a friend handed her a worksheet during first hour Monday morning. "You just saved my life!"
In the same room, a moth flitted above a group of girls. "Eew," one girl squealed as she jumped out of her chair. "I'm going to die!"
About 94 percent of Webster Middle School 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. A food pantry behind Principal Brad Herzer's office is stocked with peanut butter, beans and packaged meals.
The student body is also very mobile, Herzer said. Families drift from school to school, district to district. Only about half of the students in the building were there on the first day of school, according to district statistics.
One student tried to enroll last month. The 14-year-old hadn't been in school for more than a year, and he hadn't completed the sixth grade. His parents had been homeless at one point.
"Where do I place him?" Herzer asked.
If they stay in the area, most students will go on to Capitol Hill or Southeast high schools, Herzer said. A few are looking to transfer out to other Oklahoma City high schools, where specialized freshman academies offer students the chance to pursue fields such as finance and engineering.
About 45 percent of students were Hispanic during the last school year. About 38 percent were Hispanic in the 2006-07 academic year.
There's only one teacher for those 141 students.
But regardless how well Spanish-speaking students know English, they still have to take the same tests as their peers, said Martha Pierce, the lone English as a Second Language teacher.
"The hard part of this is they are at different levels," Pierce said. "We've got to move fast. It's overwhelming to them sometimes."
The number of Hispanic students has grown steadily during the past five years, according to district statistics.
About 45 percent of students were Hispanic during the last school year. About 38 percent were Hispanic in the 2006-07 academic year.
Throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools, about 1 in 3 students speak Spanish at home, according to district statistics.
Non-English speakers can squeak by in other classes because they are verbally fluent in English, said Rose Miranda, the school's Spanish teacher, and an immigrant.
"When they go back into their homes," she said, "it's Spanish. They speak (English) fluently but they can't read or write."
Some of those Spanish-speaking students sat in a language arts class before the bell rang, talking in a blur of English and Spanish. When class began, they quieted down and didn't say much for the rest of the hour. They sat outside of the discussion, and the teacher rarely made her way to their side of the room.
Before school Tuesday morning, Herzer sat at a table with some of his teachers, discussing curriculum and state testing. He propped his Oakleys on top of his head as he reviewed how state officials would evaluate Webster this year on the new A-F scale.
"Right now, we're at a 1.67, 1.68," Herzer said. "If there's any way our growth factor could be a C, we could get a C for the school. That would be really good."
Posters dotted with colored stickers line the walls. Each poster represents a state test, and each sticker represents a student.
A quick scan shows how students are doing: a third are average, a third are below average and a third are far below average.
The posters have a few blue dots, representing students who scored above average.
When Herzer arrived at Webster in December 2010, he started focusing on two groups: the kids who were behind and the kids who could excel.
Students struggling in math or English now spend two class hours a day in those subjects.
The number of high school classes offered at the school was bumped up from one to five. Of the 200 eighth-graders, 117 are enrolled in at least one high school-level course, Herzer said.
Adding high school classes motivated the more advanced students, said Slate, the assistant principal.
"It changed the way the students felt about their school," he said.
It's Monday morning, and a boy was sent home before the first bell rang.
He set off the metal detector, but when he was asked to take off his shoes, he refused. A staff member told him to take off his shoes or go home. The boy left.
A teacher tossed another boy's jacket like she was fluffing a pillow — searching for contraband — as the boy passed through the metal detectors.
He collected his things and moved along to first hour.
Middle school students account for nearly half of all disciplinary actions in Oklahoma City Public Schools, according to district data.
"A lot of the kids we had at Capitol Hill that were discipline problems were from Webster," Herzer said.
"They didn't have a lot of structure. That's one thing I've focused on — structure."
But to have order, Herzer had to change the atmosphere of the school. That meant cutting out yelling, sarcasm and rudeness.
"We've changed the culture a lot since I've been here," Herzer said. "One thing I've kind of demanded is the kids respect the adults in the building, and, by the same token, I expect the staff to respect the kids."
The kids know Herzer means business, and they like him. The older students have seen the change since the principal arrived a year and a half ago.
This year has been Brandi Woods's favorite at Webster Middle School. Her sixth-grade year wasn't so great, she said. Students fought often, and the atmosphere was intimidating.
"After Mr. Slate and Mr. Herzer came, they set goals for us and things changed," said Brandi, now an eighth-grader.
The fights have stopped, said Tiffany Tolson, a seventh-grader. The school is getting better.
