Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Tulsa experiment tests how tightly woven a safety net has to be

Why We Wrote This

For a year the Monitor has been following families that are part of philanthropist George Kaiser's experiment in thwarting poverty. Real change takes more than a quick fix. But signs of positive improvement in Tulsa could be a glimpse of long-term potential. Part 4 in a series. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Hayzetta Nichols drops off her daughter, Myracle, and son, Lijah, at Educare on April 5, 2018, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Educare is a year-round early learning center that is a flagship project for philanthropist George Kaiser.

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After dropping off her three kids at Educare, an early education center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hayzetta Nichols is the first to arrive at her sociology class. She has dreamed of becoming a social worker but had to put that ambition on hold while starting a family.

In recent years she’s had to juggle work, parenting, and the stresses and indignities of low-income living, from food stamp cutoffs to car breakdowns.

Hers is one of many families being helped by Tulsa’s anti-poverty initiatives, influenced by billionaire George Kaiser. His child-centered philanthropy could provide a beacon of hope for other cities grappling with deep inequities. It’s not enough to patch a broken social safety net, Mr. Kaiser argues. To give kids a realistic shot at breaking a cycle of poverty they need all the infant stimulation and learning that upper-class children get at home.

Ms. Nichols sought out Mr. Kaiser recently to thank him for what he’s done for her community. She envisions the steps her family is taking now as building toward their future. “Everyone has trials and tribulations,” she says. “As long as I keep moving forward everything is going to work out in time.”

Three kids, three classrooms, one mom in a hurry.

It’s a familiar scene in Educare, an early education center in Tulsa, a city of 400,000 that has become a test of whether investing early in disadvantaged kids holds the key to decoupling childhood poverty from adult failure. Children start at Educare as young as 6 weeks and the bill – $24,000 a year per child – is underwritten by private donors.

On this icy Monday morning, Hayzetta Nichols is the mom in a hurry. She drops off Myracle, age 3 – “Bye, princess!” – and Lijah, her 2-year-old son, then finally Loyal, who turned 1 in March. She’s out the door in 10 minutes.

As Lavelle, her husband, heads home, I drive Ms. Nichols and her black wheelie bag stuffed with books and folders to Tulsa Community College. She is attending her final classes before midterm exams, her first since she went back to school in January to pursue her dream of becoming a social worker, a dream put on hold while starting her family.

“Two classes I’m passing. Two classes I’m failing,” she says. (She went on to pass all four.) 

Ms. Nichols’ is one of three families that the Monitor has followed for the past year to see the promise of Tulsa’s social experiment. (One family profiled previously chose not to participate this time.) Each has been touched by the generosity of George Kaiser, who is tapping his $10 billion oil-and-banking fortune to assist Tulsa’s most deprived children. His family foundation pays for home-nurse visits and prison-diversion programs, family planning and literacy clubs; he also funds progressive political causes in Republican-run Oklahoma.

For those concerned with widening inequality in the United States, Tulsa’s anti-poverty initiatives offer clues to what works, particularly where public dollars are scarce. Mr. Kaiser’s child-centered philanthropy could provide a beacon of hope for other cities grappling with deep inequities.

It’s not enough to patch a broken social safety net, argues Mr. Kaiser. To give kids a realistic shot at breaking a cycle of poverty they need all the infant stimulation and learning that upper-class children get at home. “The offense is in the adult-child interactions,” he says.

Mr. Kaiser’s metrics for success go far beyond preschool. Will disadvantaged kids become teen moms or incarcerated youth? At school will they be tracked for special ed? As adults, will they be financially secure and in good health?

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa began following 650 preschoolers in Tulsa in 2016, of which about one-third were enrolled at Educare. The project has federal funding to track the cohorts through fourth grade, making it one of the largest longitudinal studies of the effects of public preschool on elementary school kids.  

Last year teachers in Oklahoma walked out to protest low wages and spending cutbacks. The strike yielded a salary bump, but Oklahoma remains near the bottom of the table for education spending, which means that Mr. Kaiser’s investments in early education in Tulsa run up against the realities of an urban school system that currently fails many deprived students.

In the 2017-2018 school year, only 4% of low-income black students in Tulsa passed eighth-grade math, compared with a 21 percent average. Third-grade reading proficiency fell from 36% to 30%, with significant gaps by race and income. (The drop, not the gaps, is likely due to the walkout.)

Early education experts point out that students who enter kindergarten ready to learn are far more likely to succeed; the reverse is also true, as pre-kindergarten achievement gaps persist into higher grades. Last year 4 in 10 kindergartners in Tulsa were assessed as ready to learn.

Mr. Kaiser’s dream is for all disadvantaged children to hit this mark – and to keep going.

***

Across town, Alexis Stephens pulls up outside another Educare (Tulsa has three; a fourth is under construction). She’s on lunch break from her marketing job for a regular check-in with the teacher of Addison, her 2-year-old daughter.

When Addison was born Ms. Stephens was in jail, before she entered a Kaiser-funded diversion program for incarcerated mothers where she got clean and eventually was granted custody of Addison and her son, Carson, who is now 10.

A year ago, Ms. Stephens wasn’t driving at all: Her license had been revoked. Now she has a car with a mandatory device to test her blood alcohol level. Back then she lived in a women’s shelter. Now she lives with her boyfriend, Bryan, in his rented house and her credit score should soon allow them to buy.

And Addison, whom Ms. Stephens carried while living on the streets as a drug addict, is thriving at Educare. She’s curled on a mat inside the hushed classroom where Ms. Stephens greets Debbie, her teacher, who assures her that Addison is meeting all her development targets. She can count to 18, use her words to say what she needs, and loves role-playing.

