School for College Hill Elementary students and teachers will start three days later than expected and about seven miles away after a fire damaged much of the school building Monday.
District officials announced that “the entire College Hill school operation” will be moved to the former Bryant Elementary School, 4702 W. Ninth St., until repairs and restoration are complete.
It was unclear Tuesday how long College Hill’s 475 students would be at the temporary location or how they would be transported. The first day of school for most Wichita students is Wednesday.
In the meantime, district crews will spend the next several days sprucing up and resettling Bryant, one of five schools shuttered last spring as part of cost-cutting measures and boundary changes.
“We’re fortunate, somewhat, in the timing of this,” Superintendent John Allison said at a news conference Tuesday. “There were no students (at College Hill at the time of the fire). No one was in danger. First responders were there very quickly.
“And while it’s tough to start a school year with a change like this, we do have a couple days in here that luckily we’ve been provided to be able to work through these logistics and make it as smooth as possible.”
The last time the Wichita district had to relocate a school so quickly was in November 2004, when a natural gas explosion gutted a new science wing at Marshall Middle School. Within days, seventh- and eighth-grade students moved to temporary quarters at the vacant Longfellow Elementary, and sixth-graders moved to the former Carter school building.
Allison said he selected Bryant as a temporary location for College Hill because it is large enough to house all the school’s students and staff members, from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Crews already were on site Tuesday, checking toilets, getting the cafeteria ready and restarting the school’s latent heating and air-conditioning system, he said.
Teachers will move into classrooms over the next several days. An open house and meet-the-teacher activity will be held Sunday at Bryant so parents and students can get acquainted with their temporary school.
“There’s still a little bit of a shock factor that they were ready to start the school year and now they’re having to make a change,” Allison said.
“But it’s not about the four walls of a building that educates the students and sets the culture. It’s about the teachers,” he said. “It’s not going to look identical in those classrooms because of all the work that the teachers put in, but we’re working to give them whatever support they need to make sure we’ve got a good environment for students to start on Monday.”
An electrical malfunction in a closet storage room is the most likely cause of the fire at College Hill Elementary, First and Clifton, fire officials said Tuesday.
Wichita Fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said the fire caused an estimated $400,000 in damage to the school and its contents, and thick black smoke made it difficult for fire crews to find where the fire started.
“There’s no indication it was anything but an accidental fire,” Bevis said.
Two second-floor classrooms that shared the closet were badly damaged by fire, he said, and flames spread to structural spaces in that part of the building. There also is water damage to the rooms below the fire site and extensive smoke damage throughout the building.
“There is at least smoke smell if not soot stains throughout the entire building,” Bevis said.
A microwave oven and small refrigerator were in the closet, he said, but it’s not clear yet whether the fire started in one of those appliances or in electrical wiring in the closet.
While disaster restoration businesses “are miracle workers,” Bevis said, it will be some time before the school will be ready for teachers, students and staff members to return.
Sean Amore, whose 7-year-old daughter, Ava, will start second grade at College Hill this year, said he will have to make a few adjustments and is awaiting word on whether College Hill will still offer its before- and after-school latchkey program.
But overall, “We’re not worried,” Amore said.
“Once we clarified (to Ava) that all the teachers she cares about are fine, she was fine,” he said.
“She seems excited that she’ll start at a new school on the west side. She sees it as kind of an adventure, and I guess it is, as long as everybody’s safe.”
This summer at College Hill, crews completed construction of a $1.2 million gymnasium and storm shelter and a connecting link from the current building to the new addition. Officials said the new construction wasn’t damaged in Monday’s fire.