Dear Old Lee School Forging New Paths
By CHARLES CANTRELL
WELCOME TO LEE STADIUM: At the northeast entrance to Lee Schools stands the pillared archway that once welcomed University of Tulsa football fans to a field now serving as the school’s playground and soon to be site of an outdoor classroom. Built in 1919, the entrance signifies the storied past of the state’s oldest continuously operating school.
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspapers
Imagine yourself living back in the 1920s. All around you are autumn colors. It’s late-October and you’re watching a football game between the newly renamed University of Tulsa and some ragamuffin team from down south called Texas Christian University. is the visiting team.
Earlier in the day, the team had arrived, disembarking in full uniforms from a Midland Valley Railroad passenger car. The steam-driven train made a brief stop on the tracks running adjacent to the west edge of the football field letting the team unload, then headed northwest toward Tulsa’s emerging, but still infant skyline. Above you the sky is blue, the air is clear and crisp, and you’re seated on terraced rock steps serving as bleachers rising along the east edge of the field.
Immediately behind you is a newly completed elementary school that will someday become the oldest continuously operating school in the state. Surrounding the school one of the city’s first suburbs called Maple Ridge, where stately homes are on the rise. The growth of this plush neighborhood is driven primarily by a young, prosperous petroleum-based, local economy already providing oil around the world. Welcome to Lee Stadium, located behind Lee Elementary School, situated on the edge of a city soon to be known as the “Oil Capital of the World.”
Tulsa won the 1922 game over at Lee Stadium by the score of 21-0 and went on that year to have a perfect 9-0 season. The players, in full uniforms, boarded the train and headed back home to Ft. Worth.
In early April of this year, Lee Elementary School celebrated its 95th anniversary by inviting parents, students, former students, educators and the local press for cake, refreshments and some exciting news. Located on the northwest corner of 21st Street and Cincinnati Avenue, this enduring brick and concrete structure has graduated four generations of Tulsa youngsters. In its long history, the school has earned the reputation as an innovation-friendly institution. It was one of the first schools to explore the “open classroom” concept of the 1970s. A school with a nine-decade history survives not because the building housing it is built to last; it survives because it changes and adapts to the times.
Many of those attending the anniversary celebration were there to reminisce about the good old days, about teachers they remembered and admired. But one attendee came to talk about the future of Lee Elementary School, about an idea to once again put the school in the forefront of educational innovation.
Sarah Dougherty, mother of two Lee students, school volunteer and member of the Lee Foundation, presented a plan for a project called “Discover Lee – Outdoor Discovery Classroom.” As she put it, “This project will provide a way for the school to incorporate everything done indoors and take it outdoors.” She went on to explain how an outdoor classroom creates additional learning opportunities, citing studies that conclude young students benefit physically, emotionally and intellectually from open air classroom settings.
Dr. Patty Eaton, a long-time teacher at Lee, provided the vision for the project. The Lee Foundation took on the task of raising the necessary funds from parents, foundations, corporations and alumni. Dougherty heads up the fund raising and coordination of the project. To help matters along, a generous matching grant was made possible by Mrs. Nieta Pinkerton in memory of her late husband and Lee alum, Mr. James C. Pinkerton. According to Dougherty, the fundraising is halfway to the goal of $180,000. The project is to be completed by this fall.
The footprint of Discover Lee will run along the west edge of the playground close to where Midland Valley Railroad cars once unloaded football teams. Featuring a small pond, shade trees and connecting paths, the garden-like setting will be divided into three sections: the science classroom, the children’s forest and the prairie classroom. Each classroom will have a different focus and cater to students pre-K and up.
The science classroom will incorporate a pond and garden for ecological studies. In the children’s forest, trees will define spaces and create winding paths and structures such as forts, vine tepees and bamboo huts. A sand area with boulders and native grasses will be featured in the prairie classroom, along with gathering places enabling classes to spend their entire learning period outdoors.
The goal of the project is to provide a multi-use and multi-age approach in a natural learning environment for students. Primary students will engage motor skills, creativity and imagination to navigate the spaces. Art education, music and science will be incorporated into lesson plans giving students multiple opportunities to engage their senses, energy and learning in a natural environment. Secondary students will have opportunities to integrate all disciplines in the outdoor classroom environment. Science studies in particular will benefit from the natural environment.
In 1959, Lee School held a contest inviting Tulsans to submit their ideas for a Lee School song. As a sixth grader at Lee, Rev. Connie Murray Ichord, now of First United Methodist Church, won the contest. The open lines of her lyrical tribute begin with “Dear old Lee, the school for me.” Over the years that has remained true for many of its graduates who have become community activists providing vital volunteer and financial support to the school. It is one very important reason why the school continues its iconic presence in midtown Tulsa.
What was once Lee Stadium hosting TU football games now serves as the school’s playground where, weather permitting, impromptu soccer games and lunchtime tag are the order of the day. Recently the school’s tall windows have been retrofitted with energy efficient, double pane glass, while inside frequent facility updates have been made. Walls have been repainted and air conditioning added. A new cafeteria was added last year, solving a long festering lunchtime scheduling challenge; but essentially the rest of the building remains much as it was when it opened in 1919. Early day schools like Lee, built to withstand the years, symbolize Tulsa’s long-standing commitment to quality public education. Lee School remains unchanged in one other respect and it is best stated in the school’s mission statement, “Providing quality, differentiated instruction for all students daily.”
For anyone interested in learning more or donating to Discover Lee visit leefoundationtulsa.org.