“She still has meltdowns now and then, but she knows she has to calm down,” Debbie says.

Ms. Stephens looks over at Addison, who lies on her side, oblivious to the talking adults.

Women In Recovery, the prison-diversion program, is one of Mr. Kaiser’s more intensive efforts to break a cycle of despair. Oklahoma leads the nation in locking up women. Many imprisoned mothers are addicts who had suffered child abuse; their incarceration, in turn, puts their own kids at risk of mistreatment and criminality.

For Ms. Stephens the program was a dramatic do-over. But not every intervention succeeds.

Two days earlier she attended the funeral for Aubry, a mother who completed the program but later relapsed and died of a drug overdose. The funeral took place at a church near Ms. Stephens’ grandmother’s house, near a ravine where she sledded as a kid. She went to honor her friend and, she says, to remind herself of “how easy it is to fall back in that hole.”

Bryan came too. “It’s really nice to know that he’s there to support me, to go to the funeral of someone he’s never met,” she says.

It was their second funeral in two months. A week before Christmas, Carson’s half-sister Jaylla, age 19, died after losing control of her car on a highway. “He cried when he found out, and he cried at the funeral,” she says.

Ms. Stephens also fell into a depression and spent days in bed. Before she would have dulled the pain with drugs. Not this time. “It’s not worth losing everything I’ve worked for,” she says.

Carson’s father – Ms. Stephens’ ex-boyfriend – is serving time in prison. Carson has bonded with Bryan since they moved in together last summer, and Ms. Stephens says her son has benefited from having discipline and routine, something she regrets not providing in his younger years.

Carson also never had the hands-on early education afforded to Addison, which makes him a control of sorts for Tulsa’s social experiment. Can a chaotic start in life be overcome?

Like many parents, Ms. Stephens sees her little boy growing up fast and feels an anxious twinge. “I’m running out of time. I have so much to teach him,” she says.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Alexis Stephens attends a Women In Recovery alumni indoor movie with her son, Carson, and daughter, Addison, on June 16, 2018, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stephens is a graduate of the Women In Recovery program, a prison-diversion program that helps women overcome addiction.

***

Ms. Nichols is the first to arrive at her sociology class. She sits at the back and pulls out a well-thumbed textbook. Only four students show up for class; Tulsa has issued a winter advisory and shut its schools. (Educare stayed open.)

The professor, Tommy Chesbro, reviews the upcoming midterm, which includes theories of socialization across gender and race. Ms. Nichols, who wears a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and jeans, takes notes and asks about the exam; sociology is one of her better classes.

A rebellious teen who nonetheless graduated high school with honors, she shakes her head when Mr. Chesbro cites research on how girls are socialized at school to defer to boys. “Not everyone,” she says, laughing.

The topic turns to moral development and changing values. When abortion is mentioned, Ms. Nichols interjects that she hasn’t changed her mind: It’s a sin. “If you lay there and open your legs you should take care of your child,” she says.

Ms. Nichols had nine miscarriages before Myracle, aptly named, was born in 2015. Since then she has had to juggle work and parenting and the stresses and indignities of low-income living, from food stamp cutoffs to car breakdowns, while trying to make her marriage work so that her children can have the stable family life that she never had in a string of foster homes.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Hayzetta Nichols holds her children, Myracle, Loyal, and Lijah, in their home on April 6, 2018, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A year ago, Ms. Nichols was pregnant with Loyal and working at an AT&T call center. Lavelle, who was convicted in 2011 of an assault felony and whom Ms. Nichols first met on a jail visit, was looking for work. He recently was hired as a lawn care worker, his first job in a long time. Ms. Nichols stopped working last fall to study full time, so to make ends meet, the couple have been selling blood plasma.

Lavelle, who is still on probation since his release from prison, says most hiring managers balk at his criminal record. “It is what it is,” he says.

Ms. Nichols sees another barrier: racism. When I visit the family at home, she mentions a white Educare employee whose brother also has a violent felony conviction but managed to find work. “It’s color. At the end of day it’s always going to be color,” she says.

Racial prejudice also sharpens her concerns about Lijah, who has trouble speaking and can erupt into uncontrollable tantrums in class that end up in Ms. Nichols being called in. She’s wary of her son being typecast as a troubled black boy when he goes to school.

Lavelle, referring to his prison time, says that black males are born “with a number on them.” Ms. Nichols nods. “I believe that.”

Still, she also recognizes that girls usually develop faster than boys: Myracle spoke clearly at the same age and shows every sign of being ready to start public preschool in September. (Ms. Nichols shares custody with the biological father; Lijah and Loyal are Lavelle’s.)

Lijah is now seeing a speech pathologist and Ms. Nichols hopes that by expressing himself he can head off his angry spells. Like all toddlers there’s a good chance that he’ll grow out of it.

Ms. Nichols is grateful to Educare – “they feel like family” – and to Mr. Kaiser for Educare and also the Gathering Place, the riverside park that he opened last September as a gift to the city. “I appreciate what he’s done for our community,” she says. 

He recently held a meeting at the preschool, and when she found out, she wanted to meet him, not simply to thank him, but to show him her class project, an idea for a nonprofit to help young families. Who knows, maybe he’d want to fund it.

But first she has to qualify as a social worker, which could take years. By then, her young kids will be in school and, she hopes, ready to succeed. “Everyone has trials and tribulations,” she says. “As long as I keep moving forward everything is going to work out in time.”

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