The phone call came at 4 a.m., rousing me from a sound sleep. Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at Hall Elementary School to begin assessing the damage from an early morning electrical fire.
While a fire is never a good thing, my first thought was how fortunate we were to have this incident occur when no students or staff were present in the building.
On that day, Sept. 17, I had the first of many meetings with facilities staff from the city of Portland and the Portland Public Schools, the Portland Recreation Department and school administrators. We had two overriding goals: to repair Hall School so that it could be used safely and to provide a quality education for students in the interim.
While the building crew removed water and debris, we considered our options: keep Hall students out of school until the building could reopen, hold satellite classes at multiple locations such as elementary schools and community centers, or identify a space appropriate for learning that could accommodate the entire Hall student body.
Clearly, the last choice was our preference. We considered everything from busing students to a closed school in another district to having them attend classes in the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Then, someone mentioned the former Cathedral School. The Catholic Diocese was willing to rent it to us. After touring the facility, Hall teachers started imagining how they could make the smaller space work by teaching in teams.
Hall held classes at Cathedral for nine days. Teachers took advantage of the downtown location to plan field trips to places such as the Monument Square farmers market and the Portland Public Library.
The Hall staff did an incredible job of supporting one another. They rallied around their colleagues who lost all of their teaching materials and prized belongings when their classrooms were destroyed.
Hall parents were caring, flexible and understanding through those difficult weeks. On short notice, members of the Hall Parent Teacher Organization arranged a benefit spaghetti dinner to help raise money for items lost by teachers and students in the fire.
The business community stepped forward to help, even without being asked. Executives from Bangor Savings Bank, Hall’s longtime business partner, donated $10,000 to the fire replacement fund. The Maine Mall designated Oct. 14 as Helping Hall Elementary Day and organized a benefit LEGO competition.
Hall students showed their resilience adapting to a new place with more crowded conditions. I visited Cathedral School several times and saw the smiles on students’ faces at recess. They were happy to be in school, with their teachers and classmates.
My first job was to ensure that Hall School was safe for students and staff to return. The district hired an independent environmental consultant to test the air throughout the building. We were able to reopen Hall on October 9 by sealing off rooms where the cleanup continues. The staff has come up with a plan to make do with less space until that work is completed.
The past month has proved that a very special community exists at Hall School. I saw that the people of Portland can be counted on to help in a crisis. Imagine what we can accomplish if we work together with that same energy to build a great school system.