Historic Arlington school gives students with Down syndrome room to grow

Green Oaks School, a nonprofit, Christian-oriented school for people with Down syndrome and similar intellectual disabilities, has moved into an Arlington landmark building — the former Booker T. Washington School, built in the 1890s as Arlington’s first school for black children.

School leaders are remodeling the building, which was rebuilt in 1954, to serve 63 students ages 5 to 40.

Teachers packed classrooms and moved out of the former 4,500-square-foot campus off Green Oaks Boulevard on Aug. 12, and later that month, the school opened its doors at 500 Houston St. with more than 23,000 square feet, a large cafeteria, 16 classrooms and an adult learning center.

However, there is much work to be done.

The school paid $700,000 for the property. But it needs an estimated $50,000 worth of repairs for the playground, which is pocked with holes, and the estimate for roofing repairs is $100,000. About half of the two buildings have central air conditioning, but many classes are using portable air conditioners that don’t do much to cool the rooms.

A campaign is underway to raise the money. And administrators are still trying to sell the 4,500-square-foot building at 5508 Chaperito Trail.

Leigh Weedman, director of education, said she and executive director Jean Jewell want to repurpose classrooms in the new building into a home economics class where students can learn to live on their own, and a healthy living class to tackle the problem some with Down syndrome face related to exercise and weight gain.

“Our goal is not to be an island unto ourselves,” Weedman said. “We have a lot of success stories of kids who were told they’d never be able to read, write or talk.”

Thrift store closing

Jewell is a founder of the school that her 24-year-old daughter still attends.

The school accommodates all ages and has a adult learning program for continuing education, social skills, speech skills, vocational training and life skills.

“They graduate from high school at 21, and many of them don’t have viable options,” Jewell said.

In 2011, the school opened Dollars & Sense Thrift & Gift shop in the 2400 block of Pioneer Parkway to give older students work training. But the thrift store will close by the end of the month. The store was only breaking even, and the original intent was for it to help with school operating costs. After the school relocated and the lease was up, administrators decided a better location would be in the University of Texas at Arlington neighborhood.

“The store did not do what we needed it to do incomewise,” Jewell said. “We didn’t lose money, but we didn’t make money.”

Green Oaks tuition runs $8,400 annually per student, but operating costs are about $14,000 per student.

Jewell said administrators hope to reopen the thrift store sometime in the next two years. For now, students work at different churches and Arlington libraries, and some even work at the school during their off periods.

Bringing history back

Once renovations are complete and everyone settles in, Jewell said she wants to host an event to honor the Booker T. Washington School.

While moving in, she stumbled across something special — the original blueprints for the school, which became part of the Arlington school district in 1902 and changed names with public school desegregation in 1965.

Jewell said when she first saw the school, she knew it was the place for her students.

“Before, when we had outside groups come and help — volunteers and students — we were just falling all over ourselves,” she said. “Now we can do more.”

The Green Oaks School is one of many nonprofits that will participate in North Texas Giving Day, a 7 a.m. to midnight event Thursday where various organizations raise money. The money will go toward operating costs.

The school will also host an open house Oct. 29 to showcase what the school is doing. Sponsors will be honored for their contributions to renovate the campus.

“We always wish there was a good way to show we have an amazing program, and from God’s grace we’re able to do amazing things,” Weedman said.

Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792