First Person: How one district is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey

Becky Zalesnik, innovation officer at Sheldon ISD (7,000 students) on the outskirts of Houston shares her district's story of recovery
By: | November 22, 2017

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Sheldon ISD in Houston has relied on community support and its own resilience to get classes going again. When the storm hit on August 25, it brought record rainfall—51 inches in four days—and unprecedented flooding. Three of the district’s schools, including C.E. King High School, sustained significant damage and were not fit for use.

In addition to hundreds of students being displaced, more than 90 district employees experienced severe flood damage at their homes. School administrators were finally able to meet three days after the rain stopped.

Zalesnik: “We met and we said, ‘Well, since we can’t get into our schools right now, the first thing we need to do is take care of our kids, our teachers and the people affected.’

“We opened up our bus barn, and overnight moved out all the buses, and then put out the call we needed help. We needed bleach, food, supplies, diapers, clothing—everything. And people started showing up within 24 hours with 18-wheelers, and we opened up a donation distribution center. Within one day, we had it full of donations and supplies, and it kept coming.”

Supplies were distributed to hundreds of families in the district. The focus then turned to getting students back in class. School officials and volunteers removed tons of damaged books, furniture, computer equipment and other debris from affected buildings.

Zalesnik: “We then asked, ‘Now what are we going to do to get kids back in school?’ We agreed that ‘nobody has the best idea right now, but when we leave this room, we’re going to have an idea that’s going to take care of kids from pre-K to 12.’

“The big thing that first day was the high school kids. We had to get them back in school and college classes because they could lose credit. It could affect their graduation, and affect their future if we didn’t sort that out first.”

Nearly 2,400 high school students needed to be accommodated. Nearby San Jacinto College provided classrooms for credit-recovery students and 400 others who were enrolled in early college classes. The district only had to provide transportation.

To make room for high school classes, the students and teachers of Sheldon Elementary—which wasn’t damaged—were relocated to a building loaned by Royalwood Baptist Church. Meanwhile, the pre-K students of Sheldon Early Childhood Academy were moved to the district’s other early childhood building.

The elementary students have adapted the church building for classes.

Zalesnik: “When you go through the church, every nook and cranny is being used for classes. They have a gym and a walking track above that, in one corner of which is now the library—books on carts, with a carpet for the librarian to read to students. Twenty feet down is the computer lab, which is 20 tablets and kids.”

Two schools now share the undamaged Michael R. Null Middle School campus. Students and teachers from the battered C.E. King Middle School use the facilities in the morning. Null’s teachers and students start their day at 1 p.m. and run classes through the late afternoon.

Classes continue during the week at heavily damaged Royalwood Elementary School, while sheetrocking and other repairs are done on weekends. The flooring is gone and many rooms have no internal walls—they’re separated only by large sheets of paper. Attendance, however, is 94 percent.

Zalesnik: “Our word for the year is resilient.

“Because if the kids in the band can come from a flooded home and practice every day and perform at halftime and look sharper than ever—and the football players can play even though they walked through four feet of water carrying their little brother and sister and dog and grandma to be rescued—then we adults don’t have anything to do but be there for them and teach them.

“They lived through that, they’re done talking about it, so let’s give them the environment they crave and get them right back into normalcy—and that’s what we did.”