Displaced Yet Determined: Tornado-Damaged Schools Years Away From Construction Completion

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Thomas Jefferson High School, Walnut Hill Elementary School and Cary Middle School all took direct hits from the 2019 outbreak of tornadoes that carved a path of destruction through parts of Dallas.

The storm destroyed buildings on the campuses and displaced students leaving the schools facing repairs and rebuilds that will last for years.

We are at Edison Middle School and we will be here for at least two to two and a half more years,” Thomas Jefferson High School principal Sandi Massey said. “We’re doing pretty good considering that it was mass chaos in the middle of Fall.”

Massey said she will always remember when she got word of the damage to her school.

“I was kind of in denial the first 24 hours. I was just like, ‘We’ll probably be back to school. Clean off the parking lot a little bit. Let’s put some cardboard up on some windows and let’s get back at it,’” Massey said. “It wasn’t really clear to me until I started getting pictures and my people saying ‘you can’t even get over here.’”

When she was able to get to the school through the destruction in the community, she found her campus in ruin.

“These beautiful images of art and things that students have put on the walls and then right beside it tiles just falling all over the floor,” Massey said.

What would follow is a deal of debate about the future of Thomas Jefferson High School – should the school get repaired or rebuilt. The Dallas ISD Board of Trustees ultimately decided to repair and renovate the campus.

“I was able to see a few renderings and pieces of moving forward. They are definitely working. The are definitely making things happen,” Massey said.

Massey said she, the students and staff are finding a silver lining in their temporary home at the old Thomas Edison Middle School location.

“We take advantage of the moments that we have here that are great. In this building there is air conditioning every single day and that wasn’t the case at ‘TJ.’” Massey said. “I imagine that will be fixed when we move forward.”

Students and staff at Walnut Hill Elementary School are now holding classes at the old Tom Field Elementary School campus.

“It’s a new location for us post-tornado, but we’ve made that home and there are a lot of upgrades to that facility that we are really proud of,” Walnut Hill Elementary School principal Phillip Potter said.

One year later and the old campus still sits with blue tarps covering the roof.

“There’s not going to be a return back to the old campus,” Potter said. “It is going to be a rebuild. We are looking at the transformation process right now to open as a transformation school in Dallas ISD.”

Walnut Hill Elementary will now consolidate with Cary Middle School creating a new school.

“It will be on the site where Cary Middle School once stood. So, it will be on the same property as Thomas Jefferson High School in that redesign project,” Potter said. “It is all about the culture and it is all about the people and so none of that ever changed. I think I said a year ago that we lost our building, but we didn’t lose our school.”

“Thomas Jefferson High School students won’t look at the past as a way to make excuses for their future and what they don’t get done,” Massey said. “It’s an opportunity to say there is a silver lining here and I’m going to take this piece that’s my story in this tornado and this pandemic and I’m going to create an amazing future.”

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