Sarah Gassen: Heartbreak and hope at Walter Douglas Elementary in Tucson

2013-07-21T00:02:00Z 2014-04-11T09:22:28Z Sarah Gassen: Heartbreak and hope at Walter Douglas Elementary in TucsonSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Roots reach deep at Walter Douglas Elementary School.

They anchor students who move so often they don't know their home address.

They sustain the child whose mother doesn't have the $1 field trip fee, so she sends 50 cents with a note promising the other 50 cents next week.

And they nurture the classmate whose mother knows how tough it can be, so she sent $3 - $1 to pay for her child, and two more for kids whose families don't have the money to spare.

These roots are strong. They hold tight to the 10-year-old girl who has been absent 17 times and tardy nine days in one school year.

With these roots, Walter Douglas Elementary School embraces every child in the way every child should be - with high expectations, caring and confidence in their abilities.

A school that hums with life under 'McPrincipal'

Walter Douglas Elementary School, on North Flowing Wells Road a few blocks north of Miracle Mile, is special. I've covered education for the Star for the better part of 15 years, and have spent time in dozens of schools.

Walter Douglas has always hummed with life. Its wavy-roofed buildings house some of Tucson's best teachers.

But Walter Douglas has always felt to me like more than a school. Each one in the Flowing Wells Unified School District does. It's a community more than a district drawn on a map in the middle of Tucson.

When the Star decided to do a project about Tucson's rank as the sixth-poorest city in the country and how that affects kids, I called Nic Clement, then the superintendent, and asked if he would be willing to let me be a fly on the wall at a school.

He sent me to Walter Douglas. Principal Tamára McAllister - or McPrincipal as some of the younger kids call her - opened the school's doors and put me to work as a volunteer.

The weeks I spent at Walter Douglas were eye-opening. Heartbreaking and hopeful.

education is their job, and everyone knows it

"Walter Douglas is like my second home," said Crystle Gallegos, the assistant principal. She paused for a beat.

"It is my home."

That connection, and the honesty it embodies, is a big part of Flowing Wells.

Honesty about why schools exist - to educate kids. That singleness of purpose runs through every corner - teachers, administrators, janitors, cafeteria staff, bus drivers, mechanics, volunteers, school board members.

Honesty about exactly how complicated education is when students face what many Flowing Wells kids live with.

Many are poor. Many are from families where adults come into their lives and leave without warning. It's not unusual to have students removed from their homes by Child Protective Services. Family dramas play out at school events, with kids caught in the middle.

"I see signs - a child unkempt, dark circles under their eyes, permission slips not being signed," a veteran teacher told me. "But sometime you just have to deal with what's in front of you."

And that means finding ways to cut through the stress and distractions of life and get the child to focus on just being a student.

It's not true for every child or every family, but education is a symbiotic enterprise. What happens in a child's life affects her friends, her teacher, her classmates - just as what happens in their lives affects her.

Kids can't control much in their worlds. But for the time they are there, and even after they leave, they are Walter Douglas Bulldogs. They have Bulldog Pride.

And that pride counts for a lot.

Cars at Trailer courts show Bulldog pride

Many Walter Douglas kids live in the warren of trailer courts that dot the neighborhood.

Cars parked in front of the mobile homes have Walter Douglas Student of the Month bumper stickers. Families are proud of their kids.

Some single-wides house members of two or three families, cramped together until rough times get better.

The No. 10 afternoon bus route makes three stops - two are at the parks, and at each about 25 kids clamor off the bus, dispersing into the narrow lanes of single-wides and travel trailers that are home.

Some trailers are well-kept and in good repair. But others are full of rusted holes, broken windows and surrounded by piles of trash and junk. The toys and bikes outside are the clues that kids - likely Walter Douglas students - live inside.

Moves are frequent; addresses, phones change

Almost two-thirds of all homes in Flowing Wells are rentals, according to the U.S. Census. One-third of the housing structures are listed as mobile homes.

Nearly half of the residents spend more than 35 percent of their monthly income on housing; the median rent is $609 per month, with most paying between $300 and $749.

One in five Flowing Wells residents moved in the previous year, according to U.S. Census data.

Students sometimes don't know their address or parent's phone number - not because they can't remember numbers, but because they've moved and changed cell- phones so many times that such fleeting details get lost.

Near the end of a school day in May, a young student was brought to the nurse's office. He'd bonked his head on the playground and the cut was bleeding. The school needed to reach his family, but the mom's number on the emergency contact sheet was disconnected. The boy didn't know her number, where she works or their address.

The bleeding stopped, but the nurse couldn't release him to ride the bus home. She called the trailer park she thought he lived in - she knew he usually went home with a friend after school until his mom got home - and asked a manager to go see if anyone was home. No, no one home.

In the middle of this whirlwind the boy sat on a chair, tears creeping up and wetting his eyelashes. I gave him my reporter's notebook and he drew a picture of birds and a smiley sun and trees, surrounded by flying hearts.

Word eventually reached mom. Mom called the school and his sister came to get him.

One crisis solved.

Empowering kids with superhero dynamic

Superheroes are a theme at Walter Douglas. They fly two-dimensionally across classroom walls, and teachers talk about being a learning superhero.

The students take it to heart. It's empowering to think of yourself as a superhero. You can solve problems and help people and do good in the world.

(And, be honest, who among us hasn't pretended we were Superman?)

At a staff meeting in early April, Principal McAllister asked everyone to think of three ways their students are their heroes and to discuss their answers in small groups.

It's the kind of exercise teachers across Walter Douglas use - pose a question related to the lesson at hand, and then talk about it with your neighbors. Discussing information helps spur connections and ideas.

It works with the grownups, too.

"Whatever obstacles they have in life, they just go."

"And they're so flexible."

"This little guy, he gets it - in little steps, but he gets there."

Building that sense of possibility is essential for kids who don't see a lot of possibility in their own worlds. It's not some corny feel-good self-esteem exercise, it's the first step in helping students read, write, learn math and science.

The teachers at Walter Douglas understand the urgency of nurturing that confidence.

Andrea Meyer sews capes for each of her sixth-graders, with their names on them and in their favorite color.

On the last day of school in May, her kids, hovering on that shifting edge between childhood and adolescence, wore their capes as they left Walter Douglas for the final time and launched into the world.

Unwavering expectations

The story of Walter Douglas Elementary School is the story of one child, told hundreds of times each day.

One child and one teacher.

One child and one school nurse.

One child and one principal.

One child and one bus driver.

One child and one volunteer.

The children's faces and names change from month to month, sometimes day to day, but the thread is steady:

Do everything within your power to help this child prepare for his or her future.

Embrace each student with learning, with understanding and unwavering expectations for today.

For tomorrow.

And the tomorrow after that.

It's not easy.

But no one goes into education because it's easy.

About the project

Columnist Sarah Garrecht Gassen is writing about Walter Douglas Elementary School as part of the Star's in-depth look at poverty in Tucson.

After clearing a background check required of all nonfamily school volunteers, Gassen spent time at the school in the Flowing Wells School District from mid-March through the end of the school year in May.

This is the first installment.

Other pieces will appear Thursday and Sunday on the editoral pages.

The Star's week-long news series on poverty begins Aug. 4.

Contact editorial writer and columnist Sarah Garrecht Gassen at sgassen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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