Fernway Elementary School staff takes a moment to relax amidst post-fire planning

August 10, 2018

Fernway Elementary School staff takes a moment to relax amidst post-fire planning

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Ever since July 10, when their beloved Fernway Elementary School caught fire, teachers, administrators and staff have been scrambling to make plans and gather supplies in advance of the school district’s opening day, Aug. 22.

On Thursday afternoon, however, those associated with Fernway set aside a few hours to eat, talk and share some laughs. It happened under the pavilion at Horseshoe Lake Park, where Catherine Calabrese, whose mother has taught second-graders at Fernway for 24 years, planned the relaxing day as a tribute to the school’s employees.

“My mother has taught there for so long, and so many people are doing things, that I felt helpless. I wanted to do something,” said Calabrese, a mother of two.  “Other people are doing fundraisers, so I just wanted to do something fun. I wanted to do something where teachers and staff could come and just have fun.”

Calabrese didn’t merely send out invitations to her luncheon; she made cold calls to those she didn’t know and to friends who are in business and in a position to donate. In all, she received donations of all kinds from 69 area businesses in 14 cities.

“We couldn’t have done this without (the donors),” she said. “I want to thank them so much.”

Donors included Legacy Village, whose general manager, Susan Windle, is a Fernway graduate; Bar Louie; children’s author Sandra Philipson, who donated 160 copies of her book, “Wings”; Dewey’s Pizza and Pizzazz; florists Plantscaping and Blooms; Tommy’s Restaurant and Ben & Jerry’s of Fairmount, both of whom delivered food; Richards Frankel Dentistry; and PawsCLE.

“Everyone has been so generous and supportive,” said Calabrese, who now lives in Cleveland Heights, but grew up on Lansmere Road, a short distance from Fernway School.

On July 10, news spread quickly about the fire shortly after it started on the 90-year-old building’s roof.

“We were in my mother’s driveway,” Calabrese recalled of that morning, “when my mother said she smelled something burning. I thought it smelled like incense.”

Then, Calabrese’s mother, Andree Hassell, received a text message from a fellow Fernway employee telling her about the fire. Hassell and Calabrese immediately went to the school, as did others associated with the building, to watch fire crews at work.

“I got a text from one of our teachers (Jean Reinhold), that said: ‘Fernway’s on fire. Please pray for our little school,’” remembered third-grade teacher Megan Konopinski, who lives in Highland Heights. “I got there in about 30 minutes. It felt like my own house was on fire.”

Konopinski, who taught three years at Fernway, said the 315 students who attended the school and staff are like family, so it was natural that so many flocked to the building when they learned of the fire.

Administrative assistant Lorene Rider, a 47-year Shaker resident and mother of two who was schooled within the district, also received a text from Reinhold with the bad news.

“I got in my car and immediately went there and it was already heavily involved in fire,” Rider said. “I couldn’t get too close. Everyone was crying and thought (the building) was going to come down.

“The Shaker Fire Department did a wonderful job. They got help from 19 departments. They poured 300,000 gallons of water on the building. We stood there for hours and hours,” she said.

The story was similar for just about everyone. Fourth-grade teacher Amy Hannah said she had just arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art when she received a text about the fire.

“I didn’t know what I should do,” she recalled. “I just got there (at the museum).”

Soon after, Hannah felt the need to leave and went to be with her colleagues.

“I feel optimistic that the building can still be used,” said Hannah, who taught at Fernway for eight years. Fire investigators and insurers are still examining the building to see if it can again, one day, be used as a school.

Hannah called Thursday’s luncheon “amazing” and is thankful for Calabrese’s efforts.

“Some of the teachers and staff met shortly after the fire at (a restaurant), but this is more positive,” Hannah said. “We’re talking about planning, and bouncing ideas off each other.”

“It feels good to be together and have some fun conversation,” Konopinski said of the luncheon. “Everybody’s here because of their feelings for Fernway.”

Andree Hassell was pleased her daughter put together the event, and walked about helping to disseminate to guests the large amount of donated food.

While saddened to see her neighborhood school burn, Hassell had some good news to share: There were four pets inside the building when the fire started, and firefighters rescued all four.

“We were so happy they were saved,” Hassell said of her large turtle, Big Mama; a small turtle; a snake; and a tarantula. The school pets were on the first floor of the two-story building, which may have helped them survive.

“The small turtle was fine. It was still in its water (tank), but the water on top was black,” Hassell said.

A week ago, Shaker Schools announced that Fernway kindergartners will be attending Onaway Elementary School this year, first-graders will be going to Boulevard Elementary School, and second- through fourth-graders will be taught at Woodbury Elementary School.

Rider said she plans to visit “my kindergartners” at least once a week, and stop in and see Fernway’s first-graders regularly, as well. Other teachers and staff plan to hold regular get-togethers with the dispersed Fernway students to keep the family feel that the school has always had.

“It stings not being able to stay together,” Konopinski said. “But we’re going to have assemblies throughout the year and we’ll keep seeing each other. We’ll remain a family.”

Fernway students and teachers are in need of supplies as they move into their new spaces. Those who would like to donate can learn about the Shaker Schools Foundation’s Fernway Fund by visiting here.

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