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Underground School In Fort Worth Will Soon See Daylight

Fort Worth Independent School District
Classrooms at Washington Heights Elementary School in Fort Worth are located underground. A new school above ground is under contruction and will be ready to open next school year.

Texas has a handful of schools built underground. One of them is in Fort Worth. Washington Heights Elementary was built nearly 40 years ago to reduce energy costs and noise. KERA recently went underground to dig up dirt on this unusual school.

Fourteen years ago, Alicia Alonzo arrived for her new job at Washington Heights Elementary School and was kind of confused.

“I drove up and I’m like, ‘What happened to the school? Who took it away?’ Alonzo remembered.

She didn’t see a huge school. Instead, she saw what looked like a storefront. The building was skinny, certainly not big enough to fit a classroom.

“I actually was going to drive off because I thought I was in the wrong location,” Alonzo said.

The school was hiding -- underground.

All of the classrooms, offices, library and lunchroom are below ground. The only thing out in the open? A gymnasium and auditorium and four brick structures that serve as entrances. Students have to walk downstairs to get to class.

“When I talk to other people, I’m ‘Yeah, I had to go downstairs to go into my classroom. What do you mean downstairs? Yes, I have to go underground,’ and they’re like ‘Oh, how does that feel like?’ ” Alonzo said. “It’s normal. For us, it’s just normal.”

Working at this school takes some adjustments. None of the classrooms have windows. So when Alonzo began teaching there, she took a bunch of yellow butcher paper and plastered it over her classroom walls to brighten things up. Other teachers have created pretend windows.

Mary Jane Cantu, the principal at Washington Heights, said there are some advantages to having a basement school.

“It’s really quiet under here. We don’t know if it’s raining unless we are checking on our portables,” Cantu said. “We keep up with the weather with our weather radio just for bad weather because we do bring in our students from the portables. But it’s really quiet, so it’s very focused.”

The silence was one of the reasons the neighborhood pushed for the subterranean building in 1978. They wanted it to replace the aging two-story school built above ground. Parents and teachers and students complained about the noise from Meacham Airport. The planes landing and taking off shook the walls.

Fort Worth school officials also wanted to reduce heating and cooling costs.

When construction was completed in 1979, the school became the first of its kind in the district. And news reports at the time indicated it was the second underground school in North Texas.

Thirty-seven years later, Washington Heights has become more of a problem than a money-saver.

“One of our safety concerns being underground is that no one outside really can see anything that happens down here,” Cantu said. “It’s hard to be seen.”  

When it rains, water seeps through the ground causing leaks and teachers have found standing water in the building.

Soon, teachers and students won’t have to put up with those leaks. Next door, construction crews are building what will be the new Washington Heights Elementary School above ground. It’ll open this fall.

Three years ago, Fort Worth voters overwhelmingly approved a $490 million bond package, which included money for a new campus.

When it’s completed, the old gym and auditorium and above-ground entrances will be torn down. That area will become a playground.

Fourth-grader Antonio Torres says he’s remembers what it was like when he started at Washington Heights.

“When I was little, I used to be scared, but I’ve been here for a long time and it’s normal now,” Torres said.

While Antonio used to be frightened, he said he’s a little sad about leaving the old school behind. He is, however, excited he’ll finally get to look outside a real widow and see sun.

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.