On March 2 of this year, tornadoes ravaged Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. In addition to the loss of lives, shelter, and security for a number of families, three schools in Kentucky were completely destroyed. This unexpected catastrophe left districts scrambling to patch together a way to get their young students, many of whom also had damaged homes, back into school and into a normal routine. West Liberty Elementary in Morgan County was one of those three schools and the story of how the resilient staff of WLE and a horde of volunteers from inside and outside of the community worked to get a temporary school up and running in 10 days is impressive.
As the KET education consultant for West Liberty Elementary and the surrounding area, I was anxious to visit as soon as I learned about the catastrophe, but I did not want to be another person in the way of all the work that needed to be done. I was finally able to visit the school on April 4th, a full month after the disaster. The KET education staff was generous enough to send along some great KET resources, including the four most recent Arts Toolkits and the Everyday Science Toolkit, as a donation.
When I arrived at the new, temporary West Liberty Elementary, I was surprised at how well the staff and students had settled in. While the building is less than impressive from the outside, it is tidy and it is conveniently located near the Morgan County Public Library. There is a nice area around the building for students to have recess, which some of them were in the midst of when I arrived. Amazingly, when you step inside, it really feels like a school. Bright, cheerful rugs from the previous building that say “West Liberty Elementary, Expect the Best,” greet you as well as a number of busy staff members. There is a proper waiting room as well as a place for guests to the school to register.
When I entered the large common area that serves as the cafeteria, I found a cheerful second grade teacher diligently searching through boxes of books during a short break in her schedule. Shane Markwell, pictured on the right, was looking through the books for new additions to her classroom library. Apparently, most of the books from the school library were saved before the snowstorm that came along shortly after the tornadoes, but many of the classrooms lost everything, including their classroom libraries. Fortunately, they have been almost overwhelmed with book donations and have even been able to share some of the books with Salyersville Elementary, one of the other schools destroyed by the storm. There were several other stacks of donated items also in the common area.
I was also able to visit Ms. Markwell’s classroom, which is inviting despite the cement floors and lack of a proper ceiling.
What is most extraordinary is how much time and how many resources have been donated to get the school up and running again in such a brief time. There has been an outpouring of support from the community, which donated everything from desks to clocks. The Amish community produced the racks to hold the children’s coats and book bags, and a former owner of a Parent Teacher store donated the surplus supplies. The construction of the building was accomplished with the assistance of a unique volunteer organization called God’s Pit Crew from Danville, VA. The crew built 15 classrooms, offices and a cafeteria in less than 2 weeks! While the building is still a little rough (the rooms do not have individual ceilings, etc.), it is enough to see them through to the end of the year when more work can be done. They will stay in the current building until a new one can be built, which will take at least a year and a half.
As I left, I asked several people what the school’s other needs were and ended up with a list of fairly specific items like clocks, document cameras, mats to go under chairs, and hand held radios. Ultimately, what they need now is cash to purchase some of these sundry items that are much needed to keep a school running. If you would like to make a cash donation, checks can be sent to:West Liberty Elementary 208 University Drive West Liberty, KY 41472