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Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Growth in the Garden

Growth in the Garden

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The land, a patchwork of brown punctuated by irrigated green, bears witness to the stubborn determination of this town's settlers to carve out an existence in a desertlike corner of the High Plains. Despite the naysayers--and an average annual rainfall of just 18 inches--residents learned to bend the land to meet their needs.

They dug irrigation ditches to siphon water from the Arkansas River. Then they used pumps, first powered by windmill, later by gasoline or electricity. Eventually, deep-well turbine pumps allowed farmers to tap the Ogallala Aquifer below the earth's surface, and improved irrigation methods made this corner of southwest Kansas one of the nation's most productive agricultural areas.

Many here say it is that same relentless spirit that has kept the town's first public school open for more than a century. First built in 1886, Garfield has occupied four buildings--two of which were leveled by fire.

But both the community and the school have had to bend to the needs of new settlers, triggering indelible changes that many have embraced and others have accepted grudgingly as the price of progress.

With few exceptions, Garden City has been a growing community, weathering more boom than bust. The cash crop of choice over the century has shifted from sugar beets to such grains as milo, corn, and alfalfa that are used to feed livestock. Lured by a burgeoning cattle-feeding industry, beef-packing plants set up shop in town. By the 1980s, existing plants expanded, and new ones moved to town, eliminating the need to ship cattle to urban plants for butchering.

The plentiful jobs brought Hispanic and Southeast Asian workers to town. Many of the newcomers are transient; many are poor. Many do not speak English well or at all. The town's demographic shifts have been reflected even more dramatically in the schools.

From 1980 to 1990, the Garden City school district grew by 45 percent, from 4,500 students to 6,600. Now, the district enrolls 7,700 students.

In 1991, Garfield became majority minority; a few years later, the district followed suit.

Whom the school has educated and how it has done so has shifted through the years. And, always, Garfield has been reshaped by events and changes in the community.

For a time, Garfield was the only school in town, serving grades 1-12 in a community with a population of 2,500 in 1886. Now, the city's population hovers near 25,000, and Garfield serves just part of the district's K-4 enrollment.

It's clear that Garfield's modern-day mission includes much more than just teaching the three R's. The school provides a safe place where immigrant children can master a new language and eases students and their families from their homelands to the heartland.

"It's not Dick and Jane and Spot anymore," says Garfield Elementary School Principal Willis Pracht. "It's a whole different ballgame."

A high log fence circled the yard of Northside School, which opened its doors in 1886 and later would be rechristened Garfield. Students had to enter the school through stiles, fashioned to keep livestock away from what was considered one of the area's finest brick buildings.

The eight-room, two-story building housed grades 1-8 on the first floor and grades 9-12 on the second. The school was overcrowded when it opened--a trend Garden City educators would find repeated throughout the 1900s.

"The new school building Monday presented the appearance of a beehive, the children literally swarming there, all anxious to resume their studies," the local newspaper reported just after the school opened. "The different apartments are full to overflowing, some of the teachers being obliged to place benches in the aisles to accommodate their pupils."

Before residents voted to tax themselves to build the school, some families paid $1.25 a month per child to attend "subscription" schools held for three- or four-month terms in private homes and churches.

Just barely into the new century, Garden City's first public school went up in flames, the result of a basement fire of unknown origin. School board members found room to continue classes in places like the Colored Baptist Church and the courthouse.

When the school reopened in 1902, it carried the last name of President James A. Garfield, who had been assassinated in 1881. Some local residents had fought under him when he served as a Union general in the Civil War.

While Garfield quickly filled up, it is unclear how wide a swath the school cut through Garden City's school-age population. What's recorded as Garden City's first high school graduating class in 1888 numbered five. By 1911, there were 24 graduates, and the city moved grades 9-12 out of Garfield to a separate high school.

The 1911 Sugar Beet , the high school annual, lists teachers in the subjects of English and German, history and Latin, domestic science and art, and mathematics and science--a far cry from Garden City High School's current thick course guide that includes landscape architecture, desktop publishing, and industrial technology.

Laws requiring school attendance and regulating child labor were in place early in the century, but both included plenty of loopholes.

The 1922 Annals of Kansas recorded "deplorable" child-labor conditions in the sugar beet industry, which took root in Garden City and surrounding Finney County in the late 1800s and continued into the 1950s. "Scores of children between the ages of 6 and 14 were compelled to work in the fields," it said, "and many never attended school."

In addition to growing crops such as wheat, farmers across the Midwest--many of German descent--were drawn to the area to farm the sugar beets. Mexican migrant laborers, some of whom were already in the area for railroad jobs, helped thin, hoe, and harvest the beets, which fed the demand for refined sugar.

Like other young men from his homeland who eventually settled here with their families, Hesiquio Rodríguez came from Michoacan, Mexico, to lay and repair track for the Santa Fe Railroad about the turn of the century.

