Back To the Garden

A group of volunteer parents works to better their children's school.

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In 1999, Dr. Joyce Jensen reluctantly walked away from a garden she lovingly tended for 14 years. Little did she know then that one of the last seeds she planted would blossom so well after she moved away.

Jensen's garden is Richland Elementary School, an award-winning public school tucked away in East Memphis on Rich Road just east of White Station, where she served 29 years as principal. The seed she planted was the creation of the Richland Elementary Educational Fund (REEF), a volunteer parent organization wholly separate from the school's more traditional Parent Teacher Association. REEF's mission is to raise private funds earmarked to underwrite teacher development and curriculum-enrichment grants.

The idea was patterned after a successful fund-raising effort by parents at neighboring White Station High School.

Jensen, a grandmother with six grandchildren, pioneered the concept of placing a stamp on the back of student report cards, asking parents every six weeks to sign off on the number of volunteer hours they were willing to commit to at school or in their home. The procedure is still used at Richland today.

Her successor as principal, Kevin McCarthy, was also a believer in the REEF concept, even before the nonprofit group found its focus. He recognized the potential of having a pool of parents driven to foster the tradition of educational excellence at the school, especially in light of looming governmental funding constraints.

He nurtured the group through a period of uneven leadership, as the volunteers learned the fund-raising ropes on increasingly successful annual events such as spaghetti dinners and student talent shows. Eventually, the mix of motivated parents and teachers gelled into a cohesive force.

At the end of the last school year, McCarthy asked the group's leadership for something above and beyond their community-building events. He challenged the group to raise the serious money ($10,000 to $20,000 annually) needed for curriculum enrichment. Specifically he wanted the funds necessary to hire extra reading assistants for the lower grades.

The diverse student population at Richland creates special challenges for teachers and administrators. Some children are ready to read when they start kindergarten; others, unfortunately, are not. The disparity creates a need to spend extra time with these students.

"The emphasis at the federal, state, and local level is to make sure all children are reading at grade level or above when they exit third grade," McCarthy says.

And that's where this story comes full circle. In a brainstorming session, the board members of REEF came up with the idea of honoring former principal Jensen by naming the "curriculum enrichment" fund-raising drive in her honor.

The project has rapidly taken on a life of its own. There is now talk of planning a Richland Elementary community reunion for former students, teachers, and their families.

Through all the mid-summer planning commotion, Jensen remains modest and self-deprecating about her renewed status as a dusted-off "community institution."

"That's what happens when you've been around a long time," she laughs.

But the comment also strikes a more serious chord.

"I never got tired of the routine. It was hard to leave," she says. "The first day of school always brings a feeling of sadness over me now."

But Jensen remains a genuine fan of the school's achievements during the first three years of Principal McCarthy's administration.

"Kevin [McCarthy] understands that if you empower everyone, and they feel that it's their school, good things start to happen."

And so the garden grows.

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