When we walked in at John Rex Charter Elementary Wednesday students were listening intently to instructions on how to use two lines to get lunch later that morning.
It was a new routine for even those most experienced students in the building.
“So you will go here, pick up a tray, then … .”
Molly Goldsworthy, Assistant Head of School, was walking them through the process of using the new two-line configuration.
This is the first year the school has had the number of students that required it.
“The cafeteria was built to accommodate two lines, it’s just that we haven’t needed them until this year,” said Joe Pierce, Head of School who has been at the post from the school’s founding.
He estimates they have around 525 students this year, the largest yet, by design.
Unique school & location
John Rex is a charter school authorized by Oklahoma City Public Schools, located in the heart of downtown at the intersection of W Sheridan and N Walker.
The school was built with MAPS for Kids money, various city funds and other donations on a square block within clear view of the Devon Tower and Myriad Gardens.
Half of the property is the building and the other half is a secured playground.
They started with about 325 students in 2014 serving only prekindergarten through second grade. They wanted to grow a student body with the same expectations from the earliest grades.
And so each year they have added another grade. The original second-graders were then the original third-graders in 2015, fourth-graders in 2016 and this year they are the original fifth-graders.
Economic diversity of the student body is a constant.
Some of Oklahoma City’s downtown executives drop their children off at the same time students from the City Rescue Mission nearby are brought over by the mission’s staff.
The mission is in the school’s attendance zone and is where some of OKC’s residents who are struggling financially stay for a time until they get back on their feet.
The John Rex program was designed for heavy parent involvement from the start.
Pierce said they always use parent volunteer chaperones to go with classes and teachers when they venture out into downtown.
While most elementary schools are tucked into a neighborhood, John Rex is on a downtown street corner with Oklahoma’s tallest buildings less than a block away.
But most of the school’s parents like it that way.
Jorge and Brenda Hernandez have both of their children in the school and are pleased with the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the school.
They also believe parent support is critical.
“The parent involvement is invaluable; we are a family and are there to support one another,” said Brenda Hernandez in a written note to Free Press.
She said the location of the school in downtown is a plus because of the weekly walking field trips they go on to places like the downtown Metro Library location a few blocks away.
“These kids are experiencing a new way of learning,” she said.
Pierce believes their location is an asset, too.
“This is a unique learning experience partly because of our location,” he said. “There just isn’t any other school around with this kind of setting.”
It is also convenient for parents who drive to work downtown and drop their children off at the school.
But numbers in the attendance zone are starting to grow as more housing is built in the downtown area.
“When we started, there were only about 35 students who attended from our attendance zone,” said Pierce.
“I’m estimating that there are 145-150 kids in our attendance zone choosing to attend John Rex. Many of those families are moving and choosing that pathway because that’s the only guaranteed way to get in.”
There is no lottery or application for those who are in the attendance zone. If they live in the zone, they may attend.
“We are on track in our application process for a middle school,” said Pierce. “Eventually, we plan to take our students all the way through high school.”
He said they are almost out of room in their current building and are actively exploring leasing space nearby.
Plans are under review by the district at present.