Students from Tornado-Damaged Schools Return to Class

A student walks into a side door at Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center on Wednesday morning. Students from Thomas Jefferson High School, which was badly damaged in Sunday's tornado, started class at Thomas Edison on Wednesday.
A student walks into a side door at Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center on Wednesday morning. Students from Thomas Jefferson High School, which was badly damaged in Sunday's tornado, started class at Thomas Edison on Wednesday. Silas Allen
At a little after 9 a.m. Wednesday, Kristen Dale was walking the halls of Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center in West Dallas, stopping groups of kids as they passed.

Where are you headed? Do you know where you're going? she asked.

Some of them, being teenagers, tried to blow her off and walk past without answering. Others were lost and needed help finding their first-hour classes, so they stopped to talk. Dale looked over their class schedules, gave them directions to their new classrooms and sent them on their way.

There would be a lot of those conversations over the next few days, Dale said.

Wednesday was the first day back at school for students from Thomas Jefferson High School. The school was badly damaged when an EF-3 tornado tore through Dallas on Sunday night. The district moved Thomas Jefferson students, teachers and staff to the old Thomas Edison building for the rest of the school year while they figure out if TJ can be saved and what repairs it needs.

Dale, an algebra teacher, walked into her new classroom for the first time Tuesday to find nothing there but a handful of lab tables, which ended up being moved into biology classrooms nearby. Teachers across the school spent most of the day Tuesday trying to figure out how to set up classrooms on short notice and with few classroom materials. It wasn't easy, and the work isn't done yet, Dale said, but teachers are used to making do with insufficient resources.

On Wednesday morning, there were about a half-dozen circular tables in Dale's classroom with chairs arranged around them. There were math posters and decorations on the walls — teachers from other schools volunteered to help put those up on Tuesday, Dale said. But she didn't have laptops, calculators or filing cabinets. She didn't even have a pencil sharpener.

Still, she said, having tables is better than nothing.

"It's a start," she said.

Before school started Wednesday morning, Dale wasn't sure how much algebra she would be teaching that day. She planned to talk to students and see how they were doing before starting anything, and then maybe put them to work decorating class folders to replace the ones they used in their old classrooms. She was thinking of having them use parallel and perpendicular lines in their decorations, which ties into the next lesson they're scheduled to cover in class.

"I know that I want to see where they are before I start pushing math on them, but I probably will do just a little bit," she said.

The tornado that damaged Thomas Jefferson, in Northwest Dallas, was one of nine twisters that touched down Sunday evening in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the National Weather Service. TJ was one of several schools that had to be shut down because of damage. Walnut Hill Elementary School and Cary Middle School are total losses.

The district sent students from Walnut Hill to Tom Field Elementary School, which has been vacant since last year. Students and teachers from Cary, which is located next to TJ, were divided between Medrano and Franklin middle schools, both of which were without power until Wednesday afternoon.

Students from other schools with more minor damage reported to alternate campuses starting Wednesday while the district makes repairs. At Cigarroa and Burnet elementary schools, the storm caused minor damage and left downed power lines in the area. Students from those schools met Wednesday at Loos Field House in Addison, where the district had rudimentary classes and food services set up.

"This crisis made us focus our efforts on making this happen in short order." — Michael Hinojosa

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During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said the school day had gone remarkably smoothly given the disruption the storm caused. At Loos Field House, teachers were giving "very genuine" instruction to about 1,000 students sitting in circles on carpeted floors. At TJ, the biggest problem was that the first lunch shift was served a half-hour late, he said. Hinojosa credited teachers and school staff with getting students back in class as quickly as they did after the tornado.

"This crisis made us focus our efforts on making this happen in short order," he said.

Hinojosa also said the district has received an outpouring of support from the community after the storm. Community members bought lunch for teachers who were holding classes at Loos Field House. Others have called the district asking how they can help. On Wednesday, representatives from the Dallas Cowboys called Hinojosa to ask if the team could do something for Thomas Jefferson's homecoming, which was originally scheduled for Friday.

When Thomas Jefferson students showed up at Thomas Edison on Wednesday morning, teachers were out on the sidewalks giving hugs and welcoming them back. Principal Sandi Massey gave high-fives and cheerleaders from Conrad High School greeted students as they walked past. Rangers Captain, the Texas Rangers' palomino mascot, danced across the top of the steps.

Heidy Piril, a senior, said she was happy to see teachers out in front of the school greeting students as they came in, rather than in their classrooms getting ready to start the day, as they would be on a normal school day. It made her feel like the teachers were there for their students in a difficult time, she said.

"That felt good," she said.

Going into her senior year, Piril was looking forward to doing everything one last time before she graduates. This week is TJ's homecoming week, and it's a campus tradition to hold a cookout right after school on the day of the homecoming football game, Piril said. But because of the tornado, the homecoming game against Spruce High School was rescheduled from Friday evening to 10 a.m. Saturday. So some of those traditions will likely be put on hold this year.

Piril said she went past TJ to take a look at it in the days after the tornado. It was sad to see the damage to her old school, she said. It's also strange for those students, who have gone to schools in their own neighborhood since they were in elementary school, to have to start school in West Dallas, she said. But, she said, students and teachers have no choice but to try to make the best of it.

"This will have to do," Piril said. "We'll make this our home — our TJ."
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Silas Allen has been the Dallas Observer's news editor since March 2019. Before coming to Dallas, he worked as a reporter and editor at the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. He's a Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Missouri.
Contact: Silas Allen