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Fire and Ice: Lawrence's historic Rollins School forced to relocate after blaze ruins building

On one of the coldest days on record, teachers from the John R. Rollins Early Childhood Center returned to their fire-scarred building to pack up their rooms and move to what they hoped would be temporary facilities at St. Mary of Assumption Elementary School so their nearly 200 students could continue to enjoy a safe place to learn with as little interruption as possible.

While other schools in the district dealt with a two-hour delay that was called on account of the frigid temperatures, Rollins staff carried boxes in and out so they could try to prepare their new rooms in the one day before classes resumed.

The Rollins had recently celebrated its 125th year as a Lawrence public school, but an electrical fire on Christmas Eve resulted in a building that was ravaged by smoke and deluges of water, leaving multiple rooms as complete losses and leaving teachers and staff scrambling to replace what items they could in time for the new semester.

Despite the fact that the Center is across the street from a neighborhood fire station, the blaze took hours to control, thanks in great part to the snow and freezing temperatures that made it difficult to pump water into the historic building and also to navigate around it. In addition to firefighters from Lawrence, the multiple-alarm fire engaged teams from Lowell, North Andover, Haverhill, and even Salem, NH.

“The firemen were changing shifts and saw the fire,” explains Lawrence Teacher Union (LTU) President Frank McLaughlin, mentioning that, as Lawrence is such a “city of old buildings,” many of them predate fire codes.

In recalling the fire, McLaughlin also mentioned that, as there were and remain concerns about the building’s structural integrity, the firefighters had to “break through the roof” and many teachers and staff have yet to be allowed back into the building.

 “We’re not allowed to take everything,” noted 30-year Lawrence educator Donna Mogavero, who was concerned about personal and professional property being lost or damaged. On the other hand, Mogavero was also encouraged by the outpouring of support the fire engendered.

“I’ve never seen so many people come together,” she said, noting that even Principal James O’Keefe had literally rolled up his sleeves and was going room-to-room to see who needed what. “It’s amazing!”

“I’m really happy that we were able to find a home where we can gather everyone,” added paraprofessional Enfemia DeLaCruz. “I am happy to see how well the School Department and everyone involved - including the union - has gathered together to make this available on such short notice. It’s a blessing and I am really proud and happy to be part of this team of Lawrence teachers!”

As proud of themselves as the teachers may have been (and rightfully so!), McLaughlin was even more encouraged to see his colleagues collaborating.

“The teachers are all going the extra mile,” he observed, “It restores your faith!”

As it is part of a shuttered Catholic Church compound, St. Mary’s is a faith-based facility. Even so, many of the teachers wondered what would become of them as they moved into it.

“I am not sure what to take,” admitted one school nurse as she hurriedly packed boxes in the Rollins infirmary, noting that her colleague will be going with some of the students to Parthum Elementary. “It’s overwhelming what we have to so by tomorrow morning!”

“Try to pull what [the students] like and what will make them feel comfortable in a new spot,” one teacher advised.

“What do I do with my own personal items?” another teacher asked, explaining that, in addition to many folders that were filled with IEPs and other vital data, her room contained projects that her students had made for her and also books from her own home library.

As the building is historic, a full rebuild is necessary. The insurance estimates are around $2 million, including nearly $1 million for the slate roof alone.

“It’s going to take a long time to redo al this,” observed AFT MA Field Representative (and former firefighter) Andy Powell.

“Thank God I didn’t happen when the kids were in there,” McLaughlin added.

“Everybody’s ok,” observed Building Representative Anita Fowler, “and that’s what matters!”

As she helped coordinate the move while also organizing her own space, School Secretary Tracy Johnson recalled the Rollins fondly, speaking of the historic building like a lost friend.

“We had flags from each country the students are from,” Jones recalled, noting the diverse population the Rollins serves. “They were all destroyed. It’s sad!”

As his aunt and wife had both taught there, McLaughlin had special feelings for the Rollins and wanted to do all he could to support the staff there. When asked how they could be sure to get their belongings and that they would be safe in the building while the insurance assessors and construction workers had their way, McLaughlin tried to console and encourage his concerned colleagues.

“We asked the teachers to make a list of things they needed,” McLaughlin explains. “One put on Mr. Potato Head. We laughed, but that is a daily essential for four-year-olds as it teaches the body parts. It is something they will use every day!”

In addition to what each teacher packed, parents and other community members brought donations to 301 Lebanon Street to show their support.

“We have a disaster relief fund,” McLaughlin mentioned, recalling the many donations that arrived after the Bruce School fire (when many students were also sent to St. Mary’s).

Not only will the teachers and students be without many of their familiar toys and tools, they will also have to deal with navigating a new building.

“The change in building for these kids is astronomical,” observed Mogavero, citing the many special needs the students have and how sensitive they are to change.

“Can we ask the kids to help set up their rooms?” one teacher queried. “They should be part of it’!”

As the Rollins was home to such a significant population of students with special needs, it enjoyed the support of a large cadre of dedicated paraprofessionals (all of whom were on hand to help with the move). Despite the great communal effort, everyone had to deal with additional requirements and restrictions, such as wheelchair access and avoiding items that had become infused with the smell of smoke, mold, or other allergens or irritants. While many teachers expressed a willingness to come in earlier and to lose days from their winter vacations (or even to sleep in the building), the tight timing forced them to focus even more on why they were all there.

“The kids are our number one reason,” one teacher said during an impromptu staff meeting during which LTU offered a catered hot lunch. “We need to be able to support those kids as soon as they come through the doors.”

“If we cannot do that for them,” a colleague agreed, “we are setting them up for failure.”

In an effort to cheer up his colleagues, McLaughlin reminded them of the holiday concert that had recently been hosted in the auditorium that was now covered with mold.

“Your brothers and sisters are here with you,” he reminded his fellow members.

Lawrence Receiver Jeff Riley also thanked LTU and AFT MA for their support, both with the fire and with the larger Lawrence educational landscape.

“The building is not being shut down,” assured COO Anne Marie Stronach, suggesting that people call the new facility (for which the phone numbers are all the same as they were in the old building) “Rollins School Annex” “We want it to be as normal as possible…. We’ll get there and well help you through all this.”

Despite Stronach’s hopeful claims, with only hours before the students arrived and many teachers still morning their old building and the materials they had to leave behind (at least temporarily), it was difficult for people to look each other in the eye and wish each other a “Happy New Year.”

“It’s a bad time of year for this,” noted AFT MA Director of Organization Brian LaPierre. “It’s never a good time, but this is particularly bad.” ▪

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