Two years after a devastating fire, Fernway Elementary School’s virtual reopening this fall as a state-of-the art learning center symbolizes the power of the City coming together for a common purpose.
By Scott Stephens
Chris Hayward settled back in his chair and glanced out the window of his Fernway Elementary School office. It was a hot, lazy summer afternoon, and he would have liked to have been golfing. But as a principal, Hayward worked year-round, so here he was. The school was pretty much empty, save for the custodial crew and a couple of roofers doing a few routine repairs. Hayward liked it that way. He could actually get some work done.
By 1 pm the mercury had climbed to 88 degrees. Kids on summer break giggled and zipped their bikes and scooters through the tree-lined streets, not a care in the world. Young parents walked their infants on sun-baked sidewalks, one hand on the stroller and the other on the cell phone.
It was Tuesday, July 10, 2018. On the other side of the world, a dozen youth soccer players had been rescued from a flooded cave. Washington was abuzz about a new Supreme Court nominee named Kavanaugh. Closer to home, the Indians were getting ready to take on the Reds.
Within minutes, Hayward’s world would turn upside down. Outside his window, smoke billowed from the sky, obscuring his view of the school’s playground. Soon, an alarm sounded. Hayward, who was on the phone with an administrative colleague, ended the call and grabbed his laptop, student placement cards and, as he had been instructed, his emergency operations manual. By the time he hit the street he saw flames shooting from the school’s roof. Sirens, at first distant, grew louder and more ominous.
Before long, the bright orange flames began to lick the dazzling blue sky, and dark-gray smoke began to choke the neighborhood. Behind the police tape, children, parents, and neighbors lined the sidewalks, tears streaming from their shocked faces. Within minutes, they would bring water and snacks out to the firefighters. Lorene Rider, a 49-year resident of Shaker and an administrative assistant at Fernway, eased her sedan down Ardmore Road and pulled to the curb, staring in disbelief. “Oh my God,” she sobbed.
Firefighters from 20 communities helped the Shaker Fire Department fight the blaze for hours, dumping 300,000 gallons of water on the inferno. Thankfully, no one was hurt, although several firefighters were affected by the heavy smoke and heat. So thorough was the response by the firefighters that they even rescued the school’s four pets – two turtles, a snake and a tarantula, although a black film of soot floated on the water in the turtles’ aquarium.
A two-month fire department investigation concluded that the fire was accidental and likely caused by a blowtorch the roofers were using on the roof, which ignited wood.
“In terms of volume, loss, size, and impact on the community, it was the biggest fire I’ve been involved with,” says Shaker Heights Fire Chief Pat Sweeney. “It’s something I’ll never forget. This was a very dangerous fire. We were just fortunate no one was hurt.”
Because of the fire department’s rapid response and strategies, the blaze was largely confined to the roof. Things could have been much worse. Although water damage was substantial, the bones of the building stood strong, waiting to be rebuilt.
Flash forward two years. Like the mythical phoenix, Fernway has emerged from the ashes, bigger, better, and more beautiful than ever. Today’s Fernway is a modern 21st-century learning center wrapped in the facade of a dignified 1927 schoolhouse that preserves memories of great teaching and learning for generations of Shaker residents.
Fernway stands proudly as the first “new” school building in Shaker Heights in 63 years. The two-story building features spacious, modern classrooms as well as state-of-the art music and art rooms. The addition on the southeast side of the building contains an elevator, making the school’s upper floors accessible to students and staff with disabilities. White and gray terrazzo tiles line the wide, well-lighted hallways, setting off modern blue lockers. Classrooms are equipped with flexible furniture – chairs and tables that can be reconfigured and rearranged to accommodate collaborative team learning.
A sprawling multi-purpose room doubles duty for assemblies and lunch, a perk that Fernway students — who always ate at their desks – had never enjoyed. The library has been transformed into a state-of-the-art learning center that includes a “maker space” where students can collaborate, build, and create as part of the District’s i3 initiative – which supports inquiry, innovation, and imagination with a focus on hands-on learning – and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics).
“I really believe Fernway symbolizes what can happen when our community comes together for a common purpose”
The gymnasium floor, which survived the flood of water, has been refurbished and branded with the school’s name. The beloved climbing wall, which also survived, still challenges students to reach for the sky. All rooms feature high-tech lighting systems, and the entire building is air conditioned, the only school in the District able to make that claim. Just as important, Sweeney says the new Fernway is a model of safety.
“I really believe Fernway symbolizes what can happen when our community comes together for a common purpose,” says District Superintendent David Glasner. “This school demonstrates what is possible for our students.”
Possible someday, for sure, but not just yet. Although the new school was ready to swing open its doors for students this past August, the pandemic and the need to begin classes remotely have put the grand opening on hold. Still, Hayward and his staff are able to use the building as a base for remote learning until the students are able to resume in-person classes.
“It’s like seeing a wrapped gift under the Christmas tree and being told you can’t open it yet,” Hayward says, pledging to have a large celebration when it is safe for students to return.
Strength from Adversity
The transformation of Fernway from tragedy to triumph was not a simple process. The fire hit during a period of transition. Mayor David Weiss was early in his first term. The interim district superintendent at the time, Stephen Wilkins, had been in his position for just 10 days, the fire arriving on his birthday and the day of his first school board meeting. Only weeks earlier, Fernway parent Dana Howard had assumed the role as the school’s Parent Teacher Organization president. Glasner, then the executive director of curriculum and instruction, was charged with relocating Fernway’s 315 students; he had been in his position for less than two weeks.
