Lamar Alternative Education Center used to be Lamar Elementary. It's part of the Grand Prairie Independent School District, and it officially closed its doors at the end of the 2013 school year because of low attendance. Today, the school sits empty in a working-class neighborhood, and looks the part of a schoolhouse hastily abandoned: A peek through the windows reveals the lights are turned on, but no occupants. Child-sized plastic chairs, some toppled haphazardly, are strewn about the foyer. Crumpled pieces of paper and broken school supplies litter the linoleum tile.
This school, forgotten by most until just a few weeks ago, will likely be the new temporary home to more than a thousand Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran children. And it could open its doors to these kids within the month.
Elisha Caudle, a neighbor, attended Lamar Elementary as a child, when the school taught kindergarten through 5th grade. "I do feel sad to see it change," she told Unfair Park when we visited the neighborhood last week. "I went there to school for six years. But it is what it is." She said there are still too many questions that the city has to answer before residents feel comfortable with the neighboring shelter. "We're mostly wondering about the discipline part of it. I mean, is there going to be gang members in it?"
The City of Grand Prairie sent a letter to each of these residents detailing the intended use for Lamar, which is how Rebecca Parks first heard of the intended shelter. Parks lives down the street from Lamar, next to a community park, and has young children of her own. She said she doesn't mind the immigrant children being transplanted to Lamar, as long as they keep to themselves.
"I don't want a bunch of kids running around unsupervised. But people are saying they're not even going to be allowed off the property," she said. "I'm just worried there's going to be a bunch of fighting in there. How do we know they're going to get along? And if they're teenagers they're not going to want to stay on the property."
Ramzi Farah lives across the street from the school. He is most concerned about his property value dropping. He said the school grounds are often used by neighborhood families for community events and pick-up baseball and basketball games.
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"It's a good cause, but when you put it in a neighborhood we have the right to know way beforehand," Farah said. When Lamar Elementary was first converted to Lamar Alternative Education Center, the property value of neighborhood homes dropped, he said. "My property is going to dramatically drop value again. I mean do you want to live next to a facility that could have fences and cameras? It's going to look like living next to a prison. That's what people are mostly concerned about."
The City of Dallas has recently expressed doubts that some of the proposed shelter property could be ready by the end of July. Grand Prairie ISD officials, in particular, have said Lamar is not yet ready for occupants. But unlike other propsed sites, Lamar has not seen an outpouring of protests. Most neighborhood residents agree that while there are still logistics to consider, housing the kids at Lamar would be a good thing to do.
Farah is himself an immigrant, and has spent a good part of his 20 years in the United States learning how to navigate the immigration system. "For the act itself, of sheltering the kids, I don't see it's wrong," he said. Raised in Haifa, Israel as a Christian, Farah aid, he can relate to the children in how they're stuck in the middle of two governments.
"For me, I totally understand. I'm not Jewish and I'm not Muslim, but I'm an Israeli Christian. So I'm in the middle basically." He smiled slightly. "Just like those kids."