Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of Southwest Nears Return to Fire-Ravaged Building
Students and staff at Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of Southwest, in Chicago, are looking forward to moving back into their school soon. For the past three months, they have been attending school in a temporary location – the school’s former administrative building on the same street – after a fire badly damaged classrooms and other areas of the school building at 71st and Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago. The campus is being fully restored. The new building will be unveiled in January.
Amazingly, school programming didn’t skip a beat because of a team effort among staff and students to make the temporary space usable. The fire occurred on a Friday night and staff came into school on Saturday and Sunday and moved materials and equipment to the temporary space so that students could report to school on Monday.
“It was important for our students to see we weren’t going to let something like this stop us,” said art teacher Richard Sprague whose classroom and everything in it was destroyed. “We weren’t going to let this fire interrupt our school year. It’s a good life lesson. You can feel down about something. We all have human emotions, but to have that resilience and to be able to keep moving forward is really special. Everyone just kind of picked up the pieces. We relied on each other a lot and just got through it.”
Mr. Sprague had a lot of personal items in his classroom, including artwork. The fire hit him particularly hard. “I took it very hard at multiple levels, from losing personal artwork that I brought in to losing artwork that my students worked on. It was pretty crushing for me to deal with that. Mentally, I could have used a few days off just to process things but coming right back in was a great decision and really good for the kids,” Sprague said.
Executive Director Jake Benke said he and the team wanted to make the best of the situation. “We heard from a parent that night that the school was on fire. I didn’t know the extent of the damage. My main thought was toward making sure we could still provide a place for students to attend on Monday morning,” he said.
Benke said students responded positively when they arrived on Monday. “The first day back we actually experienced an increase in student attendance. The students were surprised to see that we were in our administrative building down the street. Three families were there to enroll their students in school. The fire had been on the news but it did not stop anyone from enrolling.”
Student Darius Johnson said, “When I found out the school had burned I was really confused because I was thinking, ‘who would do something like that; what did they get out of it’?”
Like the art class, the math room was also completely destroyed. “What upset me the most is that whoever broke in and started the fire had taken milk from the school. And only people who are hungry take milk,” said math teacher Pauline Abrego.
“Seeing the damage up close – seeing the classroom that you worked in for more than four years – you see the windows torn out, you see things burnt up, work from other students, accolades you may have had, all that just tarnished and burnt,” said teacher Michael E. Tyler II. His classroom was also extensively damaged, with student work, personal belongings, and expensive equipment all destroyed.
Camelot Education schools across Chicago and from across the country rallied to support the students and staff of Excel of Southwest.
“Camelot is a family. We get through things like this together,” Benke said. “We lend each other support when things happen like this. I am one person and because I have a team who rally behind me, we are successful as a unit.”
No students dropped out because of the fire. In fact, the school has increased its enrollment since the fire and student attendance has maintained its levels as well.
“The fire and how we dealt with it made us stronger,” said student Kimmeion Hudson. “It didn’t break us to where we felt we had to begin back at scratch and start all over again. We did what we had to do and we’re going to keep going. We’re very blessed because nobody got hurt. I think that was the most important part of it all. It didn’t stop us from being the best we could be at Excel Southwest.”
One student said it was as if nothing happened. “We’re strong for that because we didn’t let the fire get in the way of the teachers coming to work or the students coming to school. We didn’t let that get in the way of us working with the stuff we had until we got new books and equipment.”
Another faculty member, Anthony Rossi, said this whole experience has been a case of triumph over tragedy. “It’s been tough but we rally around each other. We rally for the kids. And we just have to make it work. That’s what we do every day, make it work.”