When classes change at the high school in West, Texas, students do not rush into temperature-controlled hallways lined with lockers. They stomp across 65,000 square feet of wooden decking that connects a maze of more than a dozen portable buildings that for now serve as West High School and West Middle School. It may not look like much, but it’s home.
The fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013, that killed 15 people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the town of fewer than 3,000 residents, also wreaked havoc on the local school district. West ISD lost three of its four school campuses, plus maintenance and storage facilities, transportation sites, and much of the athletic facilities.
Construction began this summer on a high school-middle school complex that will offer modern academic facilities with a flexible and technologically advanced design when it opens in January 2016.
But a successful restoration was far from certain after the blast, and many credit the dogged forward thinking of West ISD superintendent Marty Crawford, BSEd ’91, for ensuring a bright future. A baseball letterwinner at Baylor, Crawford earned his degree in the Baylor School of Education and later added master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Oklahoma and A&M–Commerce, respectively.
“We realized that West was going to change because of the explosion,” Crawford says. “We had a choice. We were either going to make it better, or it was going to go the other way.”
Crawford wasted no time in choosing a direction. At 8 the next morning, about 12 hours after the blast, Crawford gathered his principals, school board and key administrators on the elementary campus—the only safe building left. Most of them had been up all night, some of them had lost family and homes, and all had lost friends. But they focused on the students.
“It was important for the kids to have some sense of normalcy,” Crawford says. “We wanted to put them in a safe environment where they were comfortable, and that was to have school.”
West Elementary principal Michele Scott, BSEd ’96, says, “Dr. Crawford and the board members were insistent that school start on Monday. We were all on board, even though many of us had personal stuff going on. We put that on hold to get the kids back to a routine.”
Scott had been at her parents’ house when the explosion destroyed her home. She has been living with her parents since the explosion and hopes to finish construction of her new home by Thanksgiving.
West ISD lost no students or staff in the blast, but 50 students and 20 staff members were injured.
Crawford says, “We had people who needed to put their lives back together. We needed to take care of their kids for them, so they could go meet with their insurance agent or financial institution or deal with the grief and plan funerals.”
Scott found a way to squeeze fourth and fifth graders into the elementary campus, and Grand Prairie ISD, Crawford’s high school alma mater, donated portable buildings to construct a “Sixth Grade Academy” behind the elementary.
That evening, Crawford announced that the seventh through twelfth graders would be bussed to Connally ISD, slightly north of Waco, for the remainder of the year.
“The Connally thing was magical,” Crawford says, “because they had a vacant school building. They are our rivals on the field or court, but their show of sportsmanship, for lack of a better term, was to host us for the last six weeks of school, and they would have welcomed us back this year.”
Other districts sent busses, furniture, volunteers and anything needed.
West ISD also managed a huge influx of donations—a process Crawford called an “education in logistics.” He says, “Our warehouse space was gone. Where the heck were we going to put everything? We leased the old lumberyard, and we’ve got shipping containers all over the place.”
Just 12 days after the blast, West ISD announced its plan—students would return to West in the fall and have school in portable buildings until new facilities were built.
Crawford credits collaboration and help from every direction for West ISD’s recovery. While recounting the challenges, he quickly lapses into a litany of names of those who helped—West residents, fellow superintendents, legislators, school districts, friends, family, the State of Texas, the federal government.
West ISD received insurance money, state and federal aid, plus $1 million in donations, Crawford says—money that puts the district in good financial shape.
Crawford says the new facility will give students more opportunities to earn college credit or technical training.
“We decided to look at some of the 21st and 22nd century planning as our opportunity to make West something different than what it was,” he says. “There’s a lot of technology, a lot of flexibility.”
The combining of the middle and high school campuses can provide economies of scale that West ISD has not enjoyed before. Extra-curricular facilities will also get an upgrade, and the high school’s performance center will have a separate entrance, so that it can be used easily for community events. Plans and updates are posted at RestoreWestISD.com.
While looking toward the future, West ISD has made a concerted effort to celebrate victories along the way. The safe completion of the 2013 school year was a big one. Then the first day of school in the portables—at home—was a victory, too.
Shortly after that, West had its first football game in its refurbished stadium. While the light poles were destroyed by the blast, the main concern at the stadium was medical waste on the field, which had been used as the main triage site on the night of the blast, with helicopters flying in and out to ferry victims to hospitals.
The completion of a full year in West was something to celebrate. “On June 6, we graduated the Class of 2014 at Baylor’s Ferrell Center, and that was a really special moment,” says Crawford, whose oldest daughter was among the graduates. “The audience gave that class a standing ovation. No kids want to spend their senior year—their last year of childhood really—in a situation like this. They taught us a whole lot about resiliency and how to stand up to a challenge.”
It’s still difficult for Crawford to talk about the night of the blast—the sound of the blast, the look on the faces of his children when they rushed into the living room, the panorama of the football field covered with the injured, the sight of the residents from a nearby nursing home being carried because the streets were not passable, and the sadness of the weeks that followed.
“That scab gets pulled off whenever you start talking about the weeks after the blast when we were having all of the funerals here,” he says. So he looks forward.
Stephanie Kucera, BSEd ’90, says Crawford’s focus on the future has made all the difference. “He’s been so positive and such a visionary leader,” she says. “One thing about Dr. Crawford, he never looked back. I was still crying four days later, and he was getting our kids back in school. And that was so critical.”
Kucera, a former superintendent herself, now works with area superintendents at the Region 12 Educational Service Center. Her twin sons were among the 2014 graduates of West High School. Kucera says that Crawford is the reason things got back to normal so quickly for West ISD students.
The success of the school district is the success of West, Kucera says. “When a school dies, that’s when a community starts to die,” she says. “And Dr. Crawford wasn’t going to let that happen.”