Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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Firefighters from multiple districts coordinate an attack on a fire at Eola Hills Charter School on Thursday.
October 08, 2013
RICKREALL -- Eola Hills Charter School students gathered for a group photo at the end of the day Monday at their temporary location in McMinnville's Seventh-day Adventist Church.
They huddled together with school staff and, after a few goofy photos, smiled big for the camera, happy to be back in school after their former building on Bethel Road in Polk County was destroyed by fire Thursday afternoon.
Everyone was evacuated in time, but the fire left the tight-knit school of 42 students wondering if it could recover from the tragedy.
To some degree, it already has.
Students and staff were in good spirits Monday, determined to look at the fire as not an end, but a new beginning.
Amberly VanWinkle, right, EHCS administrative assistant, talks with community members who brought donations to the temporary location in McMinnville Monday.
"We are going to move forward from here," said Nicole Wollenweber, EHCS principal. "It's not going to stop us. It's not going to stop us from educating these kids the way that they deserve."
Students are attending classes in the church's fellowship hall. The space is much smaller than what was available at the former school, which had been EHCS's home since 2008. Temporary dividers separate classrooms and the office is two banquet tables set up near the entrance to the hall.
Teachers and staff worked with borrowed computers. No books or class materials survived the fire.
Wollenweber, however, is grateful to have students back at school so soon.
"Initially all these thoughts go through your head, like how are we going to do this?" she said Monday. "How are we going to fit in all the hours for our seniors to be able to graduate on time? How are we going to be able to continue on with school? But then you start getting the emails and the calls. Several people, several churches, offered up their space temporarily."
Wollenweber, who is in her first year as principal, wasn't on site Thursday when the fire erupted. She had taken the school's sixth-grade class on an outdoor school trip. When she got the call about the fire, she immediately wanted to return.
"That was all I wanted to do, to get to my students and my staff," she explained, though she ultimately decided to stay until Friday, when the sixth-graders were originally scheduled to return.
An Amity firefighter watches as fire consumes Eola HIlls Charter School's building on Bethel Road in rural Polk County.
School staff and officials on scene Thursday were mostly in shock.
Al Christensen, chairman of the EHCS school board, said the roof had been recently replaced and staff and volunteers had spent time over the summer painting and cleaning for the new school year.
"Everybody was excited," he said Thursday as fire crews rushed to contain the blaze. "It looked great.
"It's a sad day, a very sad day," he added.
Ian Hasel, an 11th-grader who has attended EHCS for four years, said at first he thought the fire alarm was just a drill.
"After I left the school, I turned around and saw the roof was smoking," he said.
By the time he was picked up to go home, the building was engulfed in flames.
"The sight was just unbelievable, to see the whole thing just burning up," he said.
Bruce Hubbard, Amity's fire chief, said by the time firefighters arrived on the scene, the roof of the century-old building was already beginning to cave in. It was too dangerous to send firefighters inside to fight the flames.
By the time crews arrived on the scene, saving the school wasn't an option. Eventually, the roof, walls and structural beams of the school building collapsed.
All that fire crews could do was monitor the blaze and protect nearby structures.
The source of the fire was in the southeast corner of the building -- possibly in the boiler room-- and the cause has been deemed accidental. However EHCS's insurance company investigators haven't released an official cause, Wollenweber said.
The uncertainty was stressful for parents and students, many of whom witnessed the destruction of their school.
Stacey McGhehey's daughter attends seventh-grade at the EHCS.
"It took awhile for it to set in, but by Friday her anxiety levels were pretty high," McGhehey said. "She wanted to know when and where school was going to be."
School officials responded, sweeping into action Friday to prepare for a quick return to class. With several churches offering space, the school was able to pick a location that was already on a bus route. Then it was a rush to get ready for school Monday.
"A few us have going nonstop since Friday," Wollenweber said.
Wollenweber commended her staff for being willing to return to class with no supplies or curriculum materials.
"I am grateful that the staff was willing to come in here with absolutely nothing and still educate these kids," she said. "Without them behind me, this wouldn't happen. If they would have said `I can't do that because we have nothing,' then we wouldn't have had school (Monday)."
Christensen, who took a day off work to support school staff Monday, said the long-term goal is to rebuild the school, but that will take time. The next step is locating a place to finish the school year within the Amity School District, the school's charter sponsor.
For now, though, just having class is enough.
"I like this school," Hasel said. "People treat each other really well here. I prefer this school more than any other. I'm happy that the church was able to let us go here. I'm glad they were kind enough to let this be a temporary school house for us."
You Can Help
* EHCS is working to rebuild supplies and curriculum from scratch. The school has opened a donation fund named the Eola Hills Charter School Phoenix Fund for people to make donations to replace what was lost. Donations can be made at US Bank. A list of most needed items can be found on the school's website: eolahillscharterschool.com. Donations can be dropped off at Farnham Electric, 1050 Lafayette Ave., McMinnville.