Teachers and administrators at West ISD are nervously optimistic about this week’s start of a new school year four months after a massive fertilizer plant explosion leveled much of the town and left West ISD a hollow shell.
The new school may only be a series of portable buildings, but the faculty are proud to be back.
Dr. Jan Hungate is one of the chief administrators for West ISD and said sections of town are still unrecognizable, partially because of the blast, and partially because of new growth.
"See, you can look all the way down this street and there’s nothing, these were all houses. They’ve re-done all these... And then on Regan, the street we were on, if you go back down it, the one my office is on, that was the little school was that was completely demolished."
Hungate said school administrators have been worried about a possible loss of student population due to transfers related to the blast.
"And it’s been interesting to see that since we accept transfers we’ve actually had children running our way and I’ve been so surprised to see that they want to be here with us," she said.
She said while they await damage reports for insurance purposes and federal and state funding they are happy to have their village of portable buildings.
The first week of classes in West will be noisy at times as construction crews work to build a new gym and finish handicap ramps and walkways connecting buildings.
West schools also had an increase in teacher retirements this year, but that problem was solved by an outpouring of support from teachers in surrounding districts asking to be hired.
Teacher Chelsea Lower said she passed on several job offers to teach English at West:
"I just wanted to be part of helping rebuild this community," Lower said. "I thought that was a once in a life time opportunity that I’m never going to get again and I’m never going to be a first year teacher again, so combine them into one."
Veteran educator Kim Woodard, who grew up in West and taught here for the last seven years, said this town is the only home she’s known. Her home was only a few blocks away from the fertilizer plant.
"Saw the fire, saw the smoke, saw the mushroom cloud, and my daughters were both inside the house," Woodard said. "I did not remember being at the front door but from the time of blast, the thing I remembered was the front door and my friends had told me I gotten blown back about ten feet and on the ground."
Like many members of this small community, Woodard has thrown herself into helping others while her home is being rebuilt.
West High School Principal Wayne Leek said they’re handling this week as they have with most challenges following the plant’s explosion: By coming together, adjusting and moving ahead.
"There are a lot of unknowns and we want to get back to a little bit of normalcy," Leek said, "and I think that’s going to happen here in a week now. Is it going to be perfect? No we’re going to adjust, but I tell folks that if we can set up and have school in three days 20 miles from here then this is a piece of cake. This will be easy."
Hungate said another challenge for West teachers is identifying kids who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to the blast.
"We’re a little concerned that when school starts back it may bring back some memories that hadn’t surfaced over the summer," Hungate said. "It may bring a little anxiety with the children -- school is always a little anxious anyway, but under these circumstances if they lost their home."
Hungate said the rebuilding of permanent campuses is another issue entirely, but the school district is in the middle of on-going negotiations with insurance groups. She estimates it will take two years to rebuild West ISD.