Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
When the Oct. 20 twister totaled Walnut Hill Elementary on a Sunday night, principal Phillip Potter was one of the Dallas ISD leaders that stormed onto the scene. Thirty-six hours later, about 390 students and 50 staff members started school across town at the previously empty Tom Field Elementary. Now the students have created a gratitude wall and are focused on lessons. Potter became principal of Walnut Hill Elementary, which originally started in 1914, in January 2019. He received his master’s degree at DePaul University in Chicago, started his career in the Chicago public schools and came to Dallas ISD in 2013. Potter also has a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of North Texas. He’s currently working on a doctorate at Southern Methodist University. Potter and his wife have a 2-year-old, Grace, and Evan, who is a kindergartner at Walnut Hill.
Where were you during the night of the tornado?
We had just had a date night, watching the Cowboys lose. The news report flashed, saying, “Tornado in the area. Take cover.” I became concerned about kids, parents and families in the area. And then a channel reported that a tornado had touched down at Walnut Hill and Midway. I thought, “That’s not good. Maybe at worst there will be a broken window, some destroyed shingles. Maybe the power will be out.”
What did you do next?
I was in contact with people in the district and in school leadership — my supervisor, Ms. Angie Torres, who is an awesome leader, and Elena Bates, the principal at W.T. White, who is a great friend and person. Her husband, Dave Bates, is our executive director of maintenance and operations. I called Central Control, our Dallas ISD police, and asked for updates. Central Control called back and said, “Someone saw your school from the road. It’s not good.” At that point, in collaboration with school leadership and our district leaders, it became a sprint to plan the next day, figure out how to talk to staff and make a decision about how much we would allow this to define us.
What’s the first decision you made as a leader?
We’re not going to let this define us. As long as people are OK, we can figure it out. My tagline became, “We lost our building, but we didn’t lose our school.” We love the history of our building and the community. They’re very special, but the school is the people and the culture.
How quickly did you and the leaders get the students and staff here to Tom Field Elementary?
About 36 hours after the tornado. Tom Field was completely empty. We started mapping out where everyone would be placed, had our staff meeting, set the tone and talked about our resolve to stick together. And then on that Tuesday, it was incredible. It’s hard to imagine the organization efforts that went into that.
What were the challenges?
The commute and the changes were an adjustment. At first, we had some staff members say, “Commuting took me a long time.” You just adjust. We’ve taken our culture and our routines and put them in a different building. When the students got out of the cars, they were still smiling. They were happy to be back.
What did you tell the kids and staff on the first day?
“Welcome to Walnut Hill, welcome home.” We’re going to be Walnut Hill whether we’re here at I-35 and Royal or over on Midway. We are settling into a temporary home and bringing our signature — our student work, high standards and cultural diversity.
What kind of personal toll has this taken on you?
The support was so overwhelming immediately. I knew we were going to be fine. It was a blessing it didn’t happen during the school day and that we didn’t lose anyone. It’s an opportunity to move forward stronger.
What are your goals going forward?
The school just received its second National Blue Ribbon. I want a world-class education here. We want to continue that path toward national recognition. We have a dual language, talented and gifted and two-way dual language program. We want people to choose our school.
A lot of neighbors want to know how to help.
I suggest everyone go through DISD Partnership and Volunteer Services at dallasisd.org/tornadorelief. The larger donations are managed by the Dallas Education Foundation. The response from our community, United to Learn, our partners and parents has been incredible. We have school supplies, and the technology is coming [as of November]. We want to work with our leadership to be good stewards of the money and spend it on the right things at the right time. We need to think about the long term.
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