Back in May, hundreds of Briarwood Elementary School students walked from their temporary home at Emmaus Baptist Church to the place where a monster tornado turned their lives upside down a year earlier.
As the children passed through a neighborhood with homes in various stages of repair, they were greeted by residents who encouraged them as they made their way to the site where their school was being rebuilt.
They stepped off their porches and curbs, holding up signs that read “Briarwood Strong” and “Welcome Home Briarwood Bears.”
“To see the kid’s faces when they landed on Briarwood for the first time as a group, it was an emotional day for us and it was an emotional day for them,” Moore Public Schools Superintendent Robert Romines recalled Friday, fighting back tears. “They were excited to be back home.”
On Tuesday, about 22,000 Moore School District students will begin a new school year.
They will include children from Briarwood and from Plaza Towers elementaries, both of which were destroyed in the EF5 tornado that struck Moore and Oklahoma City on May 20, 2013. Seven Plaza Towers third-graders were killed, and others were injured. There were injuries at Briarwood, but no deaths.
Briarwood and Plaza Towers children attended classes last year in temporary quarters.
A third school damaged by the tornado — Highland East Junior High — has a new gym and athletic complex.
South Lake Elementary, a new school in southwest Oklahoma City, will open its doors Tuesday as well, welcoming about 400 students. That school will be led by former Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson.
Romines toured Briarwood on Friday, where Principal Shelley McMillin and her staff prepared for the first day of school.
The superintendent said the new buildings and a new principal at Plaza Towers — Patrick Chase — mark a fresh start for the district and the community, which has wrestled with a variety of emotions in the nearly 15 months since the tornado.
“It’s been a challenging year; it’s been a very difficult year,” he said. “I still can’t walk through Plaza Towers without getting a lump in my throat and of course that lump comes from how far we’ve come.
“We lost a lot that day and we have made the commitment that the school district and the community would be about moving forward and not forgetting.”
“Back on May 20 we made a lot of promises to our community,” Romines said. “The first promise was that we were going to rebuild and that we were going to be ready for August 2014.”
“We did it. There’s something to be said for that,” he said. “There’s something to be said for this community and what we’ve accomplished.”
Romines said Chase knows as few do what the children and teachers endured that day at Plaza Towers.
Chase’s wife, Amy, teaches sixth grade at Briarwood, and she and their two daughters were there when the tornado struck.
“So he’s got the understanding of what it’s like, as a dad and a husband,” Romines said. “He truly gets it, he gets what the teachers went through at Plaza Towers, and he identifies with what the kids went through.”
While leading a tour last week of his new school, at 852 SW 11 in Moore, Chase said he “kind of scratched my head a little bit” when he walked into Plaza Towers for the first time on Aug. 4 and saw how much work remained.
But it came together, he said.
“It’s just like everything else this district and this community does,” he said. “We come together to get this building together, we come together as a community.”
The new Plaza Towers was constructed for about $12 million on the site of the original school, which opened in 1966.
Unlike the former school, which had several buildings and additions, the new Plaza Towers is all under one roof, and includes a tornado shelter.
It will open with 400 students.
“We’re going to have a great year. We’re going to do what’s best for kids,” Chase said. “We’re going to continue to heal, we’re going to continue to grow, and we’re going to move forward.
“We won’t forget the past, but we won’t let the past define us, either,” he said. “I can’t wait to see these doors open and have kids coming down the hall. That gives me goosebumps. That’s what it’s all about, it’s about what’s best for kids.”
A new beginning
Briarwood, at 14901 S Hudson Ave. in Oklahoma City, was rebuilt for about the same amount as Plaza Towers, and also has a safe room. About 575 students will fill the building when it opens Tuesday.
“The first day they said we could come back in, I couldn’t stop crying,” said McMillin. “It was surreal. It still kind of is. I feel like I’m walking in a dream. I’m sure once the kids get here and it becomes routine again, I’ll come back down.”
In Moore, students will return to Highland East at 1200 SE 4, across Interstate 35 from the Plaza Towers neighborhood, to find improvements including two safe rooms built into the new gym and designed to hold up to 750 people.
Romines said Plaza Towers is “the heart” of its neighborhood west of the interstate, between SW 4 and SW 19.
“All three lost so much but we gained as a result, and we built back bigger, better and stronger,” Romines said. “Those kids and those staff deserve everything they’re fixing to walk into.”