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For the last four years, the Ocracoke School has been more of a collection of people than a physical place.
Since the destruction caused by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, the nearly 200 students and staff of the only school on this remote Outer Banks island — with a population of less than 800, according to the most recent census — have been largely separated from one another.
First, they were out of school for 22.5 days after the storm. Then, they were scattered, some in the second floor of one of the less damaged school buildings or modular classrooms that were added to the campus, others in the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), and yet others in the site of the former Ocracoke Child Care Center.
Then COVID-19 hit, and they were in their homes for almost a year before returning to makeshift classrooms and work spaces — including the second floor elevator alcove that served as principal Leslie Cole’s office.
But on Friday, Aug. 25, students Christian Stevens and Jenny Ricardez Garcia cut the ribbon on the new Ocracoke School, just in time for their classmates to return for a new school year on Monday.
Brad May, who led the construction team that built the school, told EdNC, “I’ve been to a lot of ribbon cuttings and grand openings in my 30-some-year career, and I’ve never seen this kind of turnout. Never.”
Steve Basnight was the superintendent of Hyde County Schools when Hurricane Dorian struck the island. Hyde County is one of the state’s largest counties geographically, but with one of the smallest populations. Last school year, it had just 452 students enrolled at one of the three public schools — two on the mainland, and one on Ocracoke.
When EdNC asked what the new Ocracoke School’s opening meant to him, Basnight took a long pause to corral his emotions, finally saying, “A lot of blood, sweat, and tears for a lot of people.”
Referencing speeches made during the school’s opening ceremony, he continued, “I think you could hear from what they were saying, it’s always been kids first. And that’s what was at the forefront of everything we did.”
Current Hyde County Schools superintendent, Dr. Melanie Shaver, described seeing the impact of the staff putting kids first, even without a school building.
“There were just pilings out when I came for my (job) interview on Ocracoke. They had just started the pilings that week and you would never know, because the staff here is just so full of life and the connections that they have with kids are so strong. The building was just that extra piece that was missing,” Dr. Shaver said. “And so I know that this building is more of a symbol, I think, of recovery.”
Ocracoke School serves students from pre-K to 12th grade. Alice Burruss, the first grade teacher, has a classroom in what is now the oldest section of the new school. It was previously a free-standing two-story building, whose first floor was damaged but salvageable after the storm. Now it’s been integrated into the new building, along with the old gym.
Burruss said having students of all ages together is a part of what’s been missing the last four years.
“You would think that we wouldn’t be so affected by it,” Burruss said. “The (younger) kids really get involved with older kids, and we haven’t had that. It really does make such a huge difference. Not being connected to them, we haven’t seen them, we haven’t really interacted with them, and it’s weird.”
When asked what the opening of the school means to her, she paused, gathering her thoughts.
“I lost my house, I lost my classroom, I lost everything,” she said.
“When you’re in it, it’s not as emotional because we just go go go, but when I got my house completed, it was really emotional. And then when we got in here, and now that we’re all together…” Burruss trailed off. “It’s been life changing as a person and as a teacher.”
Burruss shifted from her reflection back into teacher mode, enthusiastically welcoming a student and parent, offering first-day-of-school documents in both English and Spanish, and offering additional translation services if needed.
In another part of the classroom, Jess Fawett, the first grade teaching assistant, sat for a moment on a child-sized chair near Bunsley, the classroom’s pet bunny.
“It’s not really common for Ocracoke to have nice, new things,”Fawcett said.
In one of the school’s new classrooms, Karen Teklinsky, the middle grades science teacher, shows off her new science lab, where several students were hanging out.
Teklinsky echoes Fawcett, “It’s exciting! It’s like a rejuvenation, almost.”
A student behind her (who appeared to be texting but was clearly listening) suggests it’s a new chapter.
“Yeah, a new chapter, I love that,” Teklinsky said.
But she acknowledges that it’s also an emotional time for the staff. “I don’t think we realized how hard it was and what we went through until, like, right now,” she said.
Hardship of a different kind was on the minds of the middle school students around her — they lamented having to wake up early for school again soon.
Around the corner and down the hall, physical education teacher Melissa DiMarsico welcomed guests to the gym, urging them to check out the new locker rooms for both the home and away teams. The locker room area is what connects the pre-existing gym to the newly-constructed school.
DiMarsico and her husband — the high grades history teacher — joined the staff after Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19.
“We hear these stories from the people who have been through it, and sometimes it’s hard to understand that,” she admits. “But the resiliency and the grit, this is the outcome of all that.”
At the end of the hall, in a bright classroom with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls and bookshelves lining another, high grades English teacher — and Jeopardy champion — Charles Temple perches near the door.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the kids react to having a place of their own,” Temple said. “Having a whole school under one roof, I mean, that’s sort of who we’ve always been.”
It seems like no one on the island has just one job. Guidance counselor Mary McKnight also works as Ocracoke School’s athletic director. During the last four years, she’s worked out of a bedroom at NCCAT, an office at the old daycare, a modular classroom, and sometimes just outside.
“I remember one time a sub texted me, she’s like, ‘it’s raining, what do I do?’” McKnight recalled.
Now she has her own brand new office. “My plan is to never move from this room for the next 20 years,” McKnight said.
Like others on the staff, McKnight’s home had to be razed and rebuilt after Hurricane Dorian.
“I don’t want that experience for anyone,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it turned out better than what we had at the start. Like our house is much nicer than what it was, this (school) is nicer than what we had. You feel grateful for it.”
“I’ve been describing it as the last puzzle piece,” McKNight said of the new building. “When you’re putting together a puzzle and you find that last piece, that feeling of accomplishment.”
“The journey wasn’t easy, but it happened, and we’re here,” McKnight said. “We’re okay. We’re gonna be okay. The kids are okay. And that’s what really matters.”
Many people at the ribbon cutting and opening ceremony of the new Ocracoke School — both at the speaker’s podium and in the audience — credited principal Leslie Cole with holding the school together during its displacement.
She waves off the praise.
“There was no choice,” Cole said as she walked through the school, pointing out the elevator alcove she frequently used as an office during the last four years and checking in with teachers, students, and families.
She knows it’s an emotional day in the community’s continued recovery from Hurricane Dorian.
“It was all very traumatic, and we all probably had PTSD,” Cole acknowledges. “It was nuts, awful, and so you just put it somewhere and you moved forward. And then you come back here and it, like, hits you in the face.”
Sitting in her new office, Cole said that before Dorian, she never spent much time thinking about how long it takes to recover from a natural disaster. But now?
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Cole said simply.
“Everyone’s like, oh, you know, you got a brand new school out of it,” Cole said. “But it wasn’t on our terms. It wasn’t on our time.”
Cole said the only person working at the school when Dorian hit who didn’t lose their home or their classroom was the assistant principal. (At that moment, she and Dr. Shaver were wiping down tables and mopping floors in the school’s new cafeteria.)
“This is kind of the last big piece of the puzzle,” Cole said, echoing McKnight. “Most people are back in their homes, so it’s like the last thing to get done.”
And Cole is ready to move on.
“There’s a lot of reasons to be happy and hopeful. I mean, you know, just being able to be all one again,” she said.
“The teachers made Ocracoke School continue when we didn’t have an Ocracoke School,” Cole said. “They were the school, like they made the school wherever they were.”
She hopes that having everyone connected to one another in the new building will help the whole community move forward.
“Dorian caused a lot of tumult, but at some point, you turn the page,” Cole said. “Can we turn the page? Can we turn the page?”