A Decade of Change: Obscuring Churchill’s Social Divide

By Whitney Gomes

We’ve had the SWAT team close off our street twice since we moved here,” said Diane Talbot, mother of twin fifth-grade girls. The first SWAT encounter was for busting a methamphetamine lab. The other: domestic violence. Despite working sixty hours a week, Talbot has endured great financial hardships that limit her housing options. Mountains of medical bills due to a birth defect that almost ended the life of one daughter have forced Talbot to file for bankruptcy. Her girls were born two months before 9/11; the economic crisis that followed only made matters worse. However, she perseveres for the sake of her daughters’ future.

Crime doesn’t characterize the other side of this neighborhood; in fact, law enforcement rarely frequents the other side. Million dollar housing and luxury vehicles distinguish the top 1 percent income bracket from what residents deem “the wrong side” of 18th Avenue –– where Talbot and her children live.

Welcome to Churchill: where an incongruous mixture of race, age and financial means characterize a socioeconomic divide unlike that of any other Eugene community. The class struggle has gained momentum through what attracts many people to a neighborhood: the quality of local schools and consequently the academic success of its students. The 4J Eugene School District allows parents to choose the school their child attends. Critics claim that this school-choice policy promotes the segregation of different racial and economic classes by allowing advantageous white students to enroll at the best schools –– therefore denying economically disadvantaged students the same school-choice opportunity, for they lack the financial means to transfer.

The economic downturn following September 11, 2001 disrupted the controversial two-tiered Eugene school system: the education deficit soared, enrollment slumped and schools closed. The district axed several schools which suppressed the class struggle, and the closure of Bailey Hill Elementary in 2001 played a key role in this transformation. Most importantly, it blurred the divide between rich and poor.

The “Haves” and “Have-Nots”

The prevalent social divide has dominated the Churchill landscape for decades. Resident and 4J librarian Karen Alavi recalled one of her first encounters with neighbors from “the right side” of 18th Avenue. She was a member of the Parent Organization at her son’s elementary school and they were preparing holiday gift baskets for less-fortunate families.

“I knew by probably the second meeting there that I was never going to get along with these people,” she said. “One family was being criticized for having another child when they couldn’t provide for the children they already had.”

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Residents Karen and David Alavi have lived in Churchill for almost 20 years. Together, they have seen the best and the worst of McCornack Elementary.

Nearly twenty years ago, Karen and her husband David Alavi booked one-way tickets from Maryland to Eugene, Ore. The couple, with two children in tow, drove around town with a real estate agent and purchased a home in Churchill. They had one weekend to settle into a neighborhood they knew nothing about, yet it didn’t take long for them to realize they lived on “the right side” of 18th Avenue –– just not right for them.

Their son Michael enrolled in second grade at McCornack Elementary School in March of 1993 where he joined a youth soccer team. Among the players’ parents, David Alavi said “it was abundantly obvious who were considered the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and that we ‘have-nots’ were looked down upon.” At age 7, Michael realized his peers had already formed well-defined social cliques, and as the new kid he found the student dynamic intimidating.

Growing up in Churchill, Michael quickly realized that distinct geographical distances determined social status. “As you traveled up ‘the right side’ of eighteenth, a holier than thou attitude was quite obvious,” he said.

Combining Two Worlds

The economic crisis following 9/11 transformed the workforce and greatly impacted public education. The Eugene school district had to make difficult decisions about what programs to cut and what schools to close in an effort to deter a $4.1 million budget deficit over the next couple years. In March 2001, the decision to close down Bailey Hill and Whiteaker elementary schools sparked controversy. By closing Bailey Hill –– whose majority enrollment consisted of economically disadvantaged students –- and consolidating it with the more affluent students of McCornack elementary, two conflicting worlds merged and the resulting dynamic brought new challenges and surprising outcomes.

“Basically, Bailey Hill was a rundown piece of junk,” said Brooks Reffstrup, former Churchill resident. “McCornack was all new –– it had more classrooms and a lower student-to-teacher ratio.” Reffstrup grew up on Bailey Hill Road and his best friends today all attended McCornack. When Bailey Hill started phasing out, some McCornack parents found that they are not as different from families on “the wrong side” of 18th Avenue.

The Steps of McCornack Elementary

The Steps of McCornack Elementary

Churchill families that had never been a two-income family needed a second income just to put food on the table. The recession was gradually changing parent roles. PTA meetings weren’t scheduled on weekday afternoons anymore; both parents had to work.

“Kids aren’t going home to mommy every night,” McCornack teacher Priscilla Ing said. “They’re going home to dad who might be working two jobs or it’s both parents working the swing shift.”

The Impact of Title I Programs

On January 8th, 2002, Title I Programs were enacted as part of the No Child Left Behind Act started by the Bush Administration. Title I Programs provide federally funded resources to ensure that all children (in elementary and secondary education) have an equal opportunity to a high-quality education. The government provides financial assistance to schools with high proportions of economically disadvantaged children, which is based on the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Students who qualify for Title I are identified through benchmark testing at the beginning, middle and end of the academic year. Those who test at or below the 20th percentile –– and who are not being served through the Learning Center Program –– are considered for small group “interventions” in an effort to catch them up to the average student in the appropriate grade level.

“The theory is that because we have so many lower-income families, there’s going to be a need for more small group support,” Ing said. In the academic year prior to merging with Bailey Hill, 100 McCornack students were eligible for free lunch through the NSLP. The following year, the proportion rose by nearly 25 percent.

Ing has lived in Churchill for 32 years –– four of which she has worked at McCornack Elementary.. Her position as Title I Coordinator is funded by federal money and her goal is to ensure that given a child’s circumstances, they reach their academic potential.

“It’s not that we have kids from low-income families,” Ing said. “We just have kids from hard-working families and they aren’t getting the support they need at home.” McCornack was not designated a Title I school until students from Bailey Hill joined the student body.

Ing teaches children who eat one to two meals a day (provided by the school). She works with students who walk themselves to and from school because both parents are working. When a child’s development is compromised due to poor pre-natal conditions, Ing help these students catch up in the classroom.

“Test scores do not tell the whole story,” Ing said. “Large numbers are not conducive to meeting all children’s needs.”

The McCornack Elementary study body has changed drastically –– socioeconomically speaking –- over the last couple decades.

The McCornack Elementary study body has changed drastically –– socioeconomically speaking –- over the last couple decades.

Talbot, whose twin girls are in the Title I program at McCornack said that without it, she otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford any “special” schooling for them and consequently, her daughters would be further behind academically.

The New Meaning of Diversity

Since the Eugene School District closed the doors of Bailey Hill, the population of white students at McCornack has steadily decreased. Between the 2007-2008 and the 2010-2011 academic years, the proportion of Hispanic students enrolled at McCornack rose by 11 percent while the proportion of White students remained the same.

Ing estimated that approximately one-third of McCornack students qualify for Title I services. “With this economic downturn, we have families that would be approved if they applied, but they’ve never been in that situation before, and they don’t want to ask for it,” she said. Participation in Title I services is confidential.

“The teachers are a tremendous benefit,” Talbot said. “They’re genuinely concerned for my girls.” Talbot’s family moved around before settling in Churchill; her children attended two elementary schools before McCornack. Despite malevolent neighbors and consistent crime, Talbot does her best to keep her family from the chaos and keep her children focused on school.

Since high proportions of disadvantaged children determine the need for federally funded education programs, if Bailey Hill Elementary hadn’t closed down in 2001, McCornack may have never become a Title I School. With the recession transforming the workforce and school districts inducing budget cuts, families need help more than ever. It starts with the future: today’s students.

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