‘This was a catastrophe and nobody recognizes it’: Capital still fighting to fix school

DOVER — It’s been months since a tornado stemming from Tropical Storm Isaias struck and caused structural damage to William Henry Middle School during the summer, but the building is still no closer to occupancy.

“We need to be mad about this,” Capital School Board member Sean Christiansen said Wednesday. “We need to get on the phone. We need to have our parents, our students and a sea of blue and white and let them know who they are, and we want the same opportunities as other districts and other state agencies within Delaware.”

When Isaias careened through Delaware on Aug. 4, it hit William Henry hard. The roof over the gym was destroyed, allowing for rain to fall in the building. Other leaks were found throughout the school as a result of the tornado, creating significant water damage across the northern section of the building. The school itself was “contorted,” causing stress fractures in the brick and structural problems, said Adewunmi Kuforiji, the district’s interim assistant superintendent.

That same day, the fire marshal deemed the building unsafe for human occupancy and use.

William Henry, located on Carver Road, serves 1,100 fifth and sixth grade students in the district.

“I was there shortly after the tornado went through William Henry,” Mr. Christiansen said. “I’ve been there several times, and it’s sad to see the state of the building.”

After the storm dissipated that Tuesday in August, the state insurance office authorized water and debris cleanup. A structural engineer did an inspection and submitted a report. A temporary roof was placed on the building to cover the gymnasium.

With that, the district is still waiting on the final outcome of state insurance. Meanwhile, it is working with architects to submit a final report and plan for repairs. Capital also must seek funding to cover repairs identified beyond storm damage.

“Aug. 4 was a very tragic day for William Henry Middle School and for the Capital School District. We haven’t stopped working on plans and possible resolutions for this,” said Sylvia Henderson, interim superintendent. “We want our parents, students, teachers and administration at William Henry Middle School to know that we have been advocating for solutions, and we haven’t stopped working for you.”

The Delaware Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Education told the district they had no support for the school, Mr. Kuforiji said.

The district has had some help, and the board thanked state Sen. Trey Paradee and Reps. Sean Lynn and Bill Bush, all D-Dover, who have supported the district and plan to work with the General Assembly to secure necessary funding, as well as Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who have also assisted. However, officials are still concerned with how long it is taking the state to provide support to the district.

After an initial update in August when the damage was still fresh, the board voted to pursue support from the General Assembly and governor in October. At Wednesday’s meeting, they were critical that the process was taking months.

“My neighborhood was hit hard by this storm. I’ll tell you right now, all the homes’ roofs are fixed. The trees are cut. The brush is clear. Those people got their insurance payment,” board member Dr. Tony DePrima said. “This was a catastrophe, and nobody recognizes it as a catastrophe. So why is that? Because it’s been covered up by the pandemic. It’s been — in other words, no pun intended — masked by the pandemic.”

Board member John Martin echoed his sentiments.

“When all is said and done, 1,100 students in our district, at a critical juncture, they don’t have a building, and I don’t see a sense of urgency,” he said.

Capital School District was the last in the county to bring students back for hybrid learning this month. Grades five through 12 will begin in person Nov. 30. Unlike other districts, it has an added obstacle: an unusable building that houses more than a thousand students and staff.

For now, William Henry is relocated to Central Middle School, home to the district’s seventh and eighth graders, with each building’s teachers sharing rooms with their colleagues. Beginning Nov. 30, Central Middle will house all of the district’s fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a hybrid model.

“Because our kids were virtual, we didn’t have to find a place for them. If we had not been in a pandemic and we had 1,100 kids with no place to go in two weeks when school starts, you can bet that all of the public officials involved would have been working in the same direction, would have been working hard to get our insurance paid,” Dr. DePrima said. “I can’t believe it’s been four months, and we don’t have an insurance check. I can’t believe it’s taking this long for officials to make decisions, and it is a shame.”

The district is optimistic that William Henry will be ready for students next year, but they are looking at “possible relocation options” for the students.
“Our goal ultimately is to make sure we have the space for all of our 1,100 students and staff to have a place to go to for the next school year,” Mr. Kuforiji said.

The legacy of the building, board member Joan Engel said, should make it even more important.

The current middle school was originally the William Henry Comprehensive High School, named after William W.M. Henry, the first Black physician in Dover, and serving as the only high school for Black students in Dover. It opened in September 1952 and was founded during segregation. The school closed after the 1965-66 school year, after the Supreme Court ruling to integrate schools, according to research collected by alumna Anita McDowell Boyer.

In September 1967, the high school became William Henry Middle School and opened to fifth and sixth grade students.

The school remains an important landmark for not only recent middle school graduates, but also those who attended it as high schoolers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In February, a group of alumni — some dressed in the former high school’s school color, maroon — turned out to a school board meeting after fears were stoked that the name may change (it isn’t going to).

“It’s not on the historic registry, but it is very historical and has sentimental value to a majority of our community for one reason or another, and I feel if this was in another county, we would have a little bit more respect, I’m going to call it, from individuals in higher places,” Mr. Christiansen said.

Dr. DePrima fears that students and staff won’t have a school to go back to.
“We’re going to be forcing kids to continue in hybrid when they don’t have to because too many people were too slow in reacting to this catastrophe,” he said. “And it’s a shame, and it’s a shame on lots of people.”