"We usually have a pretty bad rap," Tiffany said, "but we're improving. It looks rough from the outside."
Herzer brought change, and there's another change on the way for his students and staff.
After this year, he is leaving.
This month, the school board voted to hire him as the new principal of Northwest Classen High School.
"My goal is to keep advancing in the district," Herzer said. "That's one of the next steps. There's a progression in any job. ... It's not that I don't enjoy the kids I work with. I love the kids."
Last year, things weren't going so well for Taylor Dunn.
She was in seventh grade at Jefferson Middle School about two miles away. She didn't live within the school's boundaries, but her parents were scared to send her to Webster Middle School, she said. They'd heard bad things.
But district officials found out Taylor wasn't where she was supposed to be, so she started this year as an eighth-grader at Webster.
"My parents thought this would be a bad school because of all the stuff said about it," said Taylor, 14. "It's a good school. It's actually helped me."
Her grades shot up from mostly F's to A's, B's and C's. She's made friends easily. Her teachers have helped her catch up, she said.
"It's a better environment for me," Taylor said.
Eighth-grader Jonathan Elizondo is looking forward to high school, even though he'll be going across town every day to get there.
Jonathan is the only member of his class to be accepted to Classen School of Advanced Studies, a magnet school in northwest Oklahoma City that nearly 500 students applied to this year.
For now, Jonathan is playing on a saxophone borrowed from Webster. He hopes to get his own before he starts high school. He's the only saxophone player in the band.
When he gets to Classen next year, he won't be the only musician. He'll be surrounded by other kids like him, he said.
"I like competition," said Jonathan, 14. "If I go there, it's going to be a race to see who can get the best scores. The students are why I'm going."
Chelsea Epperley's competitors weren't sure what to think of her.
"The boys would look at me and be like, ‘That's a girl, bro!'" she said, laughing.
That's what happens sometimes when you're the only girl on the school wrestling team.
Some boys wouldn't wrestle her when they went to tournaments. Chelsea, an eighth-grader, said she doesn't know why she was avoided. But her teammates supported her and told her to keep going to practice and keep showing up at tournaments. She'd get her chance.
"They never let me give up," said Chelsea, 14.
She was pinned in her first match.
"If you get pinned, you think, ‘I can get him next time,'" Chelsea said. "You can never put yourself down."
And then next time she wrestled that boy, she did pin him.
Chelsea said she's proud she broke some gender stereotypes at her school.
"Everybody thought wrestling is a boys' sport — girls can't do it," Chelsea said. "But when it comes down to it, girls can do anything."
Kylah Fisk wasn't good at math. In fact, it was the most difficult class she had in school.
That's why she became a math teacher.
“It was the most difficult subject,” Fisk said. “It's so easy to get math teachers that are so brilliant with it. ... I remember struggling with it, so it makes it easier for me to relate to them.”
Before coming to Webster Middle School, she taught high school in Houston. She wanted to move to Oklahoma City to be close to her mother, who has health problems. Fisk was hired after a Skype interview with the principal.
Nearly 30 students were packed into one of Kylah Fisk's Algebra I classes at Webster Middle School. Everyone was sweating as the broken air conditioner wheezed lukewarm air.
Fisk was prepping her Algebra I class for the end-of-instruction exam, also called EOIs. Oklahoma students have to pass four of seven EOIs before they are allowed to graduate from high school.
“Let's go,” Fisk said as the class settled in. “Our time's running super short. We've got to go.”
It's Wednesday morning, and students begin lining up for Michael Frazier's class at the end of a dead-end hallway.
They're rowdy and loud, wrestling and pretending to punch each other in the face.
Frazier walks up, mug in hand, and they settle down. He parades them to the end of the hall, through the double doors and out into a courtyard.
Their class is sequestered — a converted storage room out back segregated from the rest of the Webster Middle School student body.
Frazier's room is one of the quietest in the building.
A dozen students in sixth through eighth grades are in his alternative education class for students who are truant, defiant or misbehaved. But honestly, Frazier said, he doesn't much care why they end up in his outpost.
“When they come in to me, they come in with a clean slate,” he said. “I don't read referrals.”
The students are a blend of tattoos and Mickey Mouse shoes, hair ribbons and piercings. The few minutes between classes are the hardest for many of them; getting in fights or causing a ruckus is tempting during those few chaotic moments.
About half of Frazier's students go home after lunch because spending time in electives is too risky.
“I've had some success stories and some losses, you might say,” he said.
