Getting a Second Wind
How the Tornado Helped Bring a School — and a Community — TogetherOn the first day of school last August, a young girl pulled a broken chunk of slate from her pocket and showed it to Terry Powe.
“She told me it was a piece of our old school that she had found on the ground after the tornado and she kept it with her everywhere she went,” said the principal of Elias Brookings Elementary School in the Six Corners neighborhood of Springfield. “Her family had lost their home and was living in a shelter.”
The child was one of many Brookings families affected by June 1 tornado, which unleashed its fury on the neighborhood, destroying homes and businesses as well as the nearly century-old school.
Powe says it’s a miracle no one was hurt, as school was dismissed less than an hour before the twister hit the ground. “If it had been an hour later, there would have been deaths, and we would have needed grief counselors and still been in mourning,” she said, explaining that windows were blown out, walls collapsed, desks and furniture were strewn everywhere, and tree limbs and construction debris from nearby structures made the interior look like a war zone.
The girl with the slate is one of myriad anecdotes from the past 13 months that show, in rather dramatic fashion, how the school and the surrounding community has picked up the pieces — figuratively but also quite literally — and moved on, and with a renewed sense of commitment.
Indeed, while the tornado turned hundreds of lives upside down in that neighborhood, it has in many ways been a catalyst for the school’s rebound from poor performance ratings from the state and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the challenges being faced.
“People here see things differently now; everything has been put into perspective,” said Powe. “The tornado allowed everyone to take an inventory on life, realize the strengths we had, and put them into action. Since that day, everyone – including the children – has been working really hard and bringing their best efforts to school every day.”
Meanwhile, in the shadow of the boarded up school a modular facility has risen — a compelling story of triumph over adversity in its own right — and a new, $28 million school is being planned for a site at the corner of Hickory and Walnut Streets.
“The future is bright — so bright I might need sunglasses,” Powe said. “This really has been a blessing in disguise and allowed us to see how much care and thoughtfulness exists within different groups in the community.”
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest visited Powe and others at the school to see and learn how a disaster gave all those involved with this institution a much-needed second wind.
Clouding the Issue
Powe has faced significant challenges since she was hired to run the Brookings school four years ago.
When she accepted the position, the school, named for a Civil War veteran and educator and opened in 1926, housed students in kindergarten through grade 8. However, officials decided to do away with the middle school classes and students in grade six, then seven and eight, began to be phased out.
The staff was still adjusting to the change when the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education named Brookings as one of the underperforming “Level 4” schools in the state. That’s the lowest level the state system has, and the designation required changes that included replacing 50% of the staff over a specific time line. In addition, the school day had to be lengthened by 45 minutes to give teachers more time to focus on areas where students had scored poorly on state tests.
“The designation gave us an opportunity to look at the root causes for performance and create a redesign plan to get back on track,” Powe said. “We implemented a plan without funding before the tornado hit and although we had some challenges, we did as much as we could to put it into action.”
It worked well, and prior to the tornado, the school had made significant gains; 25% of the staff members had been replaced, and although Brookings was still deemed underperforming, it had made double-digit gains in math and gained almost eight points in English Language Arts.
This year, thanks to additional funding, the school gained a new assistant principal and two additional coaches to help teachers hone their skills. “We have established a culture that we call the Brookings Way,” Powe said, adding quickly that change takes time.
However, she told BusinessWest that studies show that high-performing schools share three common traits — adaptability, cohesiveness, and a focus on goals, and all three are present, to one extent or another, at Brookings.
“Adaptation had been our lowest category,” said Powe. “In education, you have to look at the cards you are dealt and then play them, and our staff had had a really hard time playing those cards.”
And the tornado only shuffled the deck even further, she said, noting, however, that in many ways it has brought people closer together, provided fresh perspective on what’s important in life, and fostered a commitment to excellence that, in many respects, wasn’t there before the sky turned dark.
Winds of Change
Their first priority was to call every student to make sure they were safe. They then created a plan and took steps to kick off what would become a monumental collection effort for the 57 Brookings families that had lost their homes or been displaced.
The outpouring of support and donations was so substantial that Allentuck’s garage soon filled, so organizers staged a distribution program on July 1 in the J.C. Williams Community Center on Florence Street. They also held frequent distribution efforts outside the school, and students witnessed caring in action as their teachers stood outside throughout the summer, ready to share an encouraging word and a smile while handing out supplies that ranged from diapers to shampoo and underwear.