Dave Boyer, the director of operations, had been on the job six working days and had not had an opportunity to even visit Fernway or meet Hayward and the school’s custodial crew.
Boyer, a tough Gulf War veteran with years of experience in the operations and management side of public education, has seen a lot, including two fires when he worked for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district. The Fernway fire, he says, was another kettle of fish.
“The process was a real challenge,” he says. “In the end, we were able to save some money in some places and put money where it benefited our students. We were on budget and on time. I was glad to be a part of it. Fernway represents the kind of school we want all our students to have.”
After the fire struck, the District conducted a long search of alternate sites before deciding that it could better integrate Fernway students into its existing schools. Fernway kindergartners attended Onaway Elementary School, first-graders went to Boulevard Elementary School, and second- through fourth-graders were taught at Woodbury Elementary School. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out the transportation puzzle, especially since the majority of Fernway students walked to school.
The ad hoc enrollment plan worked. In fact, parents say their children were enriched by the experience of meeting children from other schools, riding in a school bus, and eating in a lunchroom.
Hayward says the flexibility and tenacity of his staff, his students, and their parents – as well as the hospitality of his fellow principals at Woodbury, Onaway, and Boulevard – made the two-years-in-limbo a success. “I can’t thank them enough,” he says of the principals. “Our two years in those three schools have made us stronger.”
A Community Comes Together
Everyone agrees that Fernway’s transformation is a testament to what can happen when a school district, a highly engaged group of parents, and a generous community come together. The design and construction were handled by Van Auken Akins Architect LLC and Gilbane Building Co., two respected firms with strong Shaker Heights ties and an ear to the community’s wants and needs.
While insurance paid for the lion’s share of the tab – the claim paid out some $14.6 million – the Board of Education and the Shaker Schools Foundation kicked in significant dollars to ensure that the new Fernway would not just replace the old Fernway but would, as the chef Emeril Lagasse used to say, kick it up a notch.
Through a series of fundraisers and private donations, the Foundation raised money for a new playground behind the school as well as a rolling, park-like green space, complete with bike racks, tables. and benches, replacing the black asphalt where the students used to have recess and which, in effect, gives the neighborhood a park. Former Fernway student Noah Rusnak used his Bar Mitzvah to raise more than $4,000 for the new playground and play space. Others, both corporate and individuals, generously opened their checkbooks.
“Our donors’ generosity made this hope and dream a reality,” says Holly Coughlin, executive director of the Shaker Schools Foundation. “Meetings and family surveys provided valuable input so the needs of the community were met. The community support was incredible.”
“I think we all felt the emotional impact,” says Mayor Weiss. “What I saw was this community spring into action.”
Most people agree that had a similar catastrophe befallen any of the District’s schools, the community would have stepped up to help. Still, Fernway seems to have a special place in the City’s heart. After the school burned, Hayward began receiving emails and letters from students and families from around the world, including exchange students who had attended the school. Fernway alums living in Manhattan got together to drown their sorrows and reminisce about their shared experiences.
Board of Education vice president Ayesha Bell Hardaway’s two children went through Fernway. As a young mother, she sold milk at the school during lunch time, and her former husband was a third-grade teacher there. Like many residents, Fernway is integral to her family history.
“The Fernway family helped raise my family,” she says. “I know what it’s like to have a building as a means of connecting. Fernway has been a source of hope for so many in our community.”
When Rebecca Bernard’s children were babies, they played at the Fernway playground. Like others, she watched in horror as the school burned. “I thought, ‘This is really bad. They are either going to have to tear it down, or we will have to fight to have it rebuilt.’ ”
Bernard, whose child is entering the fourth grade this year, became committed to saving Fernway. She learned that with the District’s declining enrollment, the school had been on the chopping block before. It was small, critics said. There was no parking. It lacked some of the amenities of other schools. “That was a very big concern,” she says.
Bernard attended every community meeting, every parent meeting, and every school board meeting, sitting for hours and taking notes. After a while, it became clear the District planned to save – and improve – the landmark school.
“I’m glad the District and the board looked at this as an opportunity,” she says.
A New Chapter Begins
Local realtors share Bernard’s view. Veteran realtors Jim and Cathy LeSueur say the real estate market in Fernway serves as a barometer for the health of the market in Shaker. And having a school within walking distance of homes is a crucial selling point, as it is for all of Shaker. In that sense, eliminating the school would have been catastrophic for the neighborhood.
“There’s a buzz about the school reopening. People outside of Shaker who are looking for homes are aware of it,” says Jim LeSueur.
For many prospective buyers with children, Fernway is an ideal location to buy into the community and then graduate to a larger home elsewhere in town, Cathy LeSueur says. Concerns about equity, race, and social justice have added to Shaker’s appeal as an integrated, progressive community. “We’ve seen a number of Shaker graduates, often from the east or west coast, return to Shaker.”
She says a modern, rebuilt school in Fernway could serve as a catalyst for change throughout the District. “Everyone in Shaker loves their neighborhood and their community,” she says. “Once they see what has happened with Fernway, they’ll want those improvements in their own schools.”
“The school is a beacon of hope for the neighborhood,” says Hayward, who lives just a few blocks away from the beloved school. “It’s something new, something fresh. Of course, a school is not a school until kids are in it. But even in the middle of a pandemic, this has brought excitement and joy.” Indeed, it has.
Scott Stephens is executive director of Communication & Engagement for the Shaker Heights City School District.