“The majority of these kids are not as bad as the stigma put upon them.
“Some of them are pretty good kids, and they took a step in the wrong direction.”
Students in Janet Garrett's seventh-hour English class read “The Hunger Games” aloud.
The book is told from the perspective of heroine Katniss Everdeen. She comes from District 12 — the poorest, the disrespected, the underdogs.
State testing is over for the year and Garrett is letting her class finish out the year with a new book that still challenges them.
“We've had so many good discussions,” said Garrett, who has bright red hair and a smattering of freckles across her face. “Like, when is war and violence OK? Would you sacrifice yourself or would you let the other person give up their life? ... Is it ever OK to steal?”
Students have hammered out their beliefs as they explain their positions to classmates, Garrett said.
“You do get to see where they're coming from,” she said, “and that gives you a lot of insight into their backgrounds.”
Many boys in Sherman Henry's gym class have never thrown a baseball.
The coach at Webster Middle School starts with the basics because he knows many of his kids have never played Little League or thrown a football.
“I like helping the underdog kids,” Henry said. “These guys like a little discipline and guidance.”
When Henry started working at Webster in 1985, the surrounding neighborhoods were mostly white, he said.
“It's been a change over the years,” he said, “but the kids are the same. They're looking for discipline.”
Not all parents were used to their children being in class with a black teacher. Some demanded their boys be pulled from Henry's class and put in with the other coach, who had classes in the same gym as Henry at the same time.
Then those parents discovered the other boys' gym coach was black, too.
Over the years, the student population has changed and race has become less of an issue. About half of Webster's students are Hispanic, a quarter are white and a quarter are black.
Students don't leave Henry's class any more.
“I'm a disciplinarian,” he said, “but I love these kids, too.”
It was the Monday after the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, and Principal Brad Herzer had finished the 13.1-mile half-marathon.
It was his week to teach the seventh-grade leadership class; he rotates with other school administrators.
This class full of 13-year-olds hadn't been born when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Herzer instructed his students to research the bombing and the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
Al Gore, who was vice president at the time, visited Webster Middle School about a year after the bombing.
Gore helped plant a tree in honor of students' relatives who died because of the blast.
The Bradford pear still grows out front, though branches have broken through the years.
Now, Herzer floated from student to student. Google image searches bring up pictures of the crumbling building, the Survivor Tree and Timothy McVeigh's face.
A girl with a short ponytail and a backpack swung around in her chair. “Who bombed it?”
“That's something you need to find out,” Herzer said.
Chris Horn is proud his son is a student at Webster Middle School. Horn went here himself.
“Oklahoma City Public Schools, they're good,” said Horn, who graduated from Southeast High School in 1979. “They just need a little more hands-on help.”
Horn joined the PTA last year, when the group really wasn't even having meetings. Now he's the president.
The group has about a dozen members, maybe a few more, including a couple teachers and students. Horn has started having morning meetings and evening meetings to accommodate working parents. Dues are $5 a year.
“They want to be involved,” said Horn, who is a maintenance worker for the Salvation Army. “I see lots of parents. It's hard to work, be up here and be motivated. For these kids, a few parents don't care, but a majority do.”
Horn said he'd especially like to see more fathers involved with their children and the school. After a divorce, Horn has been a single father for two years.
“I've always been involved in my son's programs,” Horn said. “I've always been supportive of the schools.”
Knee surgery ended her high jump career. Then bankruptcy sucked her family's home out from under them.
“My parents worked two jobs to keep up with house payments,” Kavan said, “but they didn't make it.”
After recovering from surgery, Kavan picked up running. Her brother did too. Now, as a 23-year-old, running still is an escape.
“It's still me time,” she said. “I like how much when you're running, you're not thinking about everything. You're not worrying about everything. You just are. When I run, I just appreciate things more. Sunsets matter. The wind matters.”
Kavan, a first-year science teacher at Webster Middle School, wanted to share that feeling with her students. She and other teachers partnered to create a running club.
Sixty students showed up to the first practice.
“Then they started dropping like flies,” Kavan said.
Everyone was frustrated, so Kavan and the other teachers brought the students inside during one practice and sat them down. What did they want out of the running club? She told them to write out their answers.
Some wanted to be able to run a few miles without stopping. Others wanted to lose weight. Some wanted to make friends.
Fifteen students were left. They selected captains. They started stretching and warming up on their own. They ran in pairs and small groups instead of as individuals. They ran through the neighborhood around the school, sometimes stopping at a student's house for a water break. Then they signed up for their first race — a 5k through downtown.
