By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
Positive Tomorrows is Oklahoma’s only private, tuition-free elementary school specifically serving homeless children and families. On Thursday, August 4, the non-profit will celebrate the first day of school with the opening of its first pre-k classroom.
The school has had insufficient space and has repeatedly had to turn students away, but this year a new facility expansion will allow the school to increase its daily capacity by 10 students, for a total of 75 children.
In 2015, a check from the Kevin Durant Charity Foundation allowed Positive Tomorrows to renovate a kitchen and cafeteria in order to provide healthy meals cooked from scratch. This also allowed for the expansion of the 4th/5th grade classroom and the addition of a room for pre-k.
In Oklahoma, one in every fourteen children under the age of six is homeless and only 11 percent of homeless children are currently enrolled in early learning programs, notes the Positive Tomorrow’s website. Instead of learning to have regular family meals, these children are learning that food is not readily available – thus, encouraging the cycle of poverty.
A study by researchers at Yale University revealed a surprising fact, generally pre-k students are expelled at a rate more than three times that of those in k-12.
Most often, it is for behavioral issues like potty training and tantrums, which are issues that homeless students experience at a greater rate than middle and upper class students.
“No one wants to hear about three– and four–year–olds being expelled from preschool, but it happens rather frequently,” said Walter S. Gilliam, who led the Yale study. “Pre–K teachers need access to support staff needed to help manage classroom behavior problems. Without this support, we are setting up for failure both our children and their teachers.”
“Positive Tomorrows has the resources to serve the unique needs of homeless Pre-K students so that they can remain in school and continue to learn, ”said Rachel Dunham, Positive Tomorrows Development Officer.
Positive Tomorrows removes barriers like hunger, transportation and lack of basic necessities so students can focus on learning in the classroom. In addition, small class sizes help to guarantee that students receive individualized attention with licensed professional counselors on site to work with students as well as families.
“These kids come in and ask for seconds and thirds at breakfast on Monday morning because they haven’t had enough to eat over the weekend,” said Margaret Creighton, Developmental Director for Positive Tomorrows. “They’re bodies can’t grow and their brains can’t function properly if they don’t have those basic necessities to help them be awake and alert at school and learn.”
At Positive Tomorrows, educators provide a “trauma-informed” learning environment that is respectful of the chronic stress homeless children experience.
“Our education staff truly understands what our students are going through,” Dunham added. “They know when a child needs a little bit of love and maybe a hug as opposed to some discipline.”
Students at Positive Tomorrows receive an intensive, individualized education while case managers are available to support families and help them improve issues such as housing, employment and income levels.
Ashley Peters, a former student of Positive Tomorrows, is now a sergeant with the Oklahoma City Police Department. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that actually what makes successful people is struggle. If I didn’t go through homelessness and a lot of other things that I went through, I would not be here.”
As an alumni, Peters returns to her former school to share her success story. She says students are often surprised when she tells them that she once sat in the same classroom where they are now sitting.
“Whenever I say ‘hey guys I used to sit right here,’ there’s always a shock,” Peters said. “I tell them that it’s important that you take advantage of these rocks that you feel are being thrown at you because those will be the very rocks that you stand on.”
Positive Tomorrows is a United Way Partner Agency, an Oklahoma A+ School, and is accredited by the North Central Association, a regional Accreditation Division of AdvancED.
“We’re trying to create that sense of hope,” said Susan Agel, Positive Tomorrows President and Principal. “Once you have that you can plan for the future, you can graduate from high school, you can go to college, you can have a job – you can do really well.”
To learn more, visit www.positivetomorrows.org.