A community’s school
An administrator realizes Eugene Field Elementary School has bigger problems than low test scores and poor student attendance.
Eugene Field Elementary School Principal Dr. Sheila Riley with third-graders Julianne Bretz, Danalie Patterson and Yoshio Garfias, and first-grader Wesley Gaines
It was the Big Gulp cup of Dr. Pepper that finally brought Principal Cindi Hemm to tears.
She hadn’t cried when the assistant superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools reassigned her to Eugene Field Elementary a few months earlier. She hadn’t even cried when students shouted obscenities and revolted against her instructions during the school spelling bee.
It was when the abusive mother of a special education student threw a Big Gulp full of Dr. Pepper in Hemm’s face that the levee of tears she’d fought hard to hold back finally broke.
“What I saw when I first came was a pretty violent culture,” Hemm says. “I had no idea what to do or how to do it, truly.”
It was 2003 when she took over as principal of the troubled Eugene Field Elementary in a last-ditch effort to save the school from closure. However, with enrollment at an all-time low of 170 students and test scores among some of the worst in the state, Hemm had her work cut out for her.
It wasn’t the first outside attempt, however, to make improvements in this high-poverty, high-crime area in west Tulsa. Bordered by Southwest Boulevard, the Arkansas River and two oil refineries, the Eugene Field neighborhood has struggled for more than a century.
In the early 1900s, the area served as a quick solution to the housing shortage for the oil workers flocking to the area. Though plagued by devastating floods, destructive fires and widespread contagious disease, there was an impenetrable pride in being from west Tulsa.
Residents recall a beautiful grove of ancient cottonwood trees along the banks of the Arkansas River and an amusement park called The Sunset Plunge, which served as the community centerpiece.
The park eventually closed when visitors dwindled and new competition, the Crystal City amusement park, came to town. In the meantime, the area’s refineries expanded, and the independent spirit of west Tulsa lost its centerpiece.
The uprooting of the cottonwood trees would foreshadow an unfortunate culture of transiency that would haunt the neighborhood for decades.
Many attempts have been made over the years to remedy the area’s abject poverty and violence; unfortunately the well-intentioned antidotes often created more maladies. Some point to the urban renewal projects of the 1970s that dealt Eugene Field neighborhood its most devastating blow.
In an attempt to clean up the area, city officials bulldozed old buildings and low-income neighborhoods to make room for barrack-style apartment buildings. The tragic consequence was that the close-knit community was dispersed, and the commercial district was almost destroyed.
The making of a community school
Hemm realized just how devastating the city’s intervention decades before had been to the neighborhood’s commerce when she heard the closest grocery store required a half-day, round-trip bus ride. Since most residents didn’t own a car, the only place her families could buy groceries was a rundown convenience store, where they charged $7 for a half-gallon of milk and did not carry fresh fruit or vegetables.
It quickly became apparent the children of Eugene Field faced far greater struggles than the traditional model of education could accommodate. So, to improve the school’s grades and test scores, Hemm knew she had to first find a way to meet the students’ basic needs.
She made a bold move and opened her doors to the community, thus becoming a community school.
“We didn’t even know what the term ‘community school’ meant when we started,” Hemm says. “We just knew we had to help the members of the community meet their basic needs before any learning could take place.”
By definition, community schools serve the whole child by not only focusing on academics, but also on health and social services, youth and community development, and real-world learning.
The hope is that by meeting the child’s basic needs in a safe, supportive and stable environment, student learning is improved, and stronger families and healthier communities are built.
At Eugene Field Elementary, the results were extraordinary, but so were the sacrifices on the part of Hemm and her staff. They found the resources to help with myriad needs, including utility bills, groceries, rescue from abusive relationships, emergency medical attention, counseling, transportation to medical appointments and countless other services.
“We became the social center and center of social services,” Hemm explains. “It was important that the families knew this was a safe place.”
Through the generous donations of time and money from First United Methodist Church of Tulsa, OSU Center for Health Sciences, Covanta and many others, the foundation of a strong community was beginning to take shape. But Hemm knew there was still much work to be done.
When she called around to see if they could get a grocery store in the neighborhood, the answer was always the same: “It’s too dangerous.”
Fortunately, local businessman and philanthropist the late Clark Millspaugh wanted to help. In 2009, through the tireless efforts of Millspaugh, Hemm and Heather Oakley of Global Gardens, the Westside Harvest Market opened next door to Eugene Field Elementary.
This unique, nonprofit grocery store not only offers goods at cost to customers, but it also houses a kitchen classroom, 24/7 prayer room and the Global Gardens’ offices. The market is the only source of fresh produce in the area and provides one of the only healthy alternatives to residents.
The Westside Harvest Market is a vital component to the goal of improved education. However, equally integral is the Global Gardens partnership with the school, offering exciting and tangible evidence of growth, as well.
It all started in 2007 when Oakley approached Hemm with her vision of education through gardening. With a teaching career that took her to classrooms from Uganda to Harlem, N.Y., Oakley saw firsthand how empowering a garden can be for children, especially those in high-risk environments.
With Hemm’s blessing, Oakley launched the first Global Garden in the land adjacent to the school in April 2007. The results were astounding.
“We had 100 percent of our fifth graders pass science for the first time,” Hemm says. “Our test scores just soared after the garden went in.”
This innovative program allows each class to develop and maintain its gardens under the direction of the Global Gardens staff. Students take great pride and ownership in the gardens, and the produce not used in the classroom is sold in the Westside Harvest Market.
In addition to educational improvements, the garden provided something the community had been missing for almost a century since the Sunset Plunge amusement park, a safe gathering place, was demolished.
“During the growing season you can see kids and families in the garden late into the day as well as on Saturdays and Sundays,” Hemm says.
The roots are finally taking hold
With the implementation of Global Gardens, Westside Harvest Market and initiatives by the Eugene Field faculty, the school’s test scores ascended to some of the best in the state.
Equally encouraging, student attendance and parental involvement increased to an unprecedented level.
In 2012, Hemm retired from school administration. Her miraculous tenure at Eugene Field won her numerous awards and inspired her to write a book about her experience there (see sidebar). She now tours the country as a motivational speaker and educational consultant for high-risk schools.
The torch was passed to Dr. Sheila Riley, who has carried on the tradition of activism at Eugene Field.
“Last year, I wrote and received a grant for The Leader In Me program, which we are really excited about,” Riley says. “It’s based off of Stephen Covey’s book, ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.’”
The program teaches students leadership skills and how to be successful in school and beyond. By embedding the skills throughout the Eugene Field curriculum, the hope is that they will eventually infiltrate the school’s culture, Riley says.
Indeed, there is much to be excited about at Eugene Field Elementary. Not only have test scores remained high, but also 26 after- school programs have been established, a new building was finished in 2005, a new wing was added in 2012, and 30 community partnerships have been forged with local corporations and churches, whose members read to and tutor Eugene Field students and provide financial support. Enrollment is now above 400 students, and businesses have begun to return to the area.
“We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and this is our way of changing a child’s life,” Riley says, “so that we can send them off a better person than when they got here.”
With the prospect of a much-needed neighborhood revitalization project through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), school administrators are hopeful that the students’ quality of life will continue to improve.
“I hope that project comes to fruition because that will add a lot of needed resources to our families, outside of what the school is capable of doing,” Riley says.
For more than a century, through oil booms and urban renewal, the neighborhood of Eugene Field has struggled to find its identity. In the end, however, the catalyst of change was there all along. A school, whose power had remained dormant for so long, just needed the right, vigilant guardians to nurture the roots until they took hold.