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Welcome Home, Thomas Jefferson High School

The TJ community is filled with immigrant families already familiar with displacement. Three years ago, a tornado destroyed their school and upended their lives. This photo essay follows three years of disruption and ends with a triumphant homecoming. 
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Workers install the TJ logo in the center of the school’s new turf practice field on May 23, 2022. The $1 million pledged by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones helped pay for the new field. Jeffrey McWhorter

The dance and the football game were in October, but Thomas Jefferson High School has been waiting for its true homecoming for more than three years. A tornado blew apart the campus in October 2019, displacing the community to another school in another neighborhood 9 miles away. The students, teachers, and staff were disrupted again the next year by the coronavirus pandemic.

But on Monday, the TJ community returned to a fully rebuilt campus on Walnut Hill Lane.

“What’s that phrase from Dorothy? There’s no place like home?” says teacher and senior class sponsor Cathleen Cadigan. “We finally get to click our heels.”

But even before their high school experience was upended by a twister and a pandemic, many TJ students were already well-acquainted with the concept of sudden and unexpected displacement. Ninety-seven percent of Thomas Jefferson’s 1,450 students are Latino, and 67 percent are considered “emerging bilingual.” Of those, 212 are officially classified as “newcomers,” meaning they have been in the United States for three years or fewer. That is the highest percentage of any high school in Dallas ISD.

Most hail from the arid plains of Mexico or the tropical hills of Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” made up of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They have settled with friends and family in the dense maze of apartments beneath the Love Field approach pattern just north of Bachman Lake. Many TJ students, or their parents, left their countries of origin on treacherous northward journeys, often to escape gang violence, extortion, or crushing poverty, usually never to return.

“I came here seven years ago from Honduras,” Dennilson Duarte, a former TJ soccer player, told me shortly after the storm in 2019. He graduated in 2020. “Thomas Jefferson and Cary Middle School has been my home for the past seven years, and losing them feels like I’m losing my home again.”

Assistant Principal Erika Vigil oversees the Dallas International Academy, a district pilot program started at TJ this year to help newcomers assimilate. She says she regularly meets kids who boarded a bus at the border and “got off when the crowd got off.” Some have never seen a lunch line before. “Even for the kids who have been here for six months, they’re still kinda like deer in the headlights every day,” she says. “That little sense of familiarity [was] literally uprooted, so it [was] almost like a re-immigration.”

I began documenting the lives of these immigrant students five years ago as part of an ongoing project called The Time We Have Here, which focuses on the stories of two (now former) TJ soccer players from Central America. That project revealed that, while it can take time to adjust to the new language and culture, many students eventually find TJ to be a haven of security and camaraderie, especially for those living in small apartments packed with extended family. But whatever sense of home these students had discovered on Walnut Hill Lane was vaporized that night in October.

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The Tornado and Its Aftermath

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Miraculously, no one died or was severely injured during the EF-3 tornado’s 32-minute tear through the heart of North Dallas. The event caused $1.55 billion in damage, making it the costliest tornado in Texas history. When the sun rose the next morning, TJ and the adjacent Cary Middle School were a twisted mess of school desks, HVAC ducting, and bricks.

The community rallied to help. Businesses, alumni, and churches poured in so many supplies—paper, pens, highlighters, snacks, coffee supplies, Post-It notes—that former principal Sandi Massey said she felt like she was “running a nonprofit” on top of her normal duties. Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined NFL Hall of Famer and TJ neighbor Charles Haley at the homecoming football game that weekend to present a $1 million check to help fix TJ’s mangled field. Through the Herculean effort of faculty and staff, the entire student body was reunited just three days later at Thomas A. Edison Middle Learning Center, an old West Dallas middle school that was being used for Dallas ISD staff training and student activities. It is 9 miles south of the battered campus, a 45-minute bus ride from home.

While the TJ community was grateful to not be scattered to other campuses like neighboring Cary Middle School had been, their temporary digs were small and aging. Senior Jacky Badillo remembers the crowded hallways surging with bewildered students on that first day. Current senior class president Noe Murillo worried about meeting the rats he had heard roamed the halls. (He never did.)

“A lot of us had to dig down deep and say, ‘We can do this, we’ve got this, we’re gonna do whatever it takes,’” says longtime office manager Marilyn Jordan. For weeks following the tornado, former principal Massey says she would hold her emotions in check all day and then get in her car and “cry the whole way home.”

But the world spun on as it does after every natural disaster. The streets were cleared of snapped telephone poles and crushed cars. Homeowners boarded windows and dug in for long insurance battles. Weeds grew high in the TJ courtyard, and the kids down at Edison settled into a new sense of normal.

For about four months.

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Another Displacement

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Like every other school in the nation, TJ stumbled through the spring of 2020, doing drive-thru everything, navigating ever-shifting CDC guidelines, and making the best of an impossible situation. Once again, students looked into adult faces just as bewildered as their own and heard a familiar refrain: “Be patient. Be flexible. We’ll figure this out as we go.”

“At that point, I feel like that year was thrown out the window,” says Murillo, the senior class president.

But to assistant principal Erika Vigil, COVID was also a blessing in disguise. “The pandemic actually, I think, saved TJ,” she says. “It gave people and teachers the emotional and mental break. For a lot of our veteran [teachers], it was like, ‘I can breathe.’”

