After the tornado rolled through North Dallas in October 2019, Vanessa Somchith remembers being told to report to work at Thomas Jefferson High School. It was dark by the time the tornado passed, difficult to assess the wreckage with no power. The email from her principal said that the tornado had hit TJ, but the total damage was unknown.
When Somchith woke up the next morning, she found another email telling her to report to Thomas Edison Learning Center in West Dallas, a former school the district used for storage. On the way, she drove by her old campus. She won’t forget what she saw: complete destruction of the neighborhood, portables ripped apart, teacher’s desks thrown across the field and into neighboring yards.
“It was devastating,” Somchith says. “A tragic scene.”
The EF-3 tornado that sliced through North Dallas more than two years ago was the costliest tornado event in the state’s history, causing $1.55 billion in damage. Two years later, thousands of Dallas ISD students and staff still haven’t returned to their home school.
Somchith, an instructional coach and biology teacher, is on her third school year teaching Thomas Jefferson students at what used to be Edison, more than 9 miles from where most of the school’s students live.
The teachers and staff began canvassing where students did live. TJ and the nearby Cary Middle School, which was also damaged, are surrounded by upper-middle-class single-family homes in neighborhoods like Preston Hollow. But most of their students come from apartment complexes near Webb Chapel and Bachman Lake. The district let them know that school would resume at Edison on the Wednesday following the tornado. They haven’t gone back.
The weeks that followed were a hectic blur: converting a building that had been used for storage and professional development into a functioning high school, all while dealing with a mix of the lost teaching supplies and an overwhelming amount of donations. The rooms didn’t have the technology the curriculum required, and teachers were forced to teach from charts and hard copies.
TJ’s homecoming football game happened less than a week after the tornado. What could have been a depressing night with a ravaged school and fan base turned into a special event. Some Dallas Cowboys players and the team’s cheerleaders came to the game. Alumni and members of the surrounding neighborhoods showed up. “There was such a sense of community, which was very welcome at that time,” Somchith says.
But the reality was that teachers were without their classrooms, materials, and personal belongings left at the school. (Somchith was worried about the fish in her room’s fish tank.) Eventually, recovery workers boxed up what could be salvaged from the classrooms.
Somchith ended up with 50 boxes of materials to unpack at Edison on top of all the extra work to make learning happen at the new school. Her classroom was always impeccably decorated, full of learning materials purposefully arranged to maximize their benefit to her students. She was a long way from where she wanted to be.
In many cases, the students handled it better than the teachers, though several transferred because they worried about getting behind or how long it took to travel to Edison in West Dallas. But many remained positive, and several student groups volunteered in the damaged neighborhood to clear brush and debris.
Just as she felt like her classroom was rounding into shape, COVID-19 hit, and her world was thrown back into chaos.
After the tornado destroyed Cary Middle School, Yuri Lewis knew she had to get back. Lewis started working at the Northwest Dallas middle school in after school care, and the administration recruited her to teach full time. She spent several years honing her skills at the school before moving on to Rusk Middle School, where she served as a master teacher in reading to help the struggling campus get back on track.
The only problem was, there was no Cary to get back to. The loss of the culture, name, and community came instantly. “What was so hard for the Cary community was that it happened, and then, like a snap of the fingers, it was gone,” Lewis says. “The kids were instantly separated, the teachers were instantly separated; it truly was a loss.”
After the storm destroyed the school, the students were split between Franklin Middle School and Medrano Middle School. But Lewis knew she needed to get to that community, and the following school year, she began working as an instructional lead at Medrano, where half of the Cary students and staff were now located.
The transition wasn’t always smooth. The hallways were now home to two rival schools, and fights often broke out in those early days. The administration made efforts to unify the campus and make sure everyone felt welcome, but that takes time. Schedules were shuffled to mix the students, but the school wasn’t meant for that many people. Students and teachers were both cramped. There were often too many administrators and teachers, and some were now co-teaching for the first time with someone they had just met.
Lewis still wears Cary gear from when she taught and coached at the school. She keeps photos from her time at the school on her desk. But as much as she and the students still feel like part of the Cary community, there won’t be a Cary to return to. Dallas ISD is combining nearby Walnut Hill Elementary and Cary into a new Kindergarten through 8th grade campus. Lewis and other teachers went back to the campus to grab a brick from the old school before it was all carried away.
Teachers from both Cary and TJ were left without their school, and a few months later, COVID-19 further turned their world upside down. Left floating without a place to call home, so many of these teachers needed community, commiseration, and encouragement. Fortunately, the district found a partner to do just that.
School districts often have plenty of experts in curriculum and teaching strategies and provide professional development, but very little is offered in terms of wellness or mental health for staff. The Educator Collective is a Dallas nonprofit that provides a community for teachers, offering programming for thousands of members in the area. The organization launched programming specifically for those impacted by the tornado following the tornado.
There were social and emotional health events for the affected teachers to help them get through the challenging period. At the event, its executive director, Courtney Rogers, was surprised by what she saw. “The teachers who came were literally shell-shocked walking through the door,” she says. “They were barely able to function.”
That first event focused on community building, stress management, how to deal with trauma, and meditation. The teachers left laughing, hugging, and rejuvenated after a difficult period. Lewis said it was especially helpful to allow teachers from Medrano and Cary to connect and get to know each other.
“That was something that we didn’t know we needed,” Lewis says. “I am so grateful that TEC created that space for us and made it so authentic. It wasn’t like the traditional professional development where you have to sit and do icebreakers. It was so respectful to the profession and so different than formal (professional development).”
The Educator Collective soon got a major boost from the Dallas Education Foundation, where Mita Havlick had assumed leadership just three weeks before the tornado hit. Havlick had a major role in fundraising for the district’s recovery from the damage wrought by the tornado. Havlick met with Rogers, learned more about the work they were doing with the district’s teachers, and helped connect the dots between the district and the nonprofit.
“This is beyond the day-to-day pressures and stress of being a teacher in a large public school district,” Havlick says. “You have your own personal trauma of seeing your workplace destroyed, and you have to be the adult in the room with every single child in there to make sure that they feel supported. There was an opportunity to support these teachers.”
While the district wanted to provide this type of support for those teachers impacted by the pandemic, it wasn’t in the budget. The foundation, though, had the money after a rush of donations in the wake of the tornado. While COVID-19 changed some of the programming, the organization launched a year-long holistic program focused on social, emotional, and physical well-being. Although teachers are constantly surrounded by students, the profession can be isolating. The Educator Collective wanted to address that.
During a school year defined by remote school and anxiety about health because of COVID-19, teachers were given time off to go to sessions that included mental health workshops and expert speakers at the Dallas Arboretum, other sessions with expert-led meditation practice, nutrition planning, and strategies on mindfulness and healthy habits.
Teachers often just needed time and space to share and be heard. “I needed someone to listen to me and allow me to process my thoughts.,” Somchith says. “It was such a frustrating time to know people wanted to help and then also feel like you’re letting them down because you don’t know how to tell them to help you.”
Teaching was one of the most stressful careers before the pandemic, but 88 percent of teachers who participated in the Educator Collective’s programming stayed in the classroom, compared to 81 percent in the region. For those who participate in the organization’s well-being curriculum, 100 percent of teachers continue in education; 90 percent credited the work for helping them stay in the game.
Organizations like these are filling a void for educators who have been displaced once by a tornado, again by a pandemic, and continue to work in a stressful and under-appreciated environment. “As teachers, we don’t get that kind of investment from anywhere else,” Lewis says. The Educator Collective “coming in and providing that for us was huge.”