Recovery at Bear Creek Elementary School
Bear Creek Elementary School is celebrating its 40th anniversary this November and even though Dr. Lorena Zertuche has only been the head Cougar for five years, she’s in her element as she walks the hallways of the campus.
The 43-year-old principal and naturalized United States citizen boasts when she talks about the resilience her staff and students experienced when Hurricane Harvey came barreling down last August and nearly took away everything they owned.
Looking back as the school prepares its anniversary, the mother of two doesn’t consider what she’s done for her community as anything more than her job.
“God only gives us what he knows we can handle,” Zertuche said. “You just do what you have to do. You get the energy, the courage and whatever else it takes to do the things you’ve never done before, or you’ve never had to do or never thought you needed to, but it comes from a place of servant leadership. I’m here to serve.”
Zertuche, a Latina who was born in Monclova, Coahuila, México, took it upon herself to be the campus protector, making and receiving phone calls throughout the night, ensuring supplies made it to the families that needed them the most and coordinating with local law enforcement when sewage leaked into the neighborhood drinking water.
Bear Creek Elementary School, which has roughly 671 students, is in the Bear Creek Village in North West Houston and backs up in the Addicks Reservoir.
“We didn’t actually flood because of the 51 inches that fell,” Zertuche said, recalling the event. “That’s when the waters came. A lot of people had evacuated but a lot of people had not…”
While the school itself didn’t flood, Harvey flooded the houses of several of her students, some having to be rescued from the second story of their homes. During the flood event, the Katy Independent School District closed for two weeks, but Bear Creek Elementary remained closed for far longer and served as a temporary community hub and carport for neighbors who needed basic necessities, such as clean clothes, toiletries and food.
Zertuche became the communication liaison for the community during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, coordinating with cleanup crews and assisting with supplies delivery, ensuring that donations to an Amazon Wishlist her librarian setup were making it the school. Before long, she was receiving packages from all over the world, including as far as Japan.
While the sewage situation was being sorted out, hundreds of tiny bodies were scurrying onto twelve buses and being transported to Paetow High School at 23111 Stockdick Road from Bear Creek Elementary at 4815 Hickory Downs where on good days - not on flood days- it would take 25 minutes down Clay Road to arrive.
“For two weeks, we had arrival at Bear Creek and arrival at Paetow High School,” Zertuche said. “They were a new high school last year, so they had an entire wing empty. That was quite an experience. Our kids here now boast, ‘I went to high school.’”
The children made the most of it, she said, adding that when given the opportunity they positively interacted with the high school students.
At the very least, it was a chance for them to go to school and forget for a moment what many of them might have lost during the worst storm our city has seen in their lifetimes, she said.
“We have a lot of people with PTSD walking around on days like this when its thundering, stormy and rainy and they’re like, ‘It’s going to be OK, right?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, it’s going to be OK. We’re nice and dry here on the inside,’” Zertuche said. “Who in Houston wasn’t affected by Harvey?”
Zertuche, who’s been married for 12 years, is the fifth principal of the 40-year-old campus. She attended Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and received her Master’s from Columbia University in New York City. She eventually went back to school at the behest of her professors and attained her doctorate to become an administrator.
The Harvey experience, while a traumatic event for everyone, solidified the relationships within the community and brought people closer, Zertuche said.
“It’s a good thing when we work together,” she said. “It’s much better that way. It takes a village.”
Bear Creek, like the neighborhood it’s in, is predominantly Hispanic, with more than 75 percent of the population economically disadvantaged, according to a 2015-2016 Texas Academic Performance Report (TAPR) by the Texas Education Agency.
The Latino population at the school, much like at the district, is steadily growing, Zertuche said.
About 480 students at the school are Hispanic, 83 are Black/African American and 90 students are White, according to demographics provided by the district.
The 40-year celebration takes place Nov. 10 and 11.