One of his daughters, Cipriana Rodríguez, who also goes by Sue, still lives in the tree-enveloped family home that sits so close to the railroad tracks that the ground under the house rumbles when trains pass. Her sister, Felisa Guadian, lives across the street.

The sisters recall attending Garfield off and on during the years they worked the beet fields with their father to keep the family of 10 afloat.

The Rodríguez family formed part of the beginnings of a small Mexican community in Garden City whose numbers would dip during the Great Depression and pick up again after World War II.

While schools in larger Kansas cities were closed to Mexican children until the late 1910s or early 1920s, Garden City's were open. But by most accounts, not many Mexican-American children made it to school consistently, and, for those who did, school was not always an accommodating place.

Both 84-year-old Rodríguez and 77-year-old Guadian recall falling quickly behind.

"We all worked, and then we'd come back into school and they'd be on the last page of the book," Guadian says.

Learning English was a struggle. Local histories tell of children being held back for years because they did not have the English skills to move on. When the city's minority population started growing in the late 1970s, Guadian worked as a bilingual aide in Garfield and other Garden City schools.

"I could remember myself what those kids were going through," she says. "I wish I had that kind of help when I was young, but it just wasn't there."

By 1950, just 18 Mexican-Americans had graduated from Garden City High School since the century began, according to one researcher. Neither Guadian nor Rodríguez finished high school. But, Guadian notes with pride as she and her sister flip through a family scrapbook, all seven of her own children did.

If Garfield was not quite ready for students like the Rodríguez sisters back then, the sheer number of immigrant children and the children of immigrants years later would prove too big to ignore. And Garfield would have to bend.

To this day, 74-year-old Katherine Hart remembers the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem she memorized for class in the 1930s.

"Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,

That was built in such a logical way

It ran a hundred years to a day,

And then, of a sudden, it--ah, but stay ..."

By the time Hart attended Garfield, the school had lost two more grades, 7th and 8th, and the district was offering kindergarten.

School at Garfield in the 1930s to midcentury, by most accounts, was a tightly scripted affair. Some student desks had shifted from wood to metal, but they remained in tidy rows. If students misbehaved, they received the dreaded "swats" with the paddle.

Garfield students typically began their day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a short prayer. A 6th grade Kansas reader from 1926 offers "the great classics," which include works by Lord Byron and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as the "Odyssey" and the Bible.

In a 1952 manual, Garden City schools Superintendent J.R. Jones offered parents a few examples of the way elementary school had changed since the days they were in school: "In our day we sat, we memorized and recited. ... In our day, the teacher was pretty much a dictator. ... School for us used to be dull and tiresome." But with the changing times the superintendent described, students were expected to learn from the teacher, other students, and from textbooks or whatever other materials were available.

But pedagogy and penmanship often were overshadowed by events outside Garfield, such as the double whammy of dust storms and the Depression in the 1930s, with World War II close behind.

Pauline Joyce, 76, who taught 5th grade at Garfield in the early 1940s, recalls damp sheets hanging in the classroom windows in an attempt to block the "black blizzards" that could transform day into night.

"It was very frightening; it just enveloped us like a heavy snowstorm. You couldn't see at all," Joyce says of the drought-induced dust storms.

The Depression had a direct impact on Garfield. Its third building, constructed in a U-shape around the 1902 building that eventually was razed, went up in 1937 with the help of federal Public Works Administration money. In 1936, the county had urged voters to approve the bond issue needed to secure federal aid for Garfield--and help provide jobs for some of the 400 families on the public-aid rolls.

The Second World War, which for the United States began in December 1941, set off a critical labor shortage that spilled over into the teaching force, enabling people like Joyce to teach without full credentials. Garfield played host to air-raid-warden classes, and, eventually the war would furnish students with a cafeteria, tucked into barracks across the street.

Though local histories tell of ladies' clubs in the 1930s preparing lunches for children who came to school without them or could not go home for the noon meal, it was only after President Harry S. Truman inaugurated the federal school lunch program in 1946 that large numbers of children here regularly ate a meal at school.

Garfield teachers and alumni from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s remember a tight-knit, solidly middle-class neighborhood institution where most children walked to and from school, most went home for lunch, and nearly everyone knew everyone else.

Most people didn't bother to lock their doors until 1959, when the Clutter family was murdered in their home in neighboring Holcomb. Many here say the event, which inspired Truman Capote's 1966 book In Cold Blood, marked a loss of innocence of sorts in town.

Those teachers and alumni don't remember much racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom, though Garden City's schools have always opened their doors to the town's Hispanics and small black population; today, about 2 percent of the district's students are black.

Hart gently fingers a black-and-white photo of a dozen children proudly holding up their artwork on Garfield's front steps.

