Education

Staci Elder Hensley | December 17, 2018

Positive Tomorrows poised to help more homeless students

Staci Elder Hensley

With a new building, help from a school-choice program, and a “high-structure, high-love” philosophy, Oklahoma’s only school for homeless children is set to transform even more lives.

“Positive Tomorrows” is an unusual name for a school, yet it’s the perfect description of this school’s unique mission. Located in Oklahoma City, Positive Tomorrows is the nation’s first-ever educational facility created specifically for homeless children. It’s also a shining example of how a community can come together to transform children’s lives and create a multi-generational ripple effect. Nearly 150 students from pre-K through 5th grade receive an education and other amenities that help them thrive, despite challenging circumstances.

The Positive Tomorrows staff will help an additional 60 students in grades 6 through 8 when its new building is completed in early fall of next year. Construction began on the $15 million, 36,000-square-foot facility this past summer, and it’s a long-awaited addition to the school’s current 8,000-square-foot facility, said Positive Tomorrows development director Margaret Creighton.

Due to its cramped quarters, the school’s capacity has been maxed out at 149, and the staff is forced to turn away nearly that number of children each year. The new facility will have room not only for the incoming middle school students but also will accommodate special education classes and Head Start classes for newborns and toddlers. A gym, training kitchen, and outdoor learning areas are also planned, along with offices, meeting rooms, and a space for family support services. Additional middle school students will be added over the next few years.

A total of $15.5 million for the new facility was raised in a mere 18 months. Along with donations from businesses, private groups, and individuals, Creighton said, $5 million of that amount came directly from new market tax credits, which are federal tax credits used to attract private investment into low-income communities.

Partnering with the Opportunity Scholarship Fund (OSF) also has played a critical role in the school’s expansion. OSF is a scholarship-granting organization which participates in Oklahoma’s private-school tax-credit scholarship program created in 2011. Oklahoma law, which also allows taxpayers to support innovative programs in rural public schools, caps the total tax credits at $5 million. Proposed legislation in 2019 will seek to raise the cap.

“If the cap was raised that would be amazing, and we would definitely see a benefit. The hardest thing we do here is turn kids away, especially knowing the situation they’re in.” —Margaret Creighton

Positive Tomorrows became one of OSF’s member schools two years ago, and this past fiscal year 20 percent of its regular budget came from OSF scholarship grants. “This has been a great new revenue stream for us,” Creighton said. “If the cap was raised that would be amazing, and we would definitely see a benefit. The hardest thing we do here is turn kids away, especially knowing the situation they’re in. We are so excited right now to be able to say ‘yes’ to more kids, and OSF helps us achieve that.”

The new building is located at 901 N. Villa, on the Northcare campus across from the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. The hope is that it can be finished early so that students can attend for the fall semester, Creighton said. Fundraising is complete for the project, but donations are still being accepted to help with future costs.

Students currently enrolled in Positive Tomorrows’ elementary school will be eligible to attend the middle school, provided they still lack a stable home and meet the enrollment criteria. School administrators and teachers say that’s unlikely, however, given that the school provides caseworkers and counselors who work with parents to overcome their homelessness. That, in turn, enables the children to re-enter public schools without being shamed by their peers.

“We work closely with our families from day one to help them achieve stability in their home situation,” Creighton said. “We don’t want a child to be in our school more than two years, because that means we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing for these families. So, we don’t anticipate a lot of kids transitioning from one to the other.”

The middle school students, like the younger ones, will be immersed in a culture that operates under a “high-structure, high-love” philosophy, Creighton said. “We put a lot of boundaries and very high expectations on our kids,” she said. “We are working with children who have been through trauma, and these kids need structure and a lot of personal attention.”

To create this environment, Positive Tomorrows maintains a low student-teacher ratio. Classes are limited to 20 kids, each one with a certified teacher and an assistant. Children who are homeless usually are well below their grade level in reading and math. That’s because they miss many days of school, simply due to lack of transportation. Without a stable address, they often can’t enroll in school to begin with. In the classroom, being hungry, cold, stressed, and worse are huge barriers to learning, Creighton said. At Positive Tomorrows all those barriers are removed, right down to providing transportation to and from wherever the child is staying at the moment.

Completion of the new building will also improve access to extracurricular activities, which are especially important for middle-schoolers, Creighton said. Thanks to its donors and a small army of volunteers, Positive Tomorrows can offer a wide spectrum of sports, music, art, and other extracurricular activities, plus field trips. Any needed equipment, uniforms, or additional expenses are provided for the students as well.

“Whether it’s a sport or art or dance or whatever, we all have that thing we enjoyed that brought us to school,” Creighton said. “Middle school is a time when kids can discover what they like and what they excel at, and it can even lead to college scholarships. These are real, life-changing things that these activities help achieve. The expression of feelings through art, for example, can become a very powerful outlet for kids in their situation.”

The high-structure, high-love approach is so effective that it’s being investigated by other schools around the state and beyond. Positive Tomorrows staff routinely speak to schools, churches, and other organizations across Oklahoma and beyond, and train other educators in their methods. In addition, the school regularly hosts teams of educators from around the country who are in the planning stages of their own schools for the homeless.

“We are working with a lot of institutions now, which is flattering to us and encouraging,” Creighton said. “We want to do whatever we can to help other communities develop their own programs.”

Meanwhile, as they see their new building rise from the ground, Creighton said the excitement among the Positive Tomorrows team is growing.

“We’re very grateful to be there to support our students, and for our community support and that we’ll be able to say ‘yes’ to more students,” she said.

Staci Elder Hensley

Independent Journalist

Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.

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