JoBeth Reynolds didn't grow up going to school at Cherokee Elementary School in Turley. But her mother-in-law did. So did her children, who grew up caring for chickens, ducks and geese as part of a curriculum at the school that focused on the importance of agriculture.
Though her children are grown now, Reynolds is proud to note that the emphasis on agriculture remains an important part of what students are taught at the school, which has been around since the 1920s. It boasts a large garden center, an outdoor classroom and associations with year-round environmental and horticultural organizations, particularly the 4-H club. She believes children are introduced to life skills at Cherokee that they more fully develop when they progress to nearby McLain High School -- the district's science and technology magnet school, which features a greenhouse where students are given the opportunity to grow and sell their own produce.
That's all part of the circle of life in Turley -- a comparatively poor and rural but tight-knit community of approximately 3,200 people just north of Tulsa. The town still features a rodeo at the local round-up club on Saturday nights during the summer that attracts 500 to 600 people.
But Reynolds fears much of the fabric of her town will come undone in the months ahead as Cherokee Elementary, located at 6001 N. Peoria Ave., closes under the Project Schoolhouse initiative, which was undertaken by Tulsa Public Schools as a consolidation measure. The City Council on May 2 voted 5-2 to close Cherokee and 13 other schools. Officials say the measure will help save the district $5 million annually. Cherokee students will be sent to nearby Greeley Elementary at 105 E. 63rd St. North.
"What I learned in school, I'm still using," said Reynolds, a TPS product who has been a seamstress for the past 45 years, though she notes she has a degree in human services from Oklahoma State University. She wants students today to be able to learn the same practical skills she did, and she believes Cherokee is one of the few places left where they can do that.
Reynolds isn't alone in fearing the worst for Turley once the school is closed. She and many others believe a number of families with elementary-age children at home will move to the nearby Sperry or Owasso school districts to avoid sending their children to Greeley, which is located adjacent to a women's correctional facility, the Turley Residential Center at 6101 N. Cincinnati Ave.
Needs vs. Wants.
"It's going to hurt us," said Glenda Larson, manager of Simple Simon's Pizza, 6206 N. Peoria Ave., which provides five large pizzas each month as a reward to Cherokee's student of the month. "The grocery store may survive because everybody needs groceries. But not everybody needs pizza."
Larson said she believes Greeley is a fine school, and she noted the families there send quite a bit of business her way. But there's no disputing the fact that Cherokee is the heart of Turley, she said.
"Most of the students here walk to school or ride the bus," she said. "A lot of families don't have transportation to run their kids back and forth. If (the district is) trying to save money, are they going to going to bus all those kids?
"When the price of milk goes up and the price of gas goes up, our sales go down," she said. "They're going to buy milk and gas before they buy pizza."
Larson was so concerned about the plan to close Cherokee she turned in a petition to the school board with four pages of signatures. Other business owners and community leaders are just as alarmed.
"The closing of Turley's only school will bring hardship upon our town and its families," writes Roxanne Burch of Green Country Feed and Seed, 6155 N. Peoria Ave. "It is a forceful grief upon many in the town of Turley, and it will be a great loss to our business."
Martha Hoffman, president of the Freedom Bank of Oklahoma at 6555 N. Peoria Ave., writes that Cherokee offers the community its only library and media center -- a facility that many of the town's adults take advantage of, Reynolds said.
"We are proud of the community of people that have worked together to try to maintain the area in spite of increasing financial instability," Hoffman writes.
Ruth Collier, owner of the Turley Laundry Center at 6512 N. Peoria Ave., said she has made a considerable investment in new equipment and only recently has begun to see a return on that.
"The majority of my customers are families with children living in Turley," she writes. "Without a doubt, closing our only school in Turley would bring a struggle upon me and a devastating effect and loss to my business. Already, I'm hearing many stories of people who are planning to move into other school districts. This means I WILL LOSE THEIR BUSINESS!"
Sean Roberts and Seneca Scott, two members of the state House of Representatives whose districts include Turley, sent a letter to the school board, as well, urging members to reconsider their decision.
"The community is rallying around their school and we encourage the Board to consider the community and other options when making their final decision," they write.
Supporters of the school acknowledge the fact that the cash-strapped district needs to close many of its schools and send students elsewhere in order to save money. But they're mystified by the decision to close Cherokee, which they argue boasts enormous community support and a high level of volunteerism -- advantages that many schools that will remain open under the consolidation plan can't claim.
Reynolds points to the fact that Cherokee underwent $2.5 million in improvements a few years ago, with each classroom having a SMART board -- an interactive whiteboard that integrates the power of a computer -- installed. The school also performs a valuable community service by feeding many local children breakfast and lunch on a year-round basis, she said.
Turley residents pride themselves on taking care of their own, Reynolds said, but they are convinced their ability to do that will be severely diminished when Cherokee is closed.
Supporters of the school put together a plan of their own that called for Greeley Elementary students to be sent to Cherokee instead. Under that alternative, Greeley then would be converted into a facility that would provide the inmates at the Turley Residential Center with educational opportunities and life skills training. That would have allowed the board to close one school and allow the state Department of Corrections to take it over, they said.
That proposal failed to gain any traction. But even as the school board's vote to approve the consolidation plan approached, Reynolds remained hopeful that Cherokee would somehow survive as she and a friend ate their lunch one afternoon last week in Cutty's Café, an important local gathering spot.
"We are not giving up," she said.
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