Monday, December 5, 2011

MIRACLE ON SOUTHWEST BOULEVARD by Cindi Hemm with Katie Hemm Kinder

Miracle on Southwest Boulevard is a 2011 book by Cindi Hemm (with her daughter, Katie Hemm Kinder), about high-poverty, urban Eugene Field Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

When Cindi Hemm took over as principal of Eugene Field in 2003, it was in atrocious condition and had the worst test scores in the state. Within a few years, test scores were in the top ten percent for the state, enrollment increased, problems decreased, and the school became a service-oriented community hub. It’s an amazing story. It’s the sort of thing Hollywood makes feel-good movies about.

These changes occurred because of reforms Hemm instituted within the school (requiring uniforms, teaching to the test, and so forth), but much more because of Hemm’s active recruitment of outside help. While some volunteered, Hemm enlisted the help of churches, businesses, and individuals to invest time and money in the school and in its children. This is the inspiring part of the story: how the greater Tulsa community turned Eugene Field into a place that could, in turn, serve its community.

Hemm’s leadership, resourcefulness, and dedication are impressive. She credits faith in God for much of what takes place, yet at the same time she celebrates how she frequently circumvents school administration to do what she wants – she calls this “positive deviance” – and recommends this practice to other educators. Whether the reader agrees with this or not, Hemm certainly seems like an interesting person. (As an aside, the reader may feel that in this book, Hemm is tooting her own horn; that’s fair, but it really doesn’t feel intentional.)  

Hemm’s writing is highly informal; it’s beyond conversational, somewhere on the level of a personal email. It reads almost like a novel, although it’s often stilted and sometimes doesn’t flow well. Also, Hemm. Emphasizes. Points. Like. This. She tells her story anecdotally and thematically rather than chronologically, and in any given chapter, it can frequently be difficult to determine at what point in the process a particular thing occurred. The book (which was self-published through Thomas Nelson) is horrifically mispunctuated and filled with typos (even on the back cover). It looks like it received zero copy-editing. Yet for all its flaws, the book never fails to be interesting, although you definitely expect a better-written book from a professional educator.

Eugene Field Elementary School’s turnaround is a great story, and as such, Miracle on Southwest Boulevard is worth a read. But the school’s story deserves a better book than this.