"I know all these little kids. I went all through school with them," says Hart, whose father, a doctor, brought the family to Garden City when she was 6 weeks old. "I think we were a pretty easy bunch to teach. The schools are certainly dealing with more urban-type issues than when we were there." She touches the photo again. "It's just a sign of the times."

The sign outside Garfield School's current building declares the campus a drug-free and gun-free school zone. It's a not-so-gentle reminder that Garden City is not living in the past.

Garfield's third home was reduced to a shell in 1975 in a fire set by three boys (the oldest was age 12), giving rise to the modern building Garfield occupies today.

Brick storefronts and the State Theater on Main Street a few blocks from the school mirror the images frozen in vintage postcards from the 1950s in the local historical museum. And the streets still turn from asphalt to brick around Garfield in what was once the center of town.

But Susie Carabajal's 1st grade class feels a world apart from the memories of such longtime residents as Katherine Hart.

The student names on Carabajal's door include Jesus, Noemi, Oscar, and Candelaria. One cluster of children reads on squares of carpet on the floor, while another sounds out syllables with a bilingual teacher's aide at the front table.

A U.S. flag hangs above the blackboard, its red and white stripes filled in with the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish: "Yo le doy mi lealtad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de America. ..."

About a third of Carabajal's students never went to school before coming to Garfield. Most arrived not speaking English. Many were born in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Mexico or have parents who were.

Of Garfield's 340 pupils, 81 percent are members of minorities--overwhelmingly, Hispanic. Nearly 200 students are learning English as their second language.

The school provides breakfast to about half its students and lunch to about three-quarters--most for free or at reduced prices because so many families fall below the federal poverty line.

The rapid-fire turnover at the two beef-packing plants in town, which together employ nearly 5,000 workers and many Garfield parents, contributes to high student turnover.

In the front office, Gail Koehn, 45, herself a Garfield graduate, talks through a translator with a parent gripping a green John Deere baseball cap in his hands.

"So this was the address up to this weekend, right?" she asks gently. "And the new one?"

Garfield's office sees so many ins and outs that Pracht says the joke now is, if you've been here over the weekend, you're a bona fide Garden City resident.

Garfield, like schools across the country, was shaped by the rise of the civil rights movement and the push to make schools better serve all students.

In the 1960s, with new federal money available to serve disadvantaged students, Garfield was part of the district's remedial-reading program. Some here point to the program as an early way of coping with youngsters who were struggling with English as a second language.

Garden City's first Hispanic mayor since the turn of the century took office in 1973. It was not until 1974 that the schools began a formal program to address the needs of students who spoke a language other than English. And it was a rocky road, says Linda Trujillo, who oversees migrant, immigrant, bilingual, at-risk, English-as-a-second-language, and homeless programs for the district.

"We really didn't know what we were doing. It was all brand-new," she says.

In 1980, a Garden City group called the Mexican-American Committee for Education filed a class action against the district, charging that it gave Hispanic students short shrift.

While the two sides eventually were able to hammer out a deal, the district initially fought the group's demands for bilingual programs. By most accounts, the experience was a painful one for the community.

"There was a lot of resistance to the bilingual notion, myself included," says Horace Good, Garden City's superintendent from 1969 to 1984. "I had to yield and give in."

"People in the community said English is our language, and you learn it just as soon as you can, however you can," says John Dickerson, who worked in the district from 1952 to 1978 as a teacher and administrator. "There was a sense of 'Well, why do we have to do this? It seems like everything worked OK before, so why change it.' "

At the same time, Garden City was becoming more ethnically diverse, more quickly than ever. Southeast Asians--a small but conspicuous presence in town since the mid-1970s, when local churches resettled Vietnamese refugees--started to arrive in search of jobs.

And the beef-packing plants began to attract a stream of newcomer Hispanics with roots throughout Central America.

To cope with the enrollment boom, the district built three more elementary schools in the 1980s; Garfield shed its 5th and 6th grades as the city grew.

Garfield has bused children since the 1970s, when many families with children moved out of the old town center to newer neighborhoods. Fields once full of prairie grasses today hold trailers at one end of the economic spectrum and, at the other, subdivisions of sprawling homes.

Since 1980, Spanish-speakers in need of language help have been bused to Garfield so that the district can better concentrate its scarce bilingual and ESL resources on a few elementary campuses. Students who speak Vietnamese, Laotian, or German dialects--a result of German Mennonite farmers' moving here from Mexico--are mostly in other schools.

"It's been quite an adventure," says Pracht, 46, who grew up in a central Kansas town of 3,000. "And in some ways, I think we're still a bit shellshocked by it all."

While Garden City shares, in microcosm, some of the problems of a Chicago or a Los Angeles, it is still very much a place that relies on the land and what it produces. But farming is now agribusiness; it takes fewer people and more money and training to farm.

It's hard to overstate the impact that packers like IBP Inc. and spinoff industries have had on Garden City. The district two years ago hired a liaison to improve communications between IBP and the schools.