They were sold.
Martha Pierce knows how her students feel.
She emigrated from Acapulco when she was in middle school, moving from a Spanish world to an English one when she was 13.
“The teachers, they never took the patience to work with me,” Pierce said. “I just had to copy from the book.”
So she excelled in math during a time when word problems weren't as common in the classroom. She was determined to become a math teacher, but her plans changed. Now, as an English as a second language teacher, she helps students at Webster Middle School going through the same struggle she did.
In her first hour class, students ask Pierce questions in Spanish; she answers in English. A boy leans over to his friend: “How do you spell ‘ketchup'?” A girl wearing headphones watched a computer screen as words she heard popped up: boy, new, never. A boy typed out compound words such as baseball. He typed pigpin and then backtracked. Pigpen.
Some of her students grew up in Mexico, where they worked as children instead of going to school.
“Half of them don't know how to read their first language,” Pierce said. “There's nothing to transfer.”
The school used to have three paraprofessionals to help the Spanish-speaking population, but budget cuts eliminated those jobs, Pierce said.
Pierce teaches two classes for English-language learners, and then she spends the rest of the day floating to other classrooms that have a high number of non-English speakers. Students often must rely on one another if Pierce isn't around.
“They're translating for each other,” Pierce said. “The teachers go so fast because they have a curriculum. They have a lot they have to cover for testing.”
And those tests are in English.
Before this year, Roberto Sandoval had never studied for math class.
But his eighth-grade math teacher had an incentive he couldn't ignore: tickets to see the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I hate losing,” said Roberto, 14. “She said that we were going to go down on the court and meet the players. I said, ‘Those are my tickets. I'm going to get them.'”
Roberto earned the highest score and won a seat next to his math teacher, Melissa Urban, at a Thunder game against the Memphis Grizzlies. They were able to move down to the tunnel to high-five the visiting players as they came out on the court.
His teacher, Melissa Urban, said the game ticket was designed to do more than get her students motivated for one test. For Roberto, the incentive changed the way he thinks about math.
“Now I get what we're doing,” he said. “I used to not know how to do equations and graphing and inequalities. Now I know how to do it. It's easy now.”
Roberto is one of about 160 students at Webster who is taking math for two class hours each day. Twice as many students are enrolled in two hours of English classes.
“It gets kind of boring, but you get more help,” he said. “I really focused. I didn't like math, but it's all right. It's fun to do projects and figure out stuff.”
Roberto hopes to be accepted to Southeast High School next year. He's nervous about high school, though.
“What I'm not looking forward to is failing,” he said. “I heard the classes are hard. I'll probably pass freshman year and then after that, I don't know.”
He wants to graduate and enlist in the Marines. Someday, he hopes to be a policeman.
Qua'Sean Sims had a choice to make, but he was flush with anger.
The Department of Human Services ordered he and his siblings be separated and sent to foster care.
He was boiling inside.
He was a sixth-grader — new to Webster Middle School — and he was at a crossroads.
He started hanging out with gang members in his family. School didn't matter. Breaking the law wasn't a big deal. He didn't care and he took his anger out on anyone close enough to reach.
Then his grandmother, Mama Lovey, died.
“That was my motivation,” said Qua'Sean, who is now an eighth-grader. “I was going to be a leader on my own — for her, for my friends, for myself.”
He started paying attention in class. He discovered sports. He dropped the troublemaker friends, even his relatives.
“I don't hang out with them no more,” said Qua'Sean. “They're in jail, and I'm not.”
Now he has all A's and plans to go to college. And he's excelling at every sport he tries — football, basketball, track. High school coaches from throughout the city have come to watch him play.
He thinks he'll go to Douglass High School next year. Only one person in his family has graduated from high school: his grandmother. She went to Douglass.
Many students at Webster Middle School come from low-income families. Many have moved within the past year. But the challenges they face are the same as any other teenager, counselor Lisa Souza said.
“Drama and middle school go hand-in-hand,” Souza said. “Drama is just part of the age.”
Souza has worked as a counselor across the state, including in Tecumseh, Chickasha and Norman.
“Middle school students have the same friend stuff everywhere,” she said.
Souza has worked at Webster for two years. It took about six weeks before students trusted her enough to share their secrets.
“Once you've helped one kid, the word will spread,” she said. “It's a matter of the kids opening up.”
Leon Taylor got a tattoo for his 14th birthday.
