MOORE — In the front foyer of the new Plaza Towers Elementary School stands a chunk of brick wall painted with a growling panther named Paws, the school mascot.
Across the street, newly built homes stand next to stunted trees with no bark. In every direction, there are reminders of the May 20, 2013, tornado that destroyed the neighborhood and took the lives of seven children as they sought shelter in the school.
“We don’t want to be defined by May 20, but how we bounced back from it,” the school’s new principal, Patrick Chase, told media and guests Tuesday as he stood in front of the mural of Paws during a tour of the reconstructed school. “And this wall represents that.”
The wall was one of the last remaining structures left following the tornado.
The new school year starts Tuesday. Construction materials are scattered throughout the building as crews work to finish laying tile and painting, but the scene is a far cry from the piles of stone, metal and wood left behind after an EF5 tornado ravaged the area more than a year ago.
“This building is amazing,” said Caren Rickwalt, a fifth-grade teacher getting ready to start her first year at Plaza Towers. “It is the most beautiful building I have ever worked in.
“Great things can happen in one year,” she said with excitement in her voice and her smile showing a sense of pride.
Rickwalt, who came from another Moore school, said the response of the community and the school’s students and staff has made her feel loved and blessed.
Pre-K, early childhood wing doubles as safe room
Chase said watching teachers like Rickwalt set up their classrooms and prepare to welcome students to the new facility has been a particularly memorable and humbling experience.
The new school has two classrooms for each grade level and a large computer lab, and the pre-K and early childhood wing doubles as a Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved safe room.
“In this day and age, you can never be too careful,” Chase said.