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West Students Head Back To School And A Portable Campus

The first day of school Monday will be a homecoming for returning middle and high school students in West.  After their schools were damaged in the April fertilizer plant explosion, they finished the school year in Waco. This year, they’ll be on a large campus of portable buildings.

Construction crews and volunteers are working non-stop to get nearly two dozen portable buildings ready for students.  The portables fill almost a square block in back of the damaged middle school. Kevin Zuehlke teaches world geography and spent Thursday checking out his classroom. He doesn’t mind teaching in a portable because it’s home.   

“There’s just something about being at home," Zuelhke says. "These are West kids and I know they’re excited about being back in West. I have a high school age son and he’s really excited about being able to be here as opposed to on somebody else’s campus.”

Assistant Superintendent Jan Hungate spent the last four months putting together the portable school, which looks like a whole bunch of double-wides.    

“Three of our classroom buildings are ten classroom buildings, so they’re going to be like little schools," Hungate explains. "So, they won’t have to be doing a lot of moving around outside on the ramps.  We’re building ramps. We’re building walkways. So, I think it’s going to be real conducive to having school.”

The portables are air conditioned, wired for computers, and on the inside, look like typical classrooms. A huge white tent will be the cafeteria. An outside contractor will cook breakfast and lunch. There will be three lunch periods with 200 kids at a time.  Another tent will be a practice gym. The undamaged middle school gym will host the basketball and volleyball games.   

Hungate says it’s an expensive proposition, but declines to put an exact figure on the cost of the campus. About a third of the portables have been donated by other school districts. She says FEMA funds are helping out a lot, and donations are still coming in.

“I still field about three to five calls a day: people wanting to do something, donate their time, donate their money, donate their expertise," Hungate says with a smile. "And so, it’s just been phenomenal. I thought that it would eventually phase out, but people are so good.”

The portable campus for middle and high school students will be ‘home’ for at least two years. Hungate says financing and building two new schools will take time.  It may also mean that sophomores this year could graduate from the portable campus.  

Teacher Kevin Zuehlke has spent some time thinking about that and what he’ll tell his students the first day.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit of concern." Zuehlke says. "There’s nothing like being in your high school. But what they are going to have to understand, and I think they will, that they are the high school – not the buildings. They’re the high school and what they make of it is what will become their high school. And I think everything will be just fine."

Jan Hungate’s not worried. She wouldn’t be surprised if there were perfect first-day attendance.

"It’s exciting. Everybody’s curious about what it’s going to look like," Hungate says. "Nobody’s going to miss that first day because they don’t want to miss anything.  They’ll be there. I know they will.”

Gene Hosek, on a morning walk, stopped to watch the furious work for a while. His home was destroyed in the plant explosion.  He says getting the kids back to school in West is a big step toward normal.    

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.