It looked like the first day of school on the Hillcrest campus this Thursday with parents attending chapel and walking their kindergarten and 2nd grade children to new classrooms.
“I’m excited,” said Jill Keblawi, Parish Parent. “I appreciate that they invited the parents today.”
“The joy of reuniting with teachers and friends was palpable for certain, and at times almost emotional,” remarked Michele McLendon, Kindergarten Teacher. “Being back at school brought a sense of normalcy to ALL of our lives.”
On Sunday, January 17, an electrical fire started in the attic of Building E, home to Parish’s Kindergarten and 2nd grade classrooms as well as the Hillcrest campus Library and Main Office. Although Dallas Firefighters were able to quickly put out the flames, 10 classrooms and the faculty workroom suffered extensive water damage. News of the fire came during the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. All classes on the campus were canceled Tuesday and Wednesday while administrators assessed the damage and prepared a contingency plan for students to return to class.
“I was shocked, of course, but I knew it would be taken care of,” said Carrie Gosslee, Parish Parent.
“It was shocking to see the classrooms bare,” noted Stephanie Taylor, 2nd Grade Teacher. "Our parents were so encouraging... we had zillions of emails of support and offers of help."
Before checking out their temporary classrooms Thursday morning, students attended chapel and learned more about the fire that damaged the School. Jennifer Wilson, Head of Lower School, patiently explained what happened and told students what changes they could expect. She also asked them to tap into their lessons on being “courageous and resilient,” part of the ParishLeads framework under the School’s tenet of Honor.
“This is the perfect example of what that looks like,” said Wilson. “I think it’s important for children to learn flexibility and this is a real life example of how they can learn that and hopefully be better and stronger on the other side.”
Thankfully, Parish was able to turn to The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration for help during this setback. The church graciously allowed Parish to borrow and share space. Second grade classrooms moved to the School’s Snyder Building, Beasley STEM Center and to the second floor of the Transfiguration building. Religion and Spanish have also moved to the same church area. Kindergarten classes were relocated to the Transfiguration Youth Center, the same building Parish used when expanding grades in 2001.
“Wow. Oh Wow,” exclaimed parents and students as they filed into the new space. Kindergarteners - some jumping up and down, others sporting big smiles - quickly found their cubbies and hung their jackets and backpacks. Although they walked into different classrooms they found familiar items such as desks, chairs and artwork.
“Many were happy to see much of the contents from their damaged classrooms in their new space; it seemed to make it feel a little more like home,’” said McLendon.
“We know kids learn best when they’re in places that are comfortable and so we wanted them to feel like they had their own learning space back,” added Wilson.
As the 2nd graders came together, they started to ask about items missing in the room: the "schema" web project, the new thinking wall and the class fish (all school animals are now in the Exploratorium). They also had questions about the library, the upcoming wax museum project and of course the fire.
“They wanted to see pictures of the damage,” noted Taylor “They wanted to know how it happened and how many firefighters came? They seemed to understand how lucky the School was in the big picture of what could have happened.”
Creating familiar surroundings and settling nerves required teamwork at Parish. The Director of Facilities at Hillcrest, Bracken Reece, and his crew put in countless hours this week to move furniture and supplies. Others pitched in to get every classroom item into place.
“From teachers to IT staff to enrichment teachers and administration and staff… everyone was doing what they could to help us recreate our classrooms,” said McLendon
“It was hard physical and emotional work,” added Taylor. “Everyone was patient and helpful. There was lots of hugging, even some laughs and a stress ball fight in my room.”
Melissa Grabske, Assistant Head of Lower School for Academics, used her sewing skills to whip up some felt draperies to serve as a background on glass walls to create whiteboards. Teachers and staff hung up artwork and other classroom décor that was spared from the water damage. Joni Rathburn, Assistant to Head of Lower School at Hillcrest, joked that they should have called HGTV and turned this experience into a remodeling show.
“I think they did a great job in two days,” said Nisha Mascarenhas, Parish Parent. “Everything came together and they did a good job in communicating and making the kids feel sort of settled in their spaces.”
While the kids got back to the business of school in the new classrooms, clean up and repair crews continued their work on the damaged building. The cost of the fire damaged hasn’t been determined and it’s not clear how long the repairs will take. Parish will learn more in the days ahead. Parents and students will have to adjust to some minor changes but it doesn’t look like that will be much of a problem for any of them.
“They seemed to go to their space and have their morning routine the same way that they did in the other classrooms,” noticed Mascarenhas.
"Hey, where is our flag?" asked a 2nd grade student leader during the Pledge of Allegiance.
The teacher told him the flag and other cloth items were still being cleaned.
"Don't worry about it,” remarked another student. “We have learned to visualize, so just imagine a flag and say it."
Although the fire has proven to be a challenge, it’s also presented the Parish Community with some blessings and teachable moments.
“I’ve never seen so many people bond together to get something done,” noted Wilson. “I think we’ve done a good job in making it feel special and not just something terrible that happened.”
“This has been a truly humbling experience to say the least, and I am monumentally thankful for the selfless community of parents, staff and faculty,” said McLendon.
Becky Maher, the Hillcrest Librarian, may have described it best: “One potentially devastating event ignited such a wonderful feeling of unity, purpose and love within our community and that will be a part of our history and remembered for decades. Blessings for certain!”