Churches Aid Fire-Damaged Texas School

By Adrienne D. Coles — April 30, 1997 2 min read

Less than 24 hours after Jack Arnwine’s first full day as acting principal, his school burned down.

Then things really got interesting.

Pittsburg High School, in the rural town of Pittsburg, Texas, is the only high school in Camp County. Somehow, the longtime teacher and former boys’ basketball and football coach had to come up with a game plan to keep all 650 students learning.

“We’ve been fortunate so far,” Mr. Arnwine said in an interview last week. “But we have had to improvise.”

The April 1 fire, which authorities have determined to be arson, left only two wings of the main school building, including the cafeteria, gym, and auditorium, available for use.

The school’s vocational buildings, which are detached from the main building, were untouched by the fire.

When it became obvious that most classes could not be held on campus, members of the town’s First Baptist Church and Emmanuel Baptist Church offered the use of their facilities. Each church is only a few blocks from the school.

Principal Arnwine and the school’s transportation coordinator set up a bus service to shuttle students between the few available rooms on campus and each of the churches.

Four days after the fire, students and faculty were attending classes again.

“Everyone is adapting very well and understanding,” said Diane Anders, a first-year sociology and honors history teacher at the school.

Tight Squeeze

The meeting rooms in the church that the teachers use as makeshift classrooms are small. At Emmanuel Baptist, students sit elbow to elbow in Ms. Anders’ largest class of 25.

“It’s close quarters,” said Yolanda Willis, the president of the student council. “But so far it’s OK.”

The students are on modified block schedules, giving them five periods a day and an hour-and-a-half for each class.

“The bulk of the day, a third of the students are at each site,” Mr. Arnwine said.

The school uses six to eight buses to transport students. Rides to each site take about 10 minutes, and the bus drivers are paid extra to work through the course of the school day.

“Classes are a bit shorter to accommodate bus schedules, and we’ve had to cut lessons short, but there’s not a whole lot of choice,” Ms. Anders said. “We would much rather do this than go to school in the summer.”

School officials have housed teachers with classes of similar subject matter in the same facilities.

Each of the assistant principals supervises a site, and Mr. Arnwine makes an effort to visit each campus at least twice a day.

One problem is the lack of bells and an announcement system. But Mr. Arnwine has found ways to get around that.

In one church, school officials use a hand-held bell; in the other, they blow a whistle. On the school campus, they use an old-fashioned school bell supplied by a teacher.

“Everyone’s watch is synchronized with mine,” Mr. Arnwine said.

Although cleanup is going on around the clock, he said there is no way the school will be refurbished by the last day of classes, which has been scheduled for May 30.

The high school’s seniors are expected to graduate on that day as well. The graduates may have to step off stage without their diplomas in hand because the originals were destroyed in the fire.

“When I first heard [that], I thought they were going to delay graduation,” said Ms. Willis, a senior. “But getting a diploma late is fine as long as we get it.”