J.L. Boren Elementary principal feels growing pains

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information Farewell to Boren 5:30-7 p.m. May 30 1400 Country Club Drive Free; open to the public

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Principal John Williams has weathered floods, electrical outages, squirrels in the attic and aggressive skunks in the breezeway since coming to J.L. Boren Elementary in 2000. But that doesn’t mean leaving the 39-year-old school will be easy.

The school is due to be demolished July 15 and a new Boren built on the same site on Country Club Drive. After moving his teachers and students into the future Judy Miller Elementary on the east side of Mansfield, Williams and his staff should be able to move back into the new and improved $13 million Boren in January 2015. Voters approved demolishing and rebuilding the school, along with four other elementaries, in the $198.5 million bond package in 2011.

The district looked at all of the campuses and determined the five elementaries -- Boren, Charlotte Anderson, Glenn Harmon, Alice Ponder and Tarver-Rendon -- would cost more to renovate than to replace, said Jeff Brogden, assistant superintendent of construction services.

“Dr. (Kyle) Heath (associate superintendent of student services) told me ‘John, you’re in a 39-year-old home and it doesn’t meet your needs, so you need to live in a hotel. Then you come back to a new home designed with the latest and greatest,’” Williams said.

Opened in 1979, J.L. Boren was designed to take advantage of then-new technology, including berms to keep the school cool, solar heating and cooling and an atrium for the library.

“I remember just how excited and how proud we were,” said Susan Williams, a Boren second-grade teacher who was a fifth-grader at the school when it opened in 1979. “They tried all this new innovation. Everything was orange, gold and brown. They had brown carpet halfway up the walls.”

Unfortunately, most of the new innovations wound up working against the school, John Williams said. The humidity in the atrium caused the library books to mold, the berms led to flooding in the classrooms and the solar heating never worked.

The shadow of a large sun can still be seen on the east side of the school and orange and gold details can still be found in some bathrooms, but little else is left of the innovations. The biggest challenge the school faced, though, was growth, as the number of students multiplied and a second building, a gym and breezeway were added in 1987, then later four portable buildings.

“The breezeway is cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and it floods,” John Williams said. “Two years ago, there were skunks under the portable. They tried every way to catch them. Finally, they pulled the underskirting away and sprayed the ground so they wouldn’t feel welcome.”

But not before the skunks had sprayed the classrooms and had run-ins with at least two staff members.

“When (Assistant Principal Georgia Pierce) lived in the duplex across the street, she came home and called me one night,” John Williams said. “She said ‘I see him and he’s not afraid of me.’ They were in a stand-off.

“There were days that they sprayed that I had to bring the classes inside,” he remembered. “One of the big ones was the size of a cat, one of the custodians said. It chased him down the breezeway and he was a big man, at least 6 feet tall. I never knew what to expect. You sort of learn to go with the punches and have a sense of humor.”

That year the fourth-graders field trip shirts featured a skunk, John Williams recalled with a grin.

Advances in technology also taxed the Boren’s electrical system, which often left the school in the dark.

“Any time we had a PTA Teacher Appreciation Day with all the crockpots, we always had issues,” the principal recalled.

Even with all the outages, floods, pests and age, Williams, his staff and students won’t walk away from the old school without some pangs.

“We say ‘Once a Boren Bear, always a Boren Bear,’” he said. “This year at our carnival I was aware of more ex-parents. They said they had to come one more time.”

The school boasts a wall full of exemplary awards for performance on the TAKS test and a national PTA parent involvement award, due to the community’s involvement.

“We were one of four schools in the state that received it (for 2003-2006),” John Williams remembered. “On the application, there were things that were on there that were obviously important that we took for granted.”

But the school’s memories go far beyond the building, Williams said. Boren was the first elementary in the district to start the fourth-grade field trip, taking students, teachers and parent chaperones on a three-day trip to Austin and San Antonio for the past 15 years.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, going on chartered buses, staying with their best friends on the Riverwalk, seeing many of the things they studied that year,” Williams said.

Some of the items in the school will go into storage to await a place in the new Boren, including a wall of ceramic tiles, decorated by students for the school’s 25th anniversary in 2004, a display case full of stuffed bears, customized Boren doormats and three statues that recall one student the principal will never forget.

In 2008, after first-grader Nicholas LeVan drowned, his parents donated funds to the elementary school to be used for a permanent memorial. John Williams chose three bronze statues -- three children walking on a fence, a boy and girl on a bench and a boy and girl holding a teddy bear. Brogden has already designated a place for the statues in the new Boren.

Most of the memories are good, says Denise Wilkens, the principal’s secretary.

“I like this building,” said Wilkens, who served as Boren’s PTA president before joining the staff. “We do good things at this school. I feel blessed to be here, that my son was able to go here. I think everyone feels welcome here. John has always told us that he wants people to feel at home here.”

Susan Williams said it began to sink in about four months ago that her school was going to be gone.

“It’s been comfortable and so familiar,” she said. “I started thinking about my friends playing. We didn’t have playgrounds, we had fields. I understand it has to go.”

She knows her students will feel the same pride when they get a brand-new school that she felt when Boren opened.

“Everything is going to be different,” said second-grader Kallen Fletcher, 8. “Just to be the first one in the classroom is exciting.”

John Williams shares his students’ excitement, even though he will miss some things.

“There are days when I would gladly drive the bulldozer (to knock it down),” he said. “Nothing can take the memories away. The memories go with us.

“It’s not the building, it’s the people and the people go with us, like a family,” he said.

The staff has planned a Farewell to Boren reception for former students and parents from 5:30-7 p.m. May 30.

Amanda Rogers, 817-473-4451 Twitter: @AmandaRogersNM

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