The words “RIP Leon” are inked across his shoulder.
“It's my dad's name,” he said. “He got shot. ... My mom said he was in a gang. ... He was a good person. He just got in the wrong crowd.”
Leon said he doesn't want the same life. The eighth-grader wants to finish school and become a barber. He'd love to go to college for the performing arts, too.
Leon arrived at Webster Middle School shortly after spring break. He was attending nearby Crooked Oak, but his family moved. He's still adjusting to his new school, but he said he's especially enjoying art.
“You can express yourself without words,” he said. “You can put everything you're feeling.”
Some classes are boring for Tiffany Tolson.
The seventh-grader loves being challenged, and this year, she's taking advanced coursework that puts her ahead of the game for high school. She's one of nearly 90 students enrolled in Algebra I, a high school-level course.
“It's fun and it's more challenging,” said Tiffany, 12. “It's a high level. Normal math bores me. It's too easy.”
About 175 students are also enrolled in advanced level courses, which are Algebra I, English I, Art I, Spanish I and Environmental Science, Principal Brad Herzer said.
Students are enjoying advanced classes, Tiffany said, and they're more focused on graduating from high school and then college.
“I have to go here to get straight A's so I can go to college and be a lawyer,” Tiffany said.
Teaching math is the easy part for Melissa Urban.
The hardest part is with words, not numbers.
“It's when you've got a kid calling another kid something mean in class,” said Urban, a remedial math teacher at Webster Middle School.
Urban won a grant to take the eighth-grade class to watch the movie “Bully” this month.
Students and teachers said bullying isn't a big problem at Webster because it's something everyone talks about. Anti-bullying posters dot the hallways.
But there are still challenges. The most common insults heard in the halls are gay slurs.
In one of Urban's class, three boys spoke in Spanish to one another, leaving a black student out of the loop.
“I can't understand a word you're saying because you're saying it in Spanish because you're ... ,” he trailed off.
He was frustrated, convinced the other boys were making fun of him.
“Stop talking and saying my name,” he said, exasperated.
Urban shuffled the groups in class to defuse the tension and reiterated the importance of kindness.
Urban, 23, originally is from Worcester, Mass. She's one of five Teach for America teachers at Webster.
“I wanted to teach middle school because I hated middle school,” Urban said. “I wanted to come back and make it better for someone else.”
Urban teaches remedial math, which means she has students who stay with her for two class periods in a row. Her job is to catch them up.
There are plenty of reasons students can fall behind. They need special education. English isn't their first language. They're chronically absent or habitually suspended. Or math can just be especially tough for them.
“My job is to teach them despite all those factors getting in the way,” Urban said.
So she's learned to accept them as they are, wherever that is academically.
“I've learned to love these kids unconditionally,” Urban said. “It's made me want to be nothing but an amazing teacher. They deserve an amazing teacher.”
Karen Vitolas feels Ruby moving all the time.
Karen is an eighth-grader at Webster Middle School, and Ruby is due July 26.
“I'm nervous,” she said. “I'm excited.”
Karen, 15, transferred to Webster last year to avoid fighting at her previous school. Ruby's father — a fellow eighth-grader — is supportive and has been buying things for the baby, she said.
She lives with her parents, who have been supportive of her, she said. And her classmates have been kind.
“Everybody's been nice to me,” she said.
Her pregnancy has changed her plans, but she is positive about the kind of life she wants for her daughter: “the best.”
That's why she's been more focused on succeeding in the classroom, even on days when she's feeling tired and worn out.
Karen plans to come back to school after Ruby is born, probably to Emerson High School, an alternative school with a program for new and expectant mothers. She plans to graduate, go to college and become a dental assistant.
“I wanted to go to high school and college,” Karen said. “Now I have to.”
Eighth-grader Alvis Wilcots was in the hallway when he saw the boy go down.
“He was shaking,” Alvis said. “I asked him if he was OK. His face and eyes were all red. He didn't say anything. I didn't know it was an overdose until later.”
Two eighth-grade boys overdosed at Webster Middle School last month. They were suspected of smoking marijuana and taking Xanax before school.
Wilcots saw one boy pass out.
“It was scary,” he said. “I thought he would have died.
Wilcots carried his classmate to the office and helped get the boy's backpack off.
Incidents like the overdose are frustrating, Alvis said. He and other students don't appreciate the bad rap their school gets when a few students make bad choices.
“It's just the people who do it — not the school,” he said. “We're all brothers and sisters.”
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