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After Tornado Destroys An Elementary School, A Community Rallies To Create A New School

Jackie Arias
Parent Jackie Arias say the damage at Shields Elementary was extensive. The tornado tore apart the school's roof and flung air conditioning units on top of desks.

South of Dallas, more than 170 buildings were damaged or destroyed by the EF-3 tornado that hit Ellis County. That includes Shields Elementary in the Red Oak Independent School District. 

Hundreds of volunteers are racing to clean up an old junior high school. That’s where kids will go to class starting on Tuesday.

When the sun rose Sunday morning, the extent of the damage at Shields Elementary was obvious. About 500 kids would not be able to return to this campus.

“There are exterior walls that collapsed either in or out,” said Adi Bryant, executive director of communications for the Red Oak school district. “The cafeteria was pretty much blown all the way through where the students go in and get their food. Classrooms destroyed. Gymnasium, playground destroyed.”

Bryant said the fence around the playground is gone. Most of the roof is damaged. Air conditioning units are broken. The school’s almost a total loss.

Credit Jackie Arias
Jackie Arias
Parent Jackie Arias, who helped with the cleanup effort at Shields Elementary in Red Oak, says she was relieved no one was at the school when the tornado struck.

The rain that fell after the storm didn’t help – a lot of what could have been salvaged got wet. It was a race against the clock to save what they could – library books, desks and chairs, even a big stuffed bear.

“Whatever we can use we tried to get out of there and dried off and clean it up and use it again,” Bryant said.

The district is moving the salvaged items 10 minutes away to an old junior high school. This will be the students’ temporary home.

This week, hundreds of volunteers have been giving the school a quick makeover. They include district employees, parents and even students.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Scores of volunteers and district employees have been cleaning up an old junior high school to get it ready for hundreds of elementary school kids.

  They’re painting and decorating classrooms, moving furniture, bringing in supplies. The district has given the old school a new name – Shields Elementary on Live Oak.

Sarah Fogle, who has two kids who attend Shields, said her children were upset when she told them the storm destroyed their school.

“Once we told them that we were relocating the whole campus and keeping it intact, they were both just incredibly relieved, you know, to stay with their family, because Shields is absolutely a family,” Fogle said, tearing up. “Sorry, it’s been a little traumatic.”

Fogle and her husband sifted through debris at Shields on Monday. That was a hard day for them. Then, they found her son Wyatt’s snowman art project and a couple of other mementos belonging to her kids.

That gave them hope.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Workers spent the week painting walls at the old junior high school. It's been renamed Shields Elementary on Live Oak.

  “Thank God our babies weren’t in that building,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh it’s just a building,’ and it’s not just a building. That’s people’s livelihoods. It’s our home, it’s for our children. We can rebuild and we will rebuild. We’re a strong community. We will put it back, but to have our babies safe, that was the biggest thing.”

Up and down the hallways at the new, temporary Shields, volunteers talked about wanting to help their loved ones. Rosy Munoz and family members were busy cleaning and rearranging desks. This will be her daughter-in-law’s new classroom.

“This may not be exactly how they want it arranged, but when [teachers] walk in, it just doesn’t seem like there are just boxes everywhere,” Munoz said. “So giving them a sense of, maybe just a little sense of peace, I guess, and not so much overwhelmed.”

Some younger helpers are also doing their part to lift everyone’s spirits. Munoz’s granddaughter, Chloe, is a fifth grader at Shields Elementary. After the storm, she posted the following message on Instagram.

“I know it’s been hard these past few days because of the tornado. It’s torn houses and destroyed churches and even a school – mine. But always remember to smile even in the hard times. It’s always nice to be a light in the darkness.”

When Chloe saw the havoc wreaked on her school, she was sad and scared.

She’s happy now though that people have come together to create a new home for all the kids at Shields Elementary.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.