Once a year, Madison Elementary School’s gymnasium is filled with dancing students, cultural displays and traditional food.
Madison hosts a multicultural fair to educate students and celebrate cultures of the world — some of which are represented at the school.
“At the beginning of the year, we make a list of all the students we have and where they’re from and then we give each grade a culture to study,” said Mary Neff, a teacher at Madison for the last 28 years. “So there are a lot of students who are able to dress in their traditional outfits and it’s just really really nice.”
Since the 1950s, the school has been home to a diverse set of students from all over the world.
Nestled between two neighborhoods a few blocks southeast of OU’s campus, the school serves a large population of students whose parents are affiliated with the university in some way, either as faculty, staff or student.
The neighborhoods closest to Madison consist of rental properties and owner-occupied homes, some duplexes and a small apartment complex.
The most important feature the majority of these residences share is that they are cheap, which has been integral in allowing students with families to live near the university and for their children to go to school at Madison.
With OU so close and slowly coming closer, it is unknown what Madison might look like in the next 10 to 20 years, said Dominic Barone, principal of the school.
OU is collecting residences surrounding Madison as they go up for sale and has acquired roughly 10 properties so far in the neighborhood east of Headington Hall, which itself was once land that housed a small retail center and several single-family residences before being bought and torn down by OU, said press secretary Matt Epting in an email.
Nick Hathaway, OU’s executive vice president and vice president of administration and finance, said the university could see continued expansion in its future, even after the addition of the Residential Colleges and the Cross Neighborhood, located towards the east and the south of campus, that will open in fall 2018.
“It’s expected that the university might need room for expansion… And specifically in that neighborhood, that is something that is not a mystery to anyone that that is an area we see as a potential expansion zone,” Hathaway said. “So we’ve been acquiring property there very passively over the last 15 years or so.”
These houses are sometimes used as rental homes for faculty or graduate students with families, Hathaway said.
The neighborhood, formally known as Hardie-Rucker, was once home to an extension of OU housing, a grouping of apartments called Parkview, Epting said. These apartments housed a large population of OU’s international students and students with families, but were torn down in 2006 and those living there were relocated to the Kraettli apartments, Epting said.
The demolition came after the apartments were no longer useful to the university and no longer met the standard of living that OU promotes, Hathaway said.
“It makes me kind of sad to think that that’s where we housed international students or that it was known that way,” Hathaway said. “We want the experience for all students to be better.”
While the lower standard of living at Parkview posed some concerns, these apartments were cheaper, allowing student parents to pay for tuition and raise a family with less worry, Neff said.
“A lot of our families are looking for rentals or things that are really cheap because everything else is just too expensive,” Neff said. “These are students, they’ve got tuition payments and they just can’t afford these things.”
These apartments were removed and the students moved to nicer, more expensive university housing more than a decade ago. Today, roughly 79 percent of Madison’s student population qualifies for free or reduced lunches, Barone said. In 2015, 53.7 percent of students in the NPS district qualified for free or reduced lunches, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.
The issue of cost in the international community and for students with families is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by OU, though, Hathaway said.
“I think paying for housing is one component of paying for the OU experience,” Hathaway said. “But we need to make sure that in that exchange of funds where they are paying tuition and fees and housing that we’re able to provide them a housing experience that makes them satisfied and that’s something we’ll have to monitor going forward, to make sure that we haven’t put international students in a situation where they feel that they can’t afford something or that they are limited to a certain number of choices.”
Madison is one of 17 elementary schools in the Norman Public School district, and with roughly 400 students, it is one of the smaller ones, Barone said.
The school’s boundaries extend just east of Jenkins Avenue and west towards the railroad tracks, with Lindsey Street as the north border and the land south of Highway 9 as the southern border. This area gives the school only a few residential neighborhoods to draw from, even with NPS’s open transfer policy.
The school has a mobile population, Barone said, with kids moving in and out of the area because their parents are international students at OU or their housing situations forced them to move.
This international population brings diversity to the school, he said, with roughly 15 percent of students speaking a second language, with up to 13 different languages being spoken at the school in total.
The majority of students who attend the school are low-income, which qualifies Madison as a Title I school, allowing it to receive extra funds for things like tutors and teaching specialists, Barone said.
“We’re just trying to level the playing field in terms of funding for those kiddos that are coming and that are in need, some from environments or homes where they may not have as much as some of the other students have,” Barone said.
There are still some students who come from more substantial means, since the school’s boundaries stretch out towards Highway 9 where there is newer, more expensive housing, Barone said.
“We have a big mix here, as far as the different backgrounds the kids bring into the classroom,” Barone said.
Being located close to campus has its benefits, Neff said. Volunteers flood into the school, helping put on carnivals and reading to students who need more one on one time, she said.
Tami Althoff, a writer for the marketing department in OU’s college of professional and continuing studies and parent of two children who attend Madison, said her kids have truly enjoyed getting to spend time around college students and participate in events like Madison’s multicultural fair.
“The fair is one of their favorite events,” Althoff said. “Each grade learns about a different country and then they set up booths and there is food and dancing and it’s really great for these kids to be exposed to all of these different cultures.”
The school is also able to take advantage of the university as a progressive hub of ideas, Barone said, using it to have access to new techniques and methods in teaching. But even though there are benefits, being this close to an expanding university and its impact on affordable housing has been difficult, Barone said.
“It has been difficult for our families, as far as finding a place,” Barone said. “We want consistent experiences for our kids because the more consistent their housing is, the stronger they’ll be here. If a child is worried about where they’re living, they’re not going to be focused on learning the A, B, C’s.”
While it may not happen soon, the thought that the original neighborhoods surrounding Madison will someday be torn down is a sad one, Althoff said.
“These neighborhoods have always contributed to Madison, so to have it gone someday is sad,” Althoff said. “My husband lived on McKinley and went to Madison when he was younger, so that traditional landscape and how people filter into the area and the school would be lost.”
The future of the school looks good for now, Barone said, adding that he believes Madison and other schools like it help bring together the surrounding areas.
“I can’t imagine uprooting a school like this,” Barone said. “We are a pretty big piece of the fabric that makes Norman Norman. The city is unique because our schools reflect the communities they are nestled into and that speaks to the spirit of our community – a community of haves and have not’s, a community that is international – there are a lot of wonderful things about this school.”