How Do You Make a Low-Performing School / Organization Excel? With Guts and Very Specific Action Plans! by Cindi Hemm

I was assigned to the position of Principal at Eugene Field Elementary in August, 2003. I had been, I thought, a successful principal at Park Elementary for seven years prior. I knew it would be a challenge, but I had no idea what I was in for when I walked through the dark halls of an 83-year-old school building. Tulsa Public Schools told me, “We can’t build a new school with only 170 students enrolled.” What could I do? The school needed larger enrollment, and a champion to turn some things around. I came in with “wonderful ideas” about scheduling, loving students, high expectations, data-driven education, et cetera. I was in for the shock of my career!

In the first few weeks, it became apparent that high-poverty kids do not act like those at my previous, middle-class school. I was way out of my league when it came to finding success with children who are daily exposed to violence, foul language, and constant noise. I wasn’t as concerned about how to make this school excel as I was with trying to survive each and every day. I found my worn-out copy of Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, and re-read it from cover to cover. Then, late one night, I got on my knees and asked God to help me not only to survive but to make this school into one of the best in the country!

Seven years later, I can truthfully say, “Don’t be surprised when God shows up and answers your prayers”.

There were so many stories that first year. I had a third-grade boy “moon” me, then run away as I was chasing his bare bottom down the hall. When I did catch up with him, I hauled him (and his pants) to the office, where I called his mama. She took him home that day and she assured me that he would never do that again. That mama did just what my mother would have done, had I dared to display that type of behavior.

One of my most defining moments came when I was called down to the 5th grade class, by a panicked teacher, to find a 5th grade boy (I’ll call him Marcus) holding a chair over his head and calling his teacher a Bi***! I told him to put down that chair, in my loudest “principal voice” and to follow me, and he did, Marcus was cursing me all the way down the hall. As I entered my office, I told the student to sit down. He said “You make me!”

By then my temper had flared, and I proceeded to do just that. Marcus then took a swing at me. Marcus was a BIG, 5th grade African-American child, actually trying to hit the new, middle-class, white, female principal! I was lucky enough to have ducked then, without thinking about “policy”, just self-preservation. I swept his legs out from under him and sat on him. I asked him if he would sit in my chair now. He said, “Yes, ma’am”.

Then I asked Marcus, “Do you want me to call the police or your mama?” He said, “Oh, please, call the police,” so I called his mother. She came up immediately. I saw her walk through the door, Marcus was big by birth, as was his mother. She had more cleavage than I had ever seen and a very short skirt. She had a gold tooth and she was MAD! I thought, “This assignment has only lasted 3 weeks and I am going to die.”

She sidestepped me and took hold of Marcus. She gave him, as my mother would have said, “what for.” After the first couple of slaps (he deserved a few of those), I did step in and ask her to stop. I said, (again in my “Principal Voice”) “Tulsa Public Schools has a policy against corporal punishment.” Marcus’ mother looked up at me and said, “Ms. Hemm, you won’t have any more trouble out of my boy!”

She was right. I didn’t. He actually became my “deputy.” I even had a badge made up with his name on it. He “helped” me each and every day!

After the “Marcus Moment”, I could see a glimmer of hope. I realized I had to do the following to succeed in this school:

1. Fire/clean out/ reassign at least half the staff – I needed committed individuals who truly loved children and were willing to follow my lead (This took me 2-3 years to fufill) .

2. Surround myself with a “Management Team” – teachers-in-charge and team leaders – who realized that “we” would be making decisions. The buck stops with me, but I surround myself with people who do not think like me but who still love children and always put them first.

3. Make data-driven decisions – Curriculum and instructional practices had to be driven by data. One of the most sobering moments came when we realized that children who stayed at Eugene Field for 3 years only gained 3 months’ progress in reading. This was not acceptable – practices and attitudes had to change.

4. Implement positive discipline practices – School-wide
policies and procedures were “discussed and discussed” until we had a plan. That plan is still in place seven years later, but is subject to change as we continually discuss our discipline data.

5. Love each and every child – This was my one stipulation that had to be in place. No more excuses for poor children, those with lack of nutrition, parents and children who were in crisis. This is my one non-negotiable. This is easy to say – but really tough to do as children hit, kick, and bite as they curse at you, even children as young as four years old. We must love them all, especially those who are toughest to love.

6. Increase community involvement – We opened our door wide and asked for help. Wonderful people and programming came pouring in and they still do today!

Eugene Field, in 2003-04, had an API (Academic Performance Index) of 255 (out of a possible 1500). That was my first year as principal of a low-performing school. We had to change the culture of the school to change the overwhelming attitude of the students, their parents, and the entire community. That doesn’t change overnight. However, by 2007-08, our API was 1357 and we beat many, many affluent schools in our district as well as in our general area. It can be done!!

We have outstanding teachers, wonderful children, (all 428 of them this year) and a new building which will get a new addition due to the overflow of children standing in line to attend our school. Our parents are welcomed with open arms and are equal partners in their child’s education. I invite parents, community members, and everyone to come see us. Come sit in our classes and see a quality public education.


Cindi Hemm has been named 5B District Administrator of the Year by the Oklahoma Association of Elementary School Principals for 2010. Criteria for selection include: being a principal or assistant principal for at least five years, maintaining high expectations for students and staff, showing evidence of outstanding contributions to the school and the profession, and being an established, respected member of the community. Cindi was also Tulsa Public Schools’ Administrator of the Year in 2008. This is her seventh year as Principal of Eugene Field Elementary. She is a graduate of Nathan Hale High School and The University of Arkansas. She and her husband, Jeff, reside in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but visit their “Razorback Grandbabies” in Arkansas as often as possible.

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