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Lee Elementary damaged in unexpected fire

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Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Schools

Lee music teacher Margaret Porter leads community members in a prayer circle.

The smoke billowed, seen from miles and by countless observers. On Sept. 12, following Hurricane Irma, Lee Elementary Magnet caught fire for reasons unknown. The historic school, well-known for its preservation of its architecture, suffered severe damage.

“Lee Elementary has just been there for so long so it’s like you could never envision it just burning to the ground,” senior Emmanuel Strong said, who attended Lee in fourth and fifth grade.

More than just a school

The school’s history is more than just the building. “Now that Lee is destroyed, I think it made me realize how special it is to go to a school with all of the history and traditions it has,” junior Emily Bowling said. “Even if you don’t like school, just appreciate that you have a school to go to.”

The wreckage impacted more than just former students. Senior Mikila Simmons, whose god-brother goes to Lee, empathized with the students. “I’ve come here since freshman year, all I know is I wouldn’t know what to do without Hillsborough,” she said. “So I feel sad for all of the teachers, the students that switched schools and had to make arrangements and adapt to a new environment all because their school burned down.”

The big move

In preparation for their transfer, English teacher Suzanne Cooks and Reading coach Karina Streeter assisted at Lockhart Elementary, where students from Lee would relocate for the remainder of the year. They unloaded the donated supplies and helped organize the teachers’ classrooms. Along with Hillsborough, other District 4 schools were present. Restaurants such as McDonalds also contributed food.

“I’m in education so I feel that pain and I would want as a teacher that, if that was to happen to, God forbid, Hillsborough High School, that we would have that support of other teachers and the community,” Cooks said.

Students such as junior Lazlo Nziga are also providing aid. Nziga is involved in Ryan Nece Foundation Student Service Program and is collecting supplies and gift cards to provide teachers.

“I hope the donations will give the students and faculty supplies to use so that they may return to a state of normalcy as quickly as possible, without causing teachers or parents to spend too much personal money,” she said.

Future plans

Cooks also plans to find the positives in this situation. “At some point I think there is a lot of life lessons that could come out,” she said. “What a wonderful lesson to teach about giving back and paying forward and you know just that you can instill in these kids at Lee Elementary,” she said.

“It’s always going to be this negative impact that it all brought, that’s what people remember, so hopefully in the realm of all of that, people remember that the community came together and all the districts,” Cooks said.

Streeter emphasized the importance of unity, not just in times of need. “I just really hope in the future we can do things that are positive for one another without something traumatic happening,” she said.

Recovery

City code enforcement is yet to determine the future of the building. The and the damage is worth $4,975,000.

After teaching years at Lee, the teachers felt the hurt of losing their classroom. “[The teachers] put a lot of time and effort into it and some of these teachers have been there for years and just watching that go down is devastating,” Streeter said.

For students, Lee also gave them a family. “There was a sense of unity, like everyone there was friends and there wasn’t really any drama” Strong said.

Although Lee suffered damage, Bowling says its legacy will endure through the memories and relationships built there as a family.

“If you’ve ever walked down the halls with squeaky wood floors and have been surrounded with pictures of generations that have come and gone. You could sense the feeling of being at home.”

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News from Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla.
Lee Elementary damaged in unexpected fire