Students, teachers and staff members at Kolter Elementary School can look forward to having a bright new school in early 2020.
Construction on the new school is expected to begin around October after the old school was significantly damaged during Hurricane Harvey. Kolter students will continue to use the former Gordon Elementary School campus in Bellaire until their new school opens in early 2020.
Kolter was flooded by more than three feet of water during the hurricane last August, according to Daniel Bankhead, Houston Independent School District General Manager of Facilities Design, and left the district scrambling to find a place to educate the school’s students.
The city of Bellaire quickly pushed through an occupancy permit to allow HISD to use the former Gordon campus for the fall semester, with the idea that Kolter would be repaired. After the decision was made to tear down the structure instead, a longer term solution was needed.
Last month, the Bellaire city council voted unanimously June 18 to approve a specific use permit, allowing HISD to use the Gordon campus for as long as needed while the new Kolter school is built.
Kolter Principal Julie Dickinson said as she watched the destruction of Harvey unfolding at her school, she struggled with how she was going to help her teachers and students after such a loss.
“I had waves of various emotions, but upon my first visit once the water receded, I remember thinking, ‘How will I tell my teachers they’ve lost everything?’ and ‘I need to find a place for my kids to go to school,’” Dickinson said. “My biggest priorities were finding a way to replace my teachers’ items and doing everything in my power to keep my community together.”
But as soon as the storm left, she said people from across the Houston area and around the world reached out to help her students.
“Teachers created Amazon wish lists, which were shared through our PTO and posted on social media accounts. Within 24 hours, the boxes started arriving from within our own community and strangers from all over the globe. It was the boost, the positivity and the love we needed to know that we’re going to be okay,” Dickinson said.
She said she is thankful for the Bellaire community giving her students a place to learn for another year.
“I was beside myself with gratitude to the city of Bellaire and the many hands that had a part in ensuring it could and would happen. Again, all I wanted was for us to be together,” Dickinson said.
Bellaire Mayor Andrew Friedberg said in a blog post that his city definitely made the right decision in granting HISD use of the Gordon campus.
“Helping our neighbors, school children no less, was without question the right thing to do,” Friedberg said. “The city of Bellaire is happy to be able to help our neighbors and to provide the children of Kolter Elementary and their families some much-needed stability while their school is rebuilt and they continue their recovery from the flood.”
Bankhead said HISD ultimately decided to tear down the old school and start over after considering the neighborhood’s history of flooding, evaluating the damage and assessing the costs for repairs.
“We looked at how many times that particular area had flooded, although this is one of the worst times that the school flooded,” Bankhead said. “The school had previously been fairly resilient, but this time [it flooded]. We looked at that, and we looked at the trend and said, ‘One, if we rebuild where we were, the costs were approaching the cost of a new facility, and two, that we’d be rebuilding at the same elevation.’”
The abatement process of removing hazardous materials started in the spring, and then demolition began in June and is now complete, Bankhead said. He said prepping the site for the new construction will likely take the rest of the summer.
The new two-story 93,000-square-foot school will be equipped to educate 750 students, and Bankhead said it will be built about five feet higher in elevation than the old structure. It will have brightly lit, larger classrooms that he said will give teachers more flexibility to teach, a two-story atrium and a learning commons (or library) that will be a center focus of the building.
He said the approximately $23 million budgeted for construction will come from the HISD general reserves and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones funds.
Bankhead said he knows the community will be excited to have the new school and that the district is working hard to get it ready by early 2020.
“We have our fingers crossed for January. It’s an extremely aggressive and tight schedule,” Bankhead said. “[Barring major weather events], I think we should be in good shape. We’re off to a very good start. Our team, everybody has really just pitched in and is doing an great job of making the best out of a very bad situation.”
Dickinson said leading her students, teachers and staff members through the turmoil Harvey left behind showed her the kindness of others and helped her realize that she had what she needed to help them all succeed.
“I was reminded that people are good and you don’t need as much as you think you do for kids to learn,” she said.