Marshall welcomes Willowridge students
By Joe Southern
Two cross-town rival high schools have come together under one roof in a show of unity and a spirit of togetherness as Marshall High School opened its doors for students and staff from Willowridge High School.
Willowridge is undergoing a major cleaning and renovation after mold was found growing throughout the building over the summer while it was closed for planned renovation work. Last Wednesday administrators from both schools and the Fort Bend Independent School District met with parents and students from both schools to help explain what happened and how the transition of two schools into one would work.
“We know there’s rumors out there,” acknowledged Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre as he began his talk.
“I want you to understand there is no plan, there has been no discussion about any plan, none of this is about closing Willowridge High School,” he said to loud applause.
He said he wanted to quell those rumors that began to circulate because both schools are at about half capacity and four years ago the state gave Willowridge an “improvement required” rating.
“Sometimes things slip a little bit. The last four years things have not been slipping at Willowridge,” he said. “On every level, on every single level, things have been going up, up and up. Academically they are strong. They are far removed from the improvement required rating they earned four years ago. They are three years beyond that and academic scores are better than ever. They earned what the state calls distinctions this year – two distinctions for improvement and progress.”
Although the students and staff will share classrooms, they will remain two separate schools. Athletics and other extracurricular activities will be independent of each other. The Willowridge students will be bused to Marshall, about four and a half miles away.
“Every single bus will be an air-conditioned bus,” said Michael Brassfield, director of transportation.
Marshall High School Principal Alfred Holland presented a ceremonial key to the building to Willowridge High School Principal Thomas Graham and the two talked about unity and family.
“I want to express my gratitude to Mr. Holland and his staff,” Graham said. “We could not ask for a better helping hand at this particular time.”
“When families are in need, you help them,” Holland said. “I don’t see this as Willowridge coming to Marshall and I don’t see this as Marshall and Willowridge, I see this as a family helping family. We are a community and we stand by helping family. I want Mr. Graham and Willowridge to know that we are here for you and we welcome you with open arms and if there is anything you need we are willing to help you.”
The two schools will be together until at least the middle of October. Dupre said the mold remediation will take until mid-September but the renovation will take at least another month after that.
“Right now there are 200 people working 24/7 in the Willowridge building to clean the mold,” he said.
Dupre said once one area is cleaned, a construction crew comes in to rebuild.
“Every single ceiling tile in that whole building is coming out of the building and is going to be replaced with new ceiling tiles,” he said. “All the air conditioning ducts, all the pipes for the air conditioning are being removed and replaced with brand new ducts. Everywhere there’s carpet in the building, the carpet is being removed and we’re putting brand new tile. The entire building is being painted inside with fresh, new Willowridge Eagle colors, and we are also replacing every bit of furniture in the building.”
“The other thing that’s very challenging is everything in the building, almost every document, every book almost everything that was paper also had to be destroyed, so all new books, all new papers, all new materials and supplies, and I want to be very clear, the district is paying for all of that,” Dupre said.
The mold remediation will cost about $7.5 million and is being paid for out of the district’s contingency fund.
“We have savings set up for incidences just like this. We’re not having to dip, we’re not caught off guard, we don’t want to have to do it, we don’t like spending the money just like you don’t like to have to repair your roof when a storm blows it off, but sometimes you have to do that,” he said.
Dupre said the damage is not covered by insurance.
“Back in June we we’re performing all of the work that was committed in our bond program, the 2014 bond program,” he said. “There’s about $10 million in that bond program that’s focused on Willowridge High School to improve the building, to address air conditioning issues, building issues, to improve the building. In addition to that we’ve dedicated several hundred thousand dollars to do things like upgrade painting to make the building more beautiful, more attractive for the kids, to make it a learning environment that everybody can be proud of.
“That money is what we were spending this summer when we had to shut down the building for two weeks to swap out all the electrical systems. We were replacing the air conditioning system, we were replacing the electrical system and I’m just going to go back and say those are not things you do to a building that you are planning to shut down. We were putting money into the school, millions of dollars, to improve it for the students and the staff of the building,” he said.
Dupre clarified that all of the fundraising going on for the school is not to cover the renovation cost, but to help the teachers pay for supplies they lost to the mold.
“The district cannot spend district money to replace their personal items; it’s against the law for us to do that. But all the donations the community has given can be used to replace the teachers’ personal items. So the community, when they give money, they are helping the teachers directly to replace their personal things, their books, the materials they have collected over their career,” he said, noting that about $12,000 has been donated so far.
“We have very tight accountability for every dollar that is given. It’s being managed through a single account. It’s being monitored by our accountants in the district office to make sure we spend it well, we spend it right and that not any penny of it is lost,” he said.
Dupre said the school will be practically brand new when students and staff return.
“So at this point it looks like we’ll be moving back into Willowridge at some point in October, but we’ll have to make sure we coordinate that very well because we have to remember that for the teachers and staff at Willowridge it’s going to be like another first day at school. They’re going to have to get all their rooms set up, they’re going to have to get things moved from here there, so we’re going to have to plan that carefully and we don’t want to rush. The goal is to send the students and the staff back to a brand new building ready to learn the first day they’re back into the building.”
Two days later a number of local faith-based leaders and elected officials joined FBISD board members and staff to demonstrate their support of the combined campus, and their willingness to partner in student success.
In the days following the discovery of extensive mold growth at Willowridge High School and the loss of staff materials and supplies, Fort Bend ISD and Willowridge High School saw an outpouring of concern and support from local faith-based leaders.
As the year begins, a number of local pastors have signed up to volunteer as lunch monitors.
“We have watched cities and states come together in unity to work through hurricanes and catastrophes, and this is a great time to show the world how we are a community,” said Pastor Rudolph White, Jr., President of the Fort Bend Pastor’s Association and pastor of the Christian Bible Church. “There is rivalry on the football field, and that’s expected, but this is different. There’s no competition here, but a sense of unity and love.”