Fort Worth district wants to use $10 million to replace underground school

Posted Monday, Sep. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
Washington Heights Elementary Campus size: about 350 Grade span: pre-kindergarten through fifth. Location: 3215 N. Houston St. English Language Learners: 65.7 percent Campus met all standards in the new statewide accountability system. Current facility: about 33,000 sq. ft. SOURCES: Texas Education Agency 2013 accountability summary, Fort Worth school district

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One in an occasional series about the Nov. 5 Fort Worth school district bond election.

School leaders responded to concerns about overhead noise pollution near Washington Heights Elementary School in 1970 in a unique way.

They built the campus underground.

Thundering airliners taking off from nearby Meacham Airport made everyday learning difficult at the north Fort Worth school, teachers and parents said. News accounts from the time tell of engine rumblings overhead that resulted in teachers losing as much as 45 minutes of instruction daily while they waited for the noise to subside.

The underground school seemed like a good solution.

“It definitely increases student concentration,” the principal at the time, Bob Hailey, told the Star-Telegram in September 1979.

Washington Heights Elementary students will be moving back above ground if voters approve Proposition 1 of a three-part bond proposal Nov. 5. Replacing the underground school is part of the estimated $490 million Fort Worth school bond program.

The Washington Heights project will cost about $10 million, including $5.4 million in construction, according to the district.

“Our plan is to have a new Washington Heights Elementary on the same site,” Superintendent Walter Dansby said.

Some parents support the plan, saying the building has a water seepage problem when it rains.

“I’m excited,” said Rosalinda Martinez, president of Washington Heights’ parent teacher organization. “Hopefully, we get the new building.”

An underground schoolhouse

The school, at 3215 N. Houston St., is tucked into a neighborhood parents describe as working class. Many students come from Spanish-speaking families, Martinez said.

The original school was built above ground in 1919, according to historical information maintained by the school district. When the building was renovated and placed underground, the project drew local headlines, including “Buried treasure found in cool school” in a 1979 issue of the Star-Telegram.

The underground school kept airplane noise out and maintained low temperatures, according to news accounts.

Asked what it’s like to go to school underground, fifth-grader Edson Ibarra answered: “Having a school underground is fun, knowing that people are walking above the school. It feels safe because if there was ever a tornado, we’re safe underground.”

Principal Mary Jane Cantu said most parents, students and teachers adapt to the subterranean classes quickly and typically go about their routines.

“They haven’t questioned it yet,” Cantu said, adding that this is her first year at an underground campus.

“It is a new experience for me,” Cantu said. “It has not been difficult to adjust.”

A school playground, outdoor pavilion, gym/auditorium and several portable buildings sit above ground.

The school entrances are also above ground and visible to people who walk by. While the school is cheerful, little natural light flows into the building because there are few windows.

The scenes unfolding underground are typical of any elementary school. On a recent day, little ones wiggled in lunch lines wearing construction paper “sombreros” to mark Hispanic Heritage Month.

Pre-kindergarten students learn in colorful classrooms with tiny tables and chairs. Kindergartners use their index finger to offer a “quiet wave” to friends they pass in the hallways.

When visitors enter, they walk down steps to find hallways, classrooms, school offices, a cafeteria and library. Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first-, second- and two third-grade classes are located underground, Cantu said.

The rest of the classes are held in portable buildings above ground.

Cantu said the possibility of a new school is being well-received by the community.

“I am very excited for the students and their families,” Cantu said, adding that the logistics of picking up youngsters will be easier when families don’t have to go below ground to get them.

Cantu said having windows that show what is taking place outside is an important safety feature for the school and will allow her to have “a better eye if we need to have a lockdown.”

Second-grade teacher Alicia Alonzo has worked at the school since 2001. Alonzo says when she first arrived at Washington Heights, she circled around looking for the campus and was confused because there appeared to be only an entrance.

“I’m in the wrong place. Where is the school,” she recalls thinking.

Alonzo said that after a while the building became incidental because she became part of a school community she cherishes. The idea of a new campus makes her imagine new experiences such as eating lunch in a new teachers’ lounge or not being surprised when students and teachers leave the building to find rain or snow.

“It will be a bittersweet feeling,” Alonzo said.

A new Washington Heights

Money to build a new school is included in Proposition 1 of the bond plan, which also includes funding to add 82 new pre-kindergarten classrooms at 15 campuses, districtwide campus renovations, security enhancements, technology upgrades and athletic field houses for the district’s 13 high schools.

Voters will decide on proposed projects included in three measures. Proposition 2 allocates an estimated $73.3 million to pay for two new specialized campuses for performing arts and sciences.

Under Proposition 3, about $30 million will buy new school buses, band uniforms and musical instruments.

Dansby said that the current building is safe and has been maintained by the district but that repair costs have crept up to about 50 percent of the cost of building a new school — an industry standard used to signal the time for a new facility.

The facilities condition index for Washington Heights is 46.9. It would cost the district about $2.5 million in construction costs to modernize and fix issues with the campus, he said.

“When that index gets to be about 50 percent, you should replace that building,” Dansby said.

Martinez, who attended a recent town hall meeting about the bond proposal at North Side High School, said parents worry about water issues in the building when it rains.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the underground building,” she said, but parents are excited and hopeful about a new building.

Dansby said airplane noise is no longer a concern near the school because flight paths in the area were changed in the 1970s. And newer schools are better soundproofed.

The new Washington Heights would be a modern facility that includes energy-saving equipment. It would be about 40,000 square feet.

Construction of the school will be completed in phases, Dansby said. Students will use the old building while a new one is built on the same grounds.

“They will still be going to school,” Dansby said. “We won’t close one building until the other building is complete.”

When the new school is built, the old building will be demolished, Dansby said.

Dansby said the auditorium/gym, which is treasured by the community, will be preserved.

“Our plan is to keep that building and the historical significance intact,” Dansby said.

Archives maintained by the school district indicates that the auditorium was built in 1936-37.

Martinez has a third- and fourth-grade student attending the school and plans to vote in favor for the bond program.

“It’s our children. Our community,” Martinez said.

This is the first year her 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, is attending classes in a portable building above ground. She is in the third grade and has been at Washington Heights since she was in pre-kindergarten.

Elizabeth said she enjoyed having classes underground.

“It was fun because we were safe down there and we had a lot of things to do,” she said.

Still, being above ground has some advantages.

“It’s easier to go play outside,” Elizabeth Martinez said.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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Washington Heights Elementary, Fort Worth, TX
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