Thursday, August 16, 2001

At-risk kids

'Backpack full of garbage'

        I'm not sure what to call Barbara Turner. A teacher, surely. A social worker, most of the time. A surrogate parent, now and then.

        I know what she does. She helps kids through high school. She ushers them out into the world with a diploma and a chance to succeed.

        Her students are what we delicately term “at risk.” When she met her 70 students last year, about three-fourths were more than a year behind their class in high school. No one had a grade point average higher than 1.2. Some had been in trouble — not the kind that sends you to the principal's office, the kind that sends you to jail. Some of these children have children of their own.

        All but two graduated.

        Some were awarded a certificate, a high-school equivalency degree. Some, like Ray Dixon, stood up in a cap and gown “for the whole nine yards,” as he puts it. Struggling at Milford High School, he enrolled at the Live Oaks Campus of Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development. He landed in Barbara's Jobs for Ohio Graduates program.

What's her secret?

        He'd never been in trouble, he says. Just “couldn't get it together.” And now he can. He'll enter the Coast Guard in the fall, thinks he has a future. “I owe that lady everything,” he says.

        Naturally, I wanted to know her secret. Ray thinks about this. “She would just help us whenever we needed it. With whatever.”

        Time. Accessibility. Her students have her home telephone number. “I know she helped some kids with money,” Ray says.

Jobs and more

        Technically, she's supposed to help her students get ready to find a job. She teaches a “life skills” class — interviewing for a job, dressing for success, writing a resume. But her students are trying to catch up on their academics, too, some in correspondence courses. So she tutors them in English, math, biology, world history, literature.

        Whatever it takes.

        “By the time I get them, they have such a backpack full of garbage,” she says. Not a real backpack, of course. A figurative one, filled with juvenile records, bad grades, failure. Their literal backpacks are usually empty. They need books and supplies. Sometimes they need something that, again technically, is not academic.

        The $75 to rent a cap and gown. The money for a class ring. A tux to wear to the prom. Last year, she guesses she spent $11,000 of her $22,000 salary on the kids. Once she bought dentures. “The girl's front teeth were missing, a high school girl. Now, wouldn't that kill your self-esteem?”

        It would. It might even make you stay home from school.

        So would food. Or, more precisely, lack of food. Barbara serves breakfast every day. Nothing fancy. Granola bars. Fruit drinks. Maybe Pop Tarts, whatever she can pick up at Odd Lots. “I know I'm lucky. My husband pays the bills and never questions what happens to the money I earn.”

        She has a “Slunch Fund.” Everybody throws change in the can, pennies, nickels. And if somebody needs lunch money, they leave an IOU. “It's been there for four years,” she says, “and we've never lost a penny. Not a penny.”

        She's not surprised. She believes in these kids, including the one she tutors in jail. She tells him he's smart. She tells him he's a good boy. “But these kids can't do it by themselves, something has to happen.”

        Or someone.

        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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