August 12, 2013

Fire could delay start of classes at College Hill Elementary School

Fire and smoke caused extensive damage to College Hill Elementary School on Monday – the day the school was scheduled to celebrate the completion of a $1.2 million bond project.

Fire and smoke caused extensive damage to College Hill Elementary School on Monday – the day the school was scheduled to celebrate the completion of a $1.2 million bond project.

There were no reports of injuries.

An open house and bond celebration scheduled for Monday evening were postponed, district officials said. It was unclear whether College Hill students will start school Wednesday as scheduled.

Superintendent John Allison said at Monday night’s school board meeting, “We anticipate damage to be extensive enough that we may need to relocate students and staff for a period of time at the beginning of the school year.”

He said district officials expect to make further announcements and updates by noon Tuesday.

Witnesses said the fire was first spotted shortly after 2 p.m.

Fourth-grade teacher Becky Ludwig said teachers were in a meeting outside, reviewing playground procedures. She climbed the stairway toward her second-floor classroom and saw black smoke pouring from the ceiling and a nearby classroom. She pulled the fire alarm and told the staff and teachers there was a fire.

“We had just been practicing our drills – you know, tornado and fire drills,” Ludwig said. “I had to tell them, ‘No, this is real.’ ”

School was not in session, but there were a few students helping teachers set up classrooms or doing other volunteer work.

Kassie Cabrales, 13, was helping her mother, a fifth-grade teacher, on the second floor of College Hill when she saw sparks and smoke coming from a classroom down the hall.

“I just ran out. It was really scary,” she said.

Within minutes, 18 fire units – enough to categorize the blaze as a three-alarm fire, according to Wichita Fire Capt. Stuart Bevis – were on the scene at First and Clifton. Wichita firefighters climbed onto the roof as smoke poured from the roof, windows and front doors of the building.

Teachers and other staff members gathered in a parking lot across First Street, some of them in tears as they watched firefighters climb ladder trucks and bust through several windows to access the fire.

“It’s just hard,” said fifth-grade teacher Joyce Harvey. “That’s our home.”

Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita school district, said officials were still assessing damage to the building and did not know whether or when classes would start this week. College Hill, built in 1976, serves about 400 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The first day of school for Wichita students is Wednesday.

This summer at College Hill Elementary, crews completed construction of a 5,800-square-foot multipurpose room and connecting link from the current building to the new addition. The multipurpose room also will serve as the school’s storm shelter.

The Wichita school district has several vacant school buildings, including the former Longfellow Elementary School at 2116 S. Main, which it keeps for emergencies.

When an explosion nearly destroyed a wing at Marshall Middle School in 2004, for example, officials relocated more than 400 students to Longfellow for classes.

“We have a contingency plan,” Arensman said. “There are different places we can place things. We have a very large crisis plan. Once we have more details, we will share that.”

Arensman said school officials have a working partnership with Plymouth Congregational Church, located across the street from College Hill Elementary. Teachers and staff members were planning to hold meetings Tuesday at the church.

Bevis said that as firefighters battled the smoke and flames on Monday, they had to knock out large plate glass windows to aid in ventilation of the building. Fans were brought in to also help circulate air. Saws were used to cut holes in the roof.

“It looks to be in the classroom areas where we had most of the heat,” Bevis said.

The fire may have started in the southwest corner of the building, Bevis said. Fire investigators have yet to determine the cause, he said.

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