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A look inside an inner city school struggling with multiple challenges, including “needing improvement” sanctions

By Danniel Parker

Staff Writer

For the fourth year in a row, Taft Middle School is on the No Child Left Behind “Needs Improvement List,” and its administrators and teachers are frustrated and worried, they say.

If Taft makes the list next year, the school will be forced to restructure, which sometimes means firing half or more of its teachers and administrators.

They did not meet their Adequate Yearly Progress and their Academic Performance Index rating is below the state benchmark of 1175, in both reading and math, though not by much at 1053.

They  enterprise and charter schools like Belle Isle Enterprise and Classen School of Advanced Studies meet their federal requirements.  But Tatt, an inner city public school with most of its students below the poverty line, advancing their students academic knowledge to be on par with their grade level?

Lisa Johnson, Taft’s principal says there are many reasons and being tested alongside charter and enterprise schools she says are unfair.

“The main reason being that charter and enterprise schools cherry pick the brightest students, and many are from the most stable and economically- sound families. This is creating a form of socio-economic segregation in the Oklahoma City school district,” she said.

“We lose 40 percent of our incoming kids to charter and specialty schools, like the Classen School of the Performing Arts,” said Johnson. “That’s the group of kids with the parents with the most income typically, and the highest achieving students.”

“Charter and specialty schools create a caste system for kids who are going through the school system impoverished,” Johnson said.

“Part of the problem is that people look at our overall data and make the assumption that our teachers are not effective, and they don’t realize the overall situation whenever you skim off the top scoring kids, your starting point is much lower,” she said.

According to No Child Left Behind policy, only 2 percent of a school’s students can take a modified test. Taft has over 200 students that are in special education, and 22 that are considered trainable but mentally handicapped. 28 percent of the students at Taft are Special Education students and 23 percent have recently immigrated from other countries. These students are labeled English Language Learners.

Compared to Belle Isle’s 2 percent of Special Ed students and 2 percent of English Language Learners, the cultural and racial divide between the atmospheres of two schools, which are three miles apart from one another, is clear by the numbers.

White flight was the response of many more affluent, white families towards the desegregation of the school districts in the 1960’s. This fueled urban sprawl, where the typically more affluent families moved their homes to the suburbs, leaving the center of the cities to leave many midtown schools struggling with poverty, language barriers and other difficulties.

“I have 22 kids in my school where this is their first year in America, speaking English,” said Johnson. “I have a kid from Ethiopia who speaks in clicks, two kids from Union of Myanmar, Vietnamese kids, and new students from Mexico and Guatemala.”

“But their second year in the school system, these kids have to take a reading test. If they fail that’s all it takes, if they don’t pass the testing, we go on a special list for not achieving academically,” said Johnson.

The Association for the Supervision and Curriculum Development states that “Students ages 8 to 11 years old with two to three years of native language education took five to seven years to test at grade level in English.”

Children with families in the City Rescue Mission are bused in to Taft. Most charter and enterprise schools, do not offer busing.

“We have 80 students in Taft that are homeless. That makes school not their families’ number one priority. Food and shelter, those things come first,” said Johnson.

“I have over 100 kids in my building who have parents that are incarcerated. A lot of these kids don’t understand there is a better place to be in the world,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the symptoms of poverty that affect many of her kid’s parents are a major problem that she and her faculty face.

“My parents aren’t able to help their children as often because of the huge issues in their lives, like drugs, alcohol, or more often working multiple jobs to maintain a family. It doesn’t leave much time to help your kids with school,” she said.

“I had a child once that had appendicitis and was writhing in pain,” Johnson said. “The mother told me to deal with it; she didn’t have a car and couldn’t get to the school. What do you do in those situations?”

Taft recently took 75 kids out to run in the Memorial Marathon. Only 2 sets of parents showed up at the finish line, Johnson said.

Taft offers tutoring from their teachers both before and after school, or at least they will, unless the NCLB Act triggers major changes at the school.








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