Maybe that’s because she’s a product of an urban district, or perhaps it’s because she sends all four of her children to OKC schools.
Still, one part of her story is certain:
After graduation later this month, she’ll be ready for that first teaching job at U.S. Grant High School thanks to the Urban Teacher Preparation Academy (UTPA) at the University of Central Oklahoma. With three complete years under its belt, the academy has sent 34 new teachers — who voluntarily choose the urban school challenge — to the OKC district.
Perhaps more impressive, 91 percent of those teachers have remained in education while 74 percent still are working in the OKC district, said UTPA program director Karyn Hutchens.
As part of the academy’s curriculum and ongoing professional development, student teachers are instructed how to deal with the problems and issues in urban schools. They’re told about teenage pregnancies, rampant drug use, violence and domestic battles that often find their way into the schoolhouse.
In OKC, most students come from impoverished backgrounds with 91 percent of them participating in the free and reduced lunch program. In many instances, students hold after-school jobs or babysit younger siblings while their parents work late into the night.
Although her comments sound a bit corny and old-fashioned, Berry, a math teacher, said her words are honest and from the heart.
“Everyone should have good teachers, regardless of their socioeconomic level. It shouldn’t matter what side of town they come from. Everyone deserves a good education,” she said. “Teaching isn’t supposed to be easy.”
As a 32-year-old white woman, Berry knows one of her biggest challenges is bonding with a largely Hispanic student population, which comprises 46 percent of the total OKC district enrollment. As a result, she takes steps to create a solid teacher-student relationship.
“I encourage our bilingual students to speak in whatever language they feel comfortable with” during their free time, she said. “I’m also thinking about taking conversational Spanish.”
As part of the pact between UCO and OKC schools, student teachers from the UTPA agree to spend a minimum of two years in the urban district. But for Berry, this experience is more than a contract for services. “For me, I’m committed for life,” she said.
Act, don’t complain
Nicole Foust, another UCO grad and a first-year English teacher at U.S. Grant, is motivated to help urban youth who are wrongly labeled.
“It follows with what people say about presidential elections. If you don’t vote, don’t complain. The same goes with teaching. If you’re not willing to get in there and try to do something, don’t complain about these kids,” she said.
Foust, 30, wife of a probation and parole officer with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, understands as well as anyone the issues many students in OKC, and particularly U.S. Grant, encounter on a daily basis.
“We have a wide diversity of adversity,” she said. “We have kids who are in gangs, trying to stay out of gangs, some who don’t eat at night or maybe their parents are working late into the night at a second job. Making these kids’ lives better has to start somewhere.”
For Foust, that mission starts at school, eight hours a day. Still, she knows her teaching style must accommodate the students’ culture and background to be successful. On one occasion, her class read the story of 1950s- and 1960sera Freedom Riders as a way to discuss tolerance and courage. In a different class, Foust had students discuss a Tupac Shakur poem in order to spark discussion of “boring” English skills.
“We have a diverse teaching environment here, and you have to engage the students to get them interested in learning so they can learn,” she said. “You have to teach outside the box for some of these kids.”
Although Foust could have been hired at any district in the OKC metro with fewer, less intense challenges, she chose OKC schools for a reason.
“This is where I’m needed most,” she said. “We need to step up and teach these kids they can be leaders. Some don’t realize they can do great things. Being here is different than teaching a classroom full of kids who know they’re going to college and don’t have to worry about how to pay for it. Inspiring kids here is more difficult than in Edmond or Norman.”
U.S. Grant, once known as a failing school, is a major turnaround story. The school received a “B” in the most recent statewide A-F report card released last month and missed an “A” by five points.
“Life at Grant is great,” Foust said.
“It’s frustrating sometimes when you think you care more than they (the students) do and they’re coming in putting their heads down on the desks. But that is becoming the exception and not the rule. You really have to care about the kids to work here.”