The staff members shifted their focus to collecting school supplies as the months went on and were astonished again by the outpouring of backpacks, crayons, and items students would need to return to classes. “My garage got so full, we had to rent storage space in Enfield,” said Allentuck, adding that the barrage of donations included stuffed animals, sleeping bags and towels, which necessitated a second major distribution effort.
Throughout the summer, staff members also visited families in shelters, hotels, and their homes to see how they were faring, and gave them donated items, while school nurse Pam Maynard did a tremendous amount of outreach.
The staff had also united to help the students finish the year in the days following the tornado. The children arrived at Brookings in the morning, then had to be bussed to two different schools depending on their grade, which meant many family members were split up.
“There were a lot of logistics involved and some of the younger kids were frightened,” said Allentuck. “It could have been chaotic, but the staff stepped up and made sure the children felt safe and loved. It was our finest hour.”
In the meantime, school officials were working hard behind the scences to insure the children had classrooms to return to at summer’s end.
David Meehan, director of operations for Facilities Management in Springfield, said finding modular units, getting permits and assembling them in less than two months was a daunting challenge. “We did it in approximately 45 days; a project of this scope would normally take 90 days or more to complete,” he explained.
Rita Coppola-Wallace agreed. “A lot of people don’t realize the effort that goes into a project like this,” said the director of the Department of Capital Asset Construction in Springfield. “It took an extreme amount of coordination, but the vendors and city departments all rose to the challenge and did more than they needed. We literally pulled permits within hours, and everyone I called was phenomenal, from the contractor to the funding agencies.”
Thirty portable classroom structures, including 20 two-story units and 10 one-story units, were installed behind the old school on Hancock Street.
But there were unexpected setbacks. For example, right before the Fourth of July, water began gushing from the ground as workers set footings 30 feet into the ground. “They pumped water 24-7 for a week,” Coppola-Wallace said, explaining that the site is close to the Mill River. “It was a tough experience, but we had fun along the way. When people get hit by tragedies, their best side comes out.”
Meehan said Brookings senior custodian George Rollins played a major role in getting the job done on time. He worked close to 90 hours each week from the day following the tornado until school opened.
Rollins cares deeply about the school. It’s his alma mater, and he was determined to salvage everything possible from the old building, then do whatever it took to have the modular units ready for the children.
“At one point, we had 25 people cleaning furniture from the old building. We also had to coordinate getting teachers in and out of the building in the days following the tornado,” Rollins said, explaining they needed to salvage what they could from their classrooms, but could not stay inside long due to air- quality issues caused by the devastation.
“We put our heart and soul into this,” he continued. “It brought us together because we had to depend on one another. Everyone had to be cooperative and understanding, and even the kids had to give. They had to adapt to difficult circumstances, which for some included losing their homes.”
But stability seemed hard to come by, as the day Brookings was set to open, all Springfield Public Schools were closed due to an approaching hurricane, which downed trees, caused power outages, and wreaked its own devastation. And in the weeks that followed, there were myriad new adjustments as 25% of the staff was new hires and the modular units lacked a cafeteria, gym, and storage space.
But the community continued to step forward, and the spirit of cooperation and changes that took place within the school were remarkable.
Teachers held a book drive throughout the school year that proved so successful that each child was allowed to choose four books to keep at the end of the year. The school also staged a “Perfect Attendance Day” and due to community support, each student being honored received a $10 gift certificate. Allentuck said the numbers jumped from less than five with perfect attendance in February of 2010-2011 to 55 this year.
Staff members also began to pursue grant money that resulted in positive outcomes.
“This has been a year of celebration; even though I am a hopeful person, I never imagined we would be sharing the celebratory attitude that has been prevalent all year,” Allentuck said, adding that she doesn’t believe the transformation would have taken place without the tornado.
New School of Thought
Initially, the city hoped to save the 87-year-old school building, but a feasibility study determined that was not feasible. When the need for a new building became apparent, city officials approached Springfield College, because it owned a sizeable piece of vacant piece of land across Walnut street.
“It was not for sale, but they quickly jumped on board and were willing to become a partner,” Coppola-Wallace said. City officials are in the process of acquiring the land and plan to build a $28 million state-of-the-art school on it to replace the old building.
“I am very hopeful that we can finally get ahead of the game, because in the past the constants were always changing,” said Powe “We have stability now and I am looking forward to next year and the future in a new building.”
The day when that new school opens its doors is still a long way off, and there will no doubt be many challenges to overcome along the way.
But the tornado has fostered a new sense of resiliency at the Brookings School. All those involved, including the young girl with the slate, have picked up the pieces and shown that a disaster of this magnitude can destroy a building — but not dreams.