And it was the fast-paced demographic change wrought in large part by the plants' plentiful low-skill jobs that drew a team of researchers here as part of a Ford Foundation project on immigration in the late 1980s.

The city took the researchers' recommendations to heart, setting up a multiracial board to keep the city informed on diversity issues. Garden City celebrates Beef Empire Days, but it also celebrates Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, and the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo.

The Ford researchers' report documented two Garden Cities: one for newcomers and one for more established residents. The schools are one of the places where the groups mix the most. Seeing the community's changes in such stark terms made them somehow more real, Pracht says.

"I think some people didn't even realize what we'd become," he says. "We needed someone else to hold up a mirror. And frankly, some folks didn't like what they saw."

Born in 1929, Frank Schmale, a former city commissioner and mayor, likes to say he never got far in life: For six decades, he lived and worked within three blocks of the house where he was born and raised, two blocks from Garfield.

His father, who came to the United States from Germany at 14, farmed wheat and sold land to other farmers who wanted to make a home here.

But Schmale says he's not so fond of all the transformations he's seen in town over his 69 years.

"This is a city now, nothing like when I was growing up," he says wistfully. "It just seems these new folks want us to change to their way instead of them changing to our way. ... I read how we're a model city and all that. But it's just too much change."

Teachers say Garfield's mission today reflects Garden City's social and economic realities. Many families have two working parents. Some parents get home from the beef-packing plants at 6 a.m.; others leave for their shifts at 6 a.m.

The bookshelf in Jean Dubbs' office is lined with titles on stress reduction, anger control, self-esteem, and grief management. A poster in the counselor's office gives children the top 10 reasons to say no to drugs. Dubbs, who has worked as a counselor in the district for 14 years, says problems that she used to see at the junior-high level now have trickled down to elementary school.

About a third of Garfield's children are in single-parent households, and about 40 percent of Garfield parents have less than a high school education--parents like Araceli Castro.

Castro, 29, attended school in El Salvador until 6th grade. The family came to Garden City four years ago so her husband could take a job on the cattle slaughter floor, which pays a better wage than the job he had picking vegetables in Northern California.

Castro says that it was hard for her to adapt to life here but that her three children have blossomed.

"I came here, and I thought, oh no, it's so flat. I didn't know if I could get used to it. But I see that the children, they really are comfortable here," Castro says in Spanish, watching her 4th grader at a classroom computer during a family-literacy night and book giveaway at Garfield. "For them, this is home."

First grade teacher Carabajal embodies how Garfield has bent to its new population.

"Working with the families to adapt here--not just the kids--is part of my job. It can't not be," says the 26-year-old teacher. She knows firsthand what many of her students are going through. Carabajal grew up in Ulysses, Kan., as a first-generation U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. Like many of her students, she played the role of family translator at the bank, the post office, and the doctor's office.

"The parents all want to know how are the kids doing in English," Carabajal says. "Forget reading or math or any of that. It's English."

But Garfield delivers much more than a second language. Students in the 4th grade classroom tote plastic bins filled with books and supplies from one cluster of tables to another to work in rotating stations on math, communications (previously, reading, spelling, and writing), science, and social studies. Add to that human sexuality, character education, behavior curricula, and gang prevention.

Pracht drives through town in a red pickup, past the strip mall that holds Lamkee Noodle House and Panaderia Real bakery. He turns into one of the seemingly endless trailer parks sprawled around the edges of town. He points to the blue letters MCB--for "master criminal boys"--spray-painted onto a garbage dumpster.

He slows to point out what's left of the sugar beet factory. Its red brick facade bears witness to the factory's 1906 founding; today, a plumbing wholesaler occupies much of the building.

"Yes, we have to teach math and reading. Being instructional leaders--that's all great and good," he says, as he waits for a cargo train to pass. "But sometimes that's so far down the totem pole for us it's not even funny."

PHOTO: Garfield's student population has gone through as many changes as the school's architecture. The original 1886 school burned down in 1901.
—Finney Historical Museum
PHOTO: Present-day Garfield.
—Lydia Smith
PHOTO: "It's not Dick and Jane and Spot anymore," says Garfield Elementary School Principal Willis Pracht. "It's a whole different ballgame."
—Lydia Smith
PHOTO: Sue Rodriguez, left, and her sister Felisa Guadian both attended Garfield when they weren't working in the fields. Both 84-year-old Rodriguez and 77-year-old Guadian recall falling quickly behind. "We all worked, and then we'd come back into school and they'd be on the last page of the book," Guadian says.
—Lydia Smith
PHOTO: Susie Carabajal teaches 1st grade at Garfield Elementary. "The parents all want to know how are the kids doing in English. Forget reading or math or any of that. It's English," Carabajal says.
—Lydia Smith

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 38-42

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