In 2016, when students at South Oak Cliff High School staged a walkout to protest the shabby conditions at the aging campus, Tyesha Brown was right there with them.
Brown, then a freshman, didn't want the school remodeled. Like many students at the time, she wanted it torn down and rebuilt from scratch. But as she looked out into the hallways of the newly renovated but not quite new school Tuesday morning, Brown, now the school's senior class president, said she's happy with the change.
"It's amazing," she said. "It looks wonderful."
Tuesday was the first day back in class for Dallas ISD students, and the first day for South Oak Cliff students to return to their building after being relocated to a nearby campus for two years.
Although the building is the same one that's been there since 1952, it's undergone a $52 million overhaul. There are remodeled hallways and classrooms, as well as new amenities like a state-of-the-art weight room, upgraded band and choir rooms, and an updated courtyard.
Before the district moved students out of South Oak Cliff, the building was in bad shape. Roofs leaked. There were pest control problems. When students walked out of class in 2016, they knew it was a risky move, Brown said. They weren't sure how teachers and administrators would react. They knew it could get them in trouble. But they also knew they needed a better school.
Asked if she thought that risk had paid off, Brown smiled and looked out at the brand-new hallways running through the school.
"Of course. Look at our building," she said. "It has paid off."
When students arrived at school Tuesday morning, teachers were out in the hallways helping them figure out where to go. Crews were still at work putting a few finishing touches on the building, some threading fiber-optic cable through ceiling tiles and others welding clasps onto gates in the parking lot.
Students, teachers and staff at the school had been displaced since the beginning of the spring semester of 2018, when the district temporarily moved the school to nearby Village Fair, a converted shopping center that the district had previously used as an alternative campus.
Initially, district officials considered moving students into portable classroom units on the South Oak Cliff campus while construction crews remodeled the main building. But after pushback from community members, the district opted instead to move students to Village Fair during the construction project.
South Oak Cliff principal Willie Johnson said the district tried to make the change as smooth as possible for students. Still, he said, the process was difficult. Students knew exactly what Village Fair was, he said — a temporary location, not their permanent school.
"When you're not home, it's different," Johnson said. "You're a transplant."
Brown agreed. In the two years that the school was at Village Fair, it never felt like home, she said. The campus was too small for the 1,200 students at South Oak Cliff. It was so crowded that it was impossible to walk down the hallway in between classes without bumping into other students headed the opposite direction. Students, even those who had protested the conditions at South Oak Cliff, asked if there wasn't a way for them to move back into their old building while the renovations took place.
Horace Bradshaw, a South Oak Cliff sophomore, said Village Fair didn't have the same level of classroom technology as the upgraded South Oak Cliff does. At Village Fair, only the classrooms in the school's collegiate academy were outfitted with touch-screen display boards, Bradshaw said. At South Oak Cliff, each classroom is equipped with a screen.
Although he wasn't at South Oak Cliff during the walkout, Bradshaw said he knows the amount of work that students at the time put into the effort. Some members of his family were among the community members who lobbied the school board to get the project funded.
"Hard work pays off," he said.
Maxie Johnson, the Dallas ISD trustee for District 5, said he doubts the project would have gotten done without students demanding better conditions. They, along with their parents and other community members, were the driving force behind getting the project funded, he said.
Although he still thinks the district would have been better off using the same $52 million it spent on the renovation project to build an entirely new building, Maxie Johnson said he was pleased with the renovations. He's happy that South Oak Cliff students will be able to go to school without having to deal with distractions like leaky roofs and mice.
Maxie Johnson blames a lack of leadership and a lack of willingness to take education seriously for all students in the district for allowing the school to fall into the state of disrepair it had before the renovations began. He wants the South Oak Cliff project to be one step in a longer process of reversing years of inequity in southern Dallas.
"I'm going to fight for equity. I'm going to fight for transparency. I'm going to fight for accountability," he said. "And the administration needs to know that we're not going to take no. Every kid is going to be treated equitably."
Willie Johnson, the principal, said he thinks the district came through on what it promised. The difference between the school that students left two years ago and the one they came back to on Tuesday is "night and day," he said.
As important as the project was for South Oak Cliff students, Johnson said it meant a lot for the broader community, as well. The neighborhood around the school is home to high crime rates, unemployment, high rates of diabetes and a host of other social problems, Johnson said. But when students in the neighborhood go to school in one of the best buildings in the district, with upgraded amenities that other schools can't offer, it can help get them interested in coming to school and getting involved with something on campus, he said.
With the upgrades, the school went from a run-down, tired campus to the district's showpiece for southern Dallas, he said.
"This is not just a building," Johnson said. "This is the Taj Mahal of the south."