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Homes Destroyed -- But School Back In Session In West

Only a railroad separated West’s intermediate school from the fertilizer plant that exploded last week. The blast destroyed that school -- and left three out of four West ISD campuses unusable. But many West students are going to finish the school year, just not in West. 

Hundreds of kids lined up to board buses to their new school. The meeting place is outside a car dealership – next to the Czech Inn – where many displaced families are staying. The students are headed to Connally ISD – which offered the 7th through 12th graders classrooms.

West high schoolers will actually have a whole building to themselves – and we’re not talking some abandoned warehouse. The facility they’ve been moved to used to be the Connally intermediate center until it was closed two years ago after an expansion. It’s been kept up and from the outside looks like any other high school.

Connally superintendent Francis Penland says after finding the space for the students she turned to the next challenge: making West kids feel welcome.

“Immediately I thought about what do we want it to look like when they arrive?” So Penland turned to friends in neighboring school districts to get big welcome signs for West and supplies.

Over the weekend hundreds of volunteers worked late into the night painting classrooms black and red – West’s school colors -- waxing floors, moving in chairs, desks and trash cans. Donations from neighboring schools and companies are still rolling in -- Texas Instruments is here this morning to drop off calculators and people are carting in textbooks and bunches of ripe bananas.

“What we’re going to do is provide a safe learning environment and secure a learning environment as we can for them,” Penland says. “They’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of them. Physical, emotional, but people will take care of them and we’re here for them.”

To make the transition as easy as possible there are dozens of mental health counselors on duty and no STAAR tests or pop quizzes this first week. So at least for today, the kids of West got a break. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.