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Aiming for Impact

Beyond her impressive academic credentials, the thing that enables Sheila Jones to stand out at Street School is her everlasting commitment to rooting for the underdog.

Michele Chiappetta
Marc Rains
December 28, 2018

Often, Tulsa area youth find themselves in situations where they need added support to succeed in school. For these young people, places like Street School — and teachers like Sheila Jones, a 24-year veteran of junior and senior English at the school — are a godsend.

An accredited alternative high school with a therapeutic counseling component, Street School has supported Tulsa students since 1973. Nationally recognized as a leader in dropout prevention, Street School designed the model for alternative education in Oklahoma.

“Street School has a wonderful staff that puts each student first every day,” says Jones. “I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else. Not everybody can say that they love their job and really mean it.”

As an educator, Jones has impressive accomplishments under her belt. She is Nationally Board Certified, a rigorous credential awarded to just under 3 percent of U.S. teachers. Jones has also received a Youth Services award and been a finalist for Teacher of the Year in Tulsa. She’s a graduate of the Freedom Writers Institute, which promotes transformative ways to educate nontraditional students, and has served as a mentor to other teachers as well.

But beyond her impressive academic credentials, the thing that enables Jones to stand out at Street School is her everlasting commitment to rooting for the underdog — her passion for promoting tolerance, building relationships, and persistently encouraging her students daily to grow.

“The thing I like about Street School is that you can have a personal connection with the kids,” Jones says. “We have small classes, and we’re able to really get to know the kids. It’s more of a family atmosphere than a school.”

The emphasis on creating a supportive community in the classroom is a key to Street School’s success. Many of the school’s students are there because they needed a second chance. They may have faced issues like bullying, family issues, substance abuse, or struggles due to ADHD. Many are talented and gifted, scoring off the charts in standardized tests.

Ultimately, says Jones, the students are simply individuals who are trying to make it in life, just like the rest of us. “Our students are just like your average kid,” she says. “Everyone is dealing with their own struggles every day, but they get up every morning, come to school, and they’re successful. Kids come in who have little to no self-esteem, and then we see them blossom over the three- or four-year timeframe, and it’s very rewarding.”

Street School’s graduation rate is high, and Jones has so many positive memories of students who made it through the program. One who comes to mind is a young man who came to Street School after getting in trouble for shoplifting. “He successfully graduated Street School, went on to OSU, and now has a degree in engineering,” says Jones. “Each student who graduates is a success.”

Street School allows its teachers flexibility in how they balance traditional studies with one-on-one support and creative teaching techniques. For Jones, this includes covering contemporary young adult novels like The Hate U Give, memoirs on race and class like The Other Wes Moore, a unit on the Tulsa Race Riot, and a unit on the Holocaust. All inform her students’ understanding of the world in unique ways.

Her students visit Black Wall Street, Reconciliation Park, the Greenwood Cultural Center, and the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, which houses a permanent Holocaust exhibit. “We’re able to open up Tulsa and the surrounding areas to the kids, because many of them don’t otherwise get out much beyond their neighborhoods.”

As part of the Holocaust unit, Jones also shows pictures from her recent trip to Poland’s Holocaust sites, which she took during a special educational program sponsored by Yad Vashem and Echoes & Reflections. She was one of just 20 teachers nationwide selected to participate, and The Jewish Federation of Tulsa sponsored her for the trip as well.

“It was a very emotional experience,” she says, “and I just can’t say enough of how blessed I felt to be chosen to experience that.”

One thing that the trip brought to light was the individuality of each human being who lost their lives. “It is extremely important to see the people who were murdered during the Holocaust as individuals and not a number,” she says. “Each person deserves to be remembered.”

In the classroom, Jones brings that awareness to how she presents the Holocaust. She invites students to consider how they have the power to make a difference right where they live. “It makes them stand up for people,” she notes. “Tolerance is a basic theme for most of the literature we read.”

Jones also invites students to keep a diary and share portions of it. “When the students read the diary, they can see that they’re not alone in the struggles they’ve faced. It’s very emotional.”

To help support Street School, the Tulsa community can do many things. One way to help is to become a mentor. “Mentors agree to meet with the kids one hour a week. They come in and maybe play pool or go across the street and get ice cream and talk to them. The mentor program is very well received by the kids. They enjoy meeting with their mentors.”

The school also has a food pantry for students. There are opportunities to sponsor a class, helping to provide books and other supplies. And of course, donations are always welcome, since 45 percent of the school’s funding comes from private donations.

April 2020 Cover