In this current climate of dubiously named organizations, it is tempting to succumb to cynicism. Let us not mince words—Political Action Committees, or PACs, shoulder much of the blame here. Consider the “Move America Forward” PAC. Who would be against that? Probably a lot of people if they took the time to read the organization’s mission statement. Down, boy! And then there’s the legislation crafted so as to carry a catchy acronym that simultaneously obfuscates the law’s true meaning and purpose. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, anyone? Answer carefully!
Oklahoma City can boast at least one organization that does exactly what the sign on the door says. That place is Positive Tomorrows, a private, tuition-free kindergarten through grade five elementary school that operates exclusively for homeless children. The cozy building has space for 58 students at any given time and typically operates at or near capacity. Classroom rosters are capped at 16 students per class, which allows teachers and aides to work closely with their kids to provide personalized instruction.
If it is difficult to comprehend that a school offering space for a few dozen homeless children is perpetually full, have a seat. At any given time in the Oklahoma City area, some 2,400 school-age children are homeless. As their families move around, the kids get lost in the shuffle—or just get shuffled from school to school, where they generally fall behind academically. The results are not positive. Statistically only about 1 in 4 homeless children will graduate from high school.
The small classes at Positive Tomorrows allow students who have fallen behind to catch up, sometimes at remarkable speeds. “We had a fourth-grader enroll early in the school year who was reading at a first-grade level,” shares Rachel Durham, Development Officer for the school. “She has now caught up almost to grade level in less than a school year.”
Doing grade-level work is often of secondary concern in many kids’ cases. With no idea where their next meal will come from and no guarantee where—or whether—they will sleep at night, homeless children persistently battle hunger, fatigue and fear. Positive Tomorrows helps its students overcome these challenges by addressing their needs for family stability, emotional security and academic achievement. “The goal is to transition out to a public school and be successful there,” Durham says.
Positive Tomorrows started as a collaboration between the Oklahoma City Public Schools and a handful of other nonprofit organizations concerned with the way homeless children were being educated—or not. “With no known address, no shot records, kids were being turned away by the schools,” explains Susan Agel, President and Principal of the school. Positive Tomorrows opened in 1990 as a public-private partnership. OKCPS managed the staffing, human resources and educational pieces of the puzzle. Various nonprofits filled the social service needs for food, clothing, shelter and family counseling.
The program thrived under that management model until the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. By establishing a federal law making it illegal to segregate students based on their status as homeless, NCLB essentially nullified the school’s mission overnight. “We lost all OKCPS support as a result of No Child Left Behind,” says Agel. For Positive Tomorrows, the stroke of a pen halfway across the country suddenly put tomorrow in doubt.
But that simply was not an option for a community that had invested heavily in reclaiming young lives. “We stayed open just as an after-school program for a year,” Agel shares. “The board concluded that the need for a school was still there, and our donors really stepped up.”
Although the federal regulation almost spelled doom for the school, after about 10 years back in full-school mode, the release from federal or state oversight has been a blessing. “We can be more flexible now,” explains Agel. As a private institution, the school is not required to administer tests that are mandatory in public schools. “We’re not as burdened [as public schools],” Agel continues.
Back on firm footing again, Positive Tomorrows is exploring ways to increase capacity and reach more kids before they slip too far behind. “We don’t have room for more programming [in our present facility],” Agel laments. “Our classrooms are small and there’s no phys. ed. space.” The organization’s challenges include finding the right space and making sure it’s in the right place. “We serve an area, not a school district,” says Agel. The school provides transportation for all students and families, regardless of where they are sheltered, which presents a unique challenge. “We have to keep our transportation boundaries reasonable,” Agel explains.
The school’s leadership board is weighing all those needs and working to find the best solution for the future. In the meantime, the young students who walk through the halls have one thing in common to look forward to—Positive Tomorrows. You better believe it.
Written by Sean Becker | Photography by Emily Brashier