However, the next fall brought a low point in morale. As many better-resourced private and suburban schools (which hadn’t been hit by a tornado) saw a near full return to in-person learning, albeit behind plexiglass and facemasks, the hallways of Edison were ghostly. By December, enrollment had dropped by nearly 350 and only about a quarter of TJ’s 1,600 students were showing up for in-person classes. In November, when the football team should have been preparing for its homecoming game, nine boys dressed for practice. The rest of the season was canceled.

“That might be the most difficult year I’ve ever had as an educator,” Massey says. Vigil tried her best to encourage Zoom-fatigued, young teachers on the brink of quitting. “It’s because you’re here for kids and you don’t get to see them every day,” she’d remind them. “You saw black boxes.”

Everyone agrees the geographic displacement compounded the problem, especially for a community heavily reliant on public transportation. “No kid wants to be on a bus by themselves for 45 minutes, to then come into a classroom to do nothing,” Vigil says.

“It gave them almost an excuse to stay away from the building, that they had to travel to get to West Dallas,” Massey says.

With absences piling up, TJ staff fanned out into the community each Wednesday to “lovingly harass,” as Massey put it, their invisible students while encouraging those who had stayed the course. They found that many students had taken daytime jobs or picked up extra hours to help families struggling financially during the pandemic.

Jairo Guardado virtually checked into his anatomy class as he restocked shelves in the back of the Shoe Palace on Webb Chapel. Badillo, whose mother’s housecleaning work had been significantly cut by the pandemic, took a job at Sunset Crab Shack in Pleasant Grove to help with rent. “I had to sometimes skip classes to go to work because I was scheduled in the morning,” she told me. “I lost a lot of credit that semester.”

By the end of that long and trying year, the tornado and the normal life it disrupted felt like a distant dream. After eight years at the helm of TJ—the longest tenure of any Dallas ISD principal at the time—Massey, who had been named Preston Hollow People’s Person of the Year for her leadership, took a new job in Colorado. She was replaced that summer by a young, charismatic, first-time principal named Ben Jones who came from across town at Bryan Adams.

The rebuild effort had been slowed by controversy the previous summer when the original construction contract was canceled after a Dallas ISD board member brought allegations of corruption. But by the time Jones greeted his first busload of students at Edison, in August 2021, a new contractor, Beck, had been hired, and dirt had finally begun to move.

Although total enrollment remained low after COVID, students began to hesitantly refill the hallways as the new administration sought to narrow the academic and social-emotional gaps left by the pandemic. A light of hope and optimism slowly dawned as shiny new facilities took shape back on Walnut Hill. That light was dimmed on May 5, 2022, when 17-year-old Jorge Hernandez, a TJ senior just two weeks from graduating, was shot and killed as he sat in the front seat of his friend’s 2007 Escalade. It was a reminder that, as principal Jones put it, “moving back in to 4001 Walnut Hill is not going to solve all of the problems.”

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Rising Light

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Folks around TJ still have a hard time containing their excitement about the new building. Badillo, who plays soccer and runs cross country, cannot wait to check out the state-of-the-art training room. Principal Jones boasts of a culinary kitchen that “some restaurants in this city would be jealous of.” And soccer coach Mark Wolveck marvels at the flawless, colorful turf that replaced the “potato field” his team used to practice on.

But January’s homecoming is about more than smart boards and matching furniture. It’s about a community accustomed to life in the shadows finally getting its day in the sun.

Office manager Marilyn Jordan, who lives near the Bachman Lake community, reflects on the students she loves: “It’s almost as if they’re used to being—I don’t like to use this word, but I’m going to—unworthy of getting goodness in life. … I want them to feel that they deserve it, because they certainly do.”

Ben Jones saw the same thing in the eyes of his teachers when they toured the campus for the first time in December. “There was this feeling of ‘Oh, we can have nice things! We get nice things.’ Because even before the tornado, there was this kind of sense of ‘We just don’t do that. We don’t do the nice things.’”

It had been 1,188 days since the tornado when the TJ students walked through the doors of their rebuilt school on January 9.

Of the nearly 1,900 students enrolled then, only about 235 remain at TJ. They were just two months into their freshman year when the twister hit. They were full of optimism and ambition, looking forward to proms and homecomings, chess tournaments and class trips. Instead, they got three years in an old middle school with a year-long interlude staring at glowing rectangles in their bedrooms and workplaces. There is no denying the sadness over what was lost.

“I didn’t really have a high school experience,” says Jorge Martinez, who graduated last year.

And while they generally share an enthusiasm for the return, some seniors carry trepidation about yet another change at the end of a high school journey marked by upheaval. Geovani Roman says he’d finally gotten used to life at Edison. Changing campuses again in his last semester feels almost “like the tornado happening again.”

But regardless of the emotions they may feel upon returning, these surviving seniors represent a head-down, grind-it-out ethos that is deeply ingrained in the Latino immigrant community of Northwest Dallas. Their parents are the dishwashers, housekeepers, and construction workers who keep this city running, and they’ve passed a steely-eyed determination to their children.

“We grow up seeing our parents go to work at 5 in the morning, come back at midnight, and I want to say that the vast majority of these kids adopt that mindset,” says Roberto Garcia, a TJ alum-turned-teacher who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a child. “It’s that immigrant mindset that got them through these last three years and finally to a place where they can enjoy something nice for a while instead of pretending that everything’s okay.”

Massey, the former principal, reflected on those students during a Zoom interview last month. She paused, then buried her face in her hands and wept. “These are the best kids in the world.”

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Home Again

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