Walnut Hill Elementary: Blue Ribbon, No Matter Where

Walnut Hill Elementary principal Phillip Potter had just gotten word that his school had won a second National Blue Ribbon just weeks before an EF-3 tornado would so heavily damage his school that students and staff were forced to move into the recently shuttered Tom Field Elementary.

Now, Potter, his staff, and and the families of Walnut Hill watch and wait as Dallas ISD begins to build a new campus – a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade campus – that he feels will rival the private schools that are Walnut Hill’s neighbors.

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PN: So what happens when you find out a tornado has hit your school? What went through your head?

PP: I mean, it was obviously shocking. Um, you don’t ever anticipate to lose your school overnight, but at the same time, um, what unfolded after that just painted a really clear picture of where we were headed. So I knew we would be okay, even in my gut feeling, man, I had an idea where we were kind of how we would transition and, and end up. And, you know, I chalk that up to the leadership. They made some really decisive and tough decisions quickly and committed to it. And that was amazing.

PN: So I remember covering the Blue Ribbon announcement, and then when I saw the damage to the school the day after the tornado, I thought that it had to be a pretty big punch in the gut – to go from that high to then this destruction?

PP: I think that the thing to remember is what made it a Blue Ribbon school is the staff that we have. So what made us transition so seamlessly was also the staff that we have. If you put world-class people in those positions, they’re going to do that job, whether it’s at that beautiful, quaint little school on Midway, or over here by 35 and Royal at the Tom Field campus. I mean, we’re still just Walnut Hill at Tom Field.

And so it was sad to lose a building. And we have to recognize that validate that. The community was sad and, you know, kids and the families, and the teachers – many teachers have spent their entire careers, you know, 30-year veterans, it’s been at Walnut Hill, their entire career, and that’s hard – but the same culture and the same people and the same things that we do there, we do here. And that’ll continue when we transition out of here to our new campus.

PN: As adorable and charming as the old building was, you have to be pretty excited about what you’re going to be able to walk into at this new campus, right?

PP: The building is exciting for sure. We’re really proud of the design. We’re really proud that it was collaborative. Their community was part of that. The Walnut Hill community was part of that. And we’re grateful for all the input. I will also add to it that as we’re in the process of becoming a transformation school, that our programming that we plan to have is going to be competitive with anything that’s offered at any school in the area. And it’s something that we’re really excited to launch.

PN: At some of the early meetings – I recall one at ESD that had a couple hundred people – some parents seemed very unsure about remaining at the school because of the Tom Field location. And now you also have this issue with the pandemic, and the need for virtual instruction. Are you at all worried that you’re going to lose some of these parents that bought in early?

PP: I’m not worried about that at all. Our rosters for, for right now are nearly complete. We currently have – we’re currently showing in our system, you know, over 400 students. We’re expanding to sixth grade. On top of that, we’ve made a lot of upgrades here. We have a wrought iron fence that keeps the perimeter secure. We’ve made a lot of facility upgrades. We have a new air conditioning and chiller. We have Real School Gardens that are going to relocate. We also have an entire parking lot in the back for our parents and have different exits to alleviate traffic. We’ve worked with the city to get a couple of environmental pieces cleaned up around the area. So basically, I’m not concerned about that at all, because again, people are coming out of their way to come to the school because of the culture and the people that are here.

So if 90% of our kids are already transfers, then they’re already coming out of their way to go to the campus when they came there. And so while it’s been different, there are still educational experiences that they want, that is specific to Walnut Hill and our programming. So I believe that we’re still going to attract families and the families are still going to seek us out because of what we offer. And a lot of families, you know, wonder, “OK, well, I understand elementary, but where am I going to send in my kid in middle school?” If you go to Walnut Hill, you don’t have to worry.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at bethany.erickson@peoplenewspapers.com.

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