'It's crushing'; BTW teachers on tragic loss, transition ahead

BTW teachers react after fire destroys school
Updated: Aug. 20, 2018 at 8:15 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Transition is quickly taking shape at BTW Magnet High School as the maintenance crew puts the final touches on the temporary campus at the Old Hayneville Road School.

MPS Maintenance Director Lee McKenzie was on site shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday, watching 20 years of his handiwork at BTW go up in flames. But there was no time for sentimentality, McKenzie rallied the troops and quickly began making plans.

"I was thinking, 'Where do we go from here?' And the wheels start turning," McKenzie stated. "I knew there were 400 students, and they need a home."

Before daybreak the top brass at MPS and BTW agreed to move the remaining classes to the former campus at Old Hayneville Road, which closed in the spring due to the district's consolidation plan.

McKenzie and the district's maintenance team worked night and day to make significant repairs to the south Montgomery campus in order to hand the baton over to teachers Monday to begin moving their classrooms.

It's a Herculean effort, as McKenzie is tasked with creating traditional classrooms and creative spaces to accommodate students who need creative spaces to continue their study of performing and visual arts.

Jia Ross, a veteran teacher, has called her office at BTW home for nearly two decades. Every other day more than one hundred students pass through her classroom.

"It was traumatizing - the artwork that's so significant, it's nothing we can get back," Ross said of the fire. "It's not just a loss of the building, it's a loss for the school. All of us use that building, our library, every student in our school is impacted, our teachers are impacted."

Ross was clear the academic rigor at BTW won't waiver due to the transition. She has been communicating with her students, who have assignments to turn in Monday morning.

Despite her laser focus on moving the semester forward, Ross and others anticipate growing pains as all classrooms will be under the same roof for the first time. Until now, the academic classes were in separate buildings from the performing arts, which decreased any noise interruptions.

"For those core classes who are not accustomed to the choir singing, band playing, violins and pianos going, they are going to experience some good noise," Ross said with a smile. "I think it will benefit them."

Fine Arts teacher Rachel Dudley was lost for the first time in her 18-year tenure at BTW when she arrived Monday morning. In nearly two decades, she didn't have a classroom to open.

"The main thing was the beautiful artwork," Dudley vividly recalled. "Our studio was a showcase - a gallery for the students, the community to show their work, some of the work was compiled even before I got here."

Dudley explained this is staggering blow to her students who watched years of work and training go up in smoke.

"Especially my seniors working on their AP portfolio," Dudley explained. "This is their fourth year, all the tangible work is gone. Thank goodness we have digital images of their work to be backed up, but there's nothing to be said about being able to see the heart and soul on a piece of artwork."

Dudley says her students feel like they've lost a piece of themselves in the fire.

"It's crushing to me," she sighed. "I would give anything, all my materials I lost, if I could get their work back."

Dudley's art course rivals many collegiate programs. Students in her academy often go on to pursue a visual arts degree and career.

"When they get to me as a freshman, they understand that everything counts, and it all builds up," she said of her course. "It's stepping stones to something that is great. When they interview for colleges or scholarships, they have a portfolio to show how they've built themselves as an artist over time."

Dudley's focused on the massive outreach and the joy of seeing the community and her former students rally to bring BTW back to it's full potential. She's also determined to help her students to draw from this difficult time and create something to show their true strength.

"This year will be their diary, through their visual words they are going to express their life at this point," Dudley stated. "It will be therapy for them and for me."

While it was never on her calendar, this could be the most important lesson this influential educator has ever taught.

"I want to let them know we can begin again, out of the ashes," Dudley said. "We are artists, we persevere through everything and we will see strength."

If you would like to help BTW in this difficult time, the BTW Fame Board, a parent, alumni and community group, has set up a Go Fund Me account.

There will also be an item collection drop off at the AlaPTA office on the corner of Union and High streets from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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