'Street School' Offers Life Lessons, Support for At-Risk Students

Partnership serves Tulsa, Okla., district

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Elijah Wilson dropped out of high school in February, but on the first day of the new academic year, he decided to show up again. Really show up.

"I came back because Pam and all of the staff here believe in me. I have a lot of support here," said Mr. Wilson, 19, referring to his counselor, Pam Sinor, and Street School, which serves at-risk teens in Tulsa, Okla. "I know they want to see me succeed, and I want to be successful."

Through its partnership with the 42,000-student Tulsa school district, Street School has become a national model for helping at-risk youths, ages 14 to 19, because it combines alternative education classes and therapeutic counseling. It began as a grassroots community effort in 1973, and the district soon became involved.

In return for Street School's services, the district provides in-kind services, such as the school's building, custodial, and cafeteria services; utilities; and salaries for four of the school's 10 teachers.

The nonprofit receives additional funding through the state's education department, office of juvenile affairs, and department of mental-health and substance-abuse services, and from the United Way. About 45 percent of its budget is also raised through fundraising.

Street School is tuition-free, and the district provides city bus passes to students needing transportation.

Counseling for Life

The five counselors don't just handle their 100 or so students' class-scheduling issues, credit checks for graduation, and college-admissions and scholarship needs.

They're licensed therapists who provide therapeutic counseling in individual, group, and family settings, and much like social workers, they address students' practical needs for food and clothing, housing and health care.

"The beauty is the program is so small—our main focus can be on emotional needs," said Jana Emerson, Street School's head counselor. "We get to know them so well; truly, by just looking at them, we know whether we need to see them that day."

When Ms. Sinor, who has been at Street School for 14 years, saw Mr. Wilson in the hall around 10 a.m. on a recent Friday, she immediately pulled him into her office.

The second-year senior first came to Street School from a group home in January 2011. He said his mother had agreed to support his latest return to school by driving him each day, but things at home quickly went south, and she kicked him out.

Mr. Wilson said he has been staying with friends, and he has been getting rides to and from school with Street School's security guard. But late last month, Ms. Sinor told him it was time to apply for one of Tulsa's transitional-living apartments for young adults. As he waited on the line for someone at the city's youth-services office to take his call, Ms. Sinor explained how important it was for him to go to the agency's emergency shelter for homeless youths if he runs out of places to crash at night.

"What they need, we try to get them," Ms. Sinor said, then turned back to the teen: "You're going to find a place where you feel comfortable and safe. It just may take some time."

Personal Attention

Students living within the district can be referred to Street School by their home high school, a neighbor or friend, or they can refer themselves.

Some have had serious substance-abuse problems and brushes with the law, while many more have been subject to family turmoil, including abuse, neglect, frequent relocations, and state intervention, including foster care. When students first arrive, counselors work with them to develop treatment plans and to focus on specific goals and objectives.

"We work with them mainly on social skills and future plans—and the importance of just being here and actively participating," counselor Jenny Fitzgerald said.

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If you ask senior Bianca Gray about the counselors at her school, she will tell you they don't give up on even the toughest, most defensive cases—like her.

The 19-year-old came to Street School in January 2012 on the recommendation of a counselor at her old school, East Central High.

"I didn't like it there, so I skipped all the time," Ms. Gray said. "Jenny asked me all of these questions, and I tried to just give her what she wanted to hear, but she knew I'd be lying, so she reworded it and kept at it. She never gave up."

Ms. Gray says she is still a guarded person, but she has decided to let Ms. Fitzgerald help her pursue her goals. "She has shown me she really cares about me and whether I succeed or not," Ms. Gray said.

Vol. 33, Issue 03, Page 15

Published in Print: September 11, 2013, as 'Street School' Offers Life Lessons, Support for At-Risk Students
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