Drive by Thomas Jefferson High School and there are still boarded-up windows and debris littering the campus from an EF-3 tornado that destroyed the school more than a year ago.
The holey roof provides no protection from the rain that seeps into the ruinous building—rotting wood, rusting steel and cultivating a damp environment where mold can grow. Well-meaning neighbors dump pounds of cat food for the feral cat colony that now calls the school home.
Despite calls from Thomas Jefferson alumni to scrap the building and rebuild a new high school—projected to cost $147.3 million—it will be heavily renovated from whatever remnants can be salvaged.
“I wonder about the quality of renovations,” neighbor Courtney Fadley says. “It’s sat for so long. I can’t imagine the mold. I can’t imagine what it looks and smells like in there. I don’t know how they’re going to turn it into a clean and safe learning environment.”
Thomas Jefferson was one of three Dallas ISD schools heavily damaged in the October 2019 tornado. Nearby Walnut Hill Elementary and Cary Middle School were totaled in the storm.
The Dallas ISD Board of Trustees approved $132 million in construction projects for the sites, with $82 million allocated to renovate Thomas Jefferson within its existing structure. The cheaper option allows DISD to build a new pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade campus that combines Walnut Hill and Cary Middle School on the former Cary site.
District officials hoped the projects would be completed by the start of the 2022-2023 school year. But in August, the board canceled a construction contract for the projects after corruption allegations. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa says that could delay the schools’ reopening.
The Thomas Jefferson, Cary Middle School and Walnut Hill sites are still a long way from what DISD envisioned. Stay up to date on their progress.
The fate of the 64-year-old campus was perhaps one of the most hotly debated items after the tornado.
Edwin Flores, the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees member for District 1, had hoped the board could reach a compromise between renovations and rebuild. He proposed a $124.6 million plan that would have demolished more of the school and renovated just a small portion. But some board members were at odds with the plan to spend more money on a rebuild when renovations could transform a school, like they did at South Oak Cliff in January 2020.
South Dallas board members Joyce Foreman and Maxie Johnson reminded the board that when funds were being allocated for South Oak Cliff, the community had to fight for its $52 million, about $40 million more than the original amount. Flores was one of three board members who voted against increasing funding.
The board voted 6-3 in favor of the renovation at Thomas Jefferson.
“I thought [Thomas Jefferson] merited a full replacement, but the board voted, and that’s all we can do,” Flores says.
The district has hired a new contractor for Thomas Jefferson and the adjacent K-8 campus, but the next few years will be challenging for students and educators. The community hopes to ease that burden by offering its support. Northway Church, located across the street from Thomas Jefferson, has partnered with the school since 2011. Each year, the church organizes a back-to-school event that provides attendees with backpacks, health screenings and family portraits.
Congregant and photographer Jeff McWhorter led a small group at the church that also adopted the school’s soccer team. They hosted team dinners and became super fans who attended all the games.
“We saw the fruit of that groundwork because when the tornado happened, we already had a relationship with the school,” McWhorter says.
Three days after the tornado, which also destroyed Northway, the church organized a family dinner in the parking lot. Church members and high school students, who had spent all day picking up debris, “just sat out there in the parking lot, sharing the solidarity,” McWhorter says.
The church has maintained its support for the school, temporarily located 9 miles away at Thomas Edison. Volunteers installed 130 IKEA shelves in classrooms to provide students with more storage. They also donated meals during the pandemic.
“We’ve been a bit involved in the rebuild process,” McWhorter says. “We’ve been a voice that lets the administration know we care about the kids. We want them to have something great.”