HOUSTON — Monday morning Houston Jr./Sr. High School students will return as one student body in one building and 13 surrounding portable classrooms.

Crews have spent the winter break transporting the 13 portables to the Houston High campus, and preparing the buildings for students displaced when Houston Middle School was closed due to severe structural damage following the Nov. 30 earthquake.

Now, for the foreseeable future, students at the neighboring Houston Middle and Houston High will share a single campus.

“We are really looking at a group of displaced people and people who are now sharing their home and we’re trying to create one home,” Houston principal Ben Howard said.

Each of the 13 portables is 990 square feet, and could house any number of middle school students now attending Houston Jr/Sr, depending on the class. One of the seventh grade art classrooms came from Wasilla High School, and still includes a Warriors logo painted on the wall.

“All the local contractors involved really stepped up and got on it,” Jeff Walden said.

Walden was the project manager for the portable move and commended the work of local contractors who got what would normally take two to three months done in three weeks. Walden said the totality of the move cost about a half-million dollars. The Mat Su Borough School District regularly moves portables around within the district based on the need, but has not had a move of this size since Su Valley Jr/Sr High School burned down in 2007. The 13 portables came from five different schools around the Valley.

“What’s utterly remarkable is we lost an entire middle school for the purposes of occupying it and all of those kids will be back in school Jan. 7,” Mike Brown, MSBSD Executive Director of Operations, said.

Brown was appreciative of how well the Mat-Su Borough worked in association with the school district during the assessment process and ultimately planning how to proceed. Walden specifically thanked Megawatt Electric, Alpine Electric, and the Department of Transportation for their help in moving the portable classrooms. Each portable is designed to be as close to a regular classroom as possible. Houston teachers began moving into their new classrooms to prepare for the coming semester on Friday, and are being paid by MSBSD for the two days of portable prep. Howard, who had been the principal at Houston Middle and is now principal of Houston Jr/Sr, specifically grouped the sixth grade classes together in one row next to the football field. Many of the sixth grade classrooms are more recently constructed, and the surprisingly elegant portable bathroom trailer sits at the back corner of HHS between the sixth grade portables and those that will be used by seventh and eighth grades.

“I’ve worked with all ages,” Howard said. “I just think that that the middle school time in a person’s life is probably the craziest you’re going to go through. That sixth grade through eighth grade, lots of physical changes, emotional changes, I think for me I just like to help kids through that and provide a great spot for kids to be.”

A decision has not yet been made what to do with Houston Middle School. The building constructed in 1985 is in shambles following some cleanup efforts. A sea of books stretches from one wall to the other from when they flew off shelves during the Nov. 30 quake. Classrooms are all missing ceiling tile, some worse than others. The trophies displayed in the trophy case in the front lobby have fallen into the protective glass. Cracks along the concrete on the second floor are inches thick. One piece of concrete block fell from the ceiling and dented a locker during the quake. One crack in the concrete is big enough to see from one classroom to the next. The concrete in the wall separating the gym and the wrestling room is fractured all most all the way along the top, with the worst damage seen on the connections to the structural steel that was meant to hold the building together. One single block of concrete on a wall in the wrestling room popped out and still lies on the floor nearly 20 feet below. The speaker that fell from above the gym floor still sits in the center circle next to the dent it left when it fell. Howard said that the aftershocks still put him on edge. When HMS teachers were finally let back inside the building to retrieve some of their belongings, it was an emotional experience.

“We knew after you go through something like that and you go back in it’s going to be emotional. Sure enough there was some tears and things like that but sure enough at the end of the day, they’re ready for some closure. We had our time of mourning and a time to be together but now we’re ready for the next phase,” Howard said.

Two teachers from HMS went to the school themselves. At an assembly held after the quake, Howard shared his own recollection of 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30 and said that the students empathized with his story. Howard and the staff at Houston are working to get everything back to normal, which is one of the reasons MSBSD elected to move the portables to Houston. Rather than send middle school students to Wasilla or Redington, they will stay in Houston learning in portable classrooms. Houston has three staff counselors available, as well as two part time counselors from Full Circle, with a third on the way.

“They’ll deal with any kind of crisis that a kid is feeling whether it’s something happening outside of school or in school they’re here for the kids and we have an open door policy,” Howard said.

Howard said that the Houston family is moving forward after the quake.

“They know things are going to be different but they’re all on board. They’re ready to do this and so, for us, that makes things easy. It makes things a little more manageable when you have that kind of attitude going into it. So I think that’s an important thing to highlight the teachers are excited about this they’re here for the kids they want what’s best for the kids,” Howard said.

Contact Frontiersman reporter Tim Rockey at tim.rockey@frontiersman.com.

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