AUSTELL — The images of brown, muddy waters that crept into their personal learning spaces will not be long forgotten by many of the Clarkdale Elementary School students who experienced first-hand the flood of 2009.
Lucky pencils, favorite library books, memorized flashcards, framed photographs on teachers’ desks, and more — all destroyed by 10-feet of water in what an emergency official called a “total loss.” That September day, when teachers and staff were called upon by rising floodwaters to rush students onto buses, remains etched in 10-year-old Yamil Gabriel’s memory.
Then a second-grader, Yamil recalled being inside one of the school’s outdoor trailers on the 10-acre property on Wesley Drive.
“When the water was coming and was up to here,” he said, pointing to his ankle, “everybody just started to run straight to the buses.”
Yamil, now a Troop 723 Boy Scout with black curly hair, said he was “scared,” both for his life and what he feared might happen to him if he did make it home safely. “My mom was going to kill me because my shoes are wet,” he recalled thinking three years later.
On Saturday morning, the Clarkdale community celebrated the opening of a new facility at 4725 Ewing Road off Clay Road in Austell. The new Clarkdale sits about 1.5 miles east of its old site and is adjacent to Cooper Middle School.
Attended by hundreds of parents, students, staff and former students, the dedication, which featured speeches by officials, prayers, a Boy Scout flag raising ceremony, ribbon-cutting and guided tours by parents, was part celebratory, part homecoming and another part healing.
“As I think about the whole circumstances, there’s really only one word that comes to mind and it’s the word: faithfulness,” said Michael Stovall, pastor of nearby Ewing Road Baptist Church, were the Clarkdale community met following the flood.
“That day in September of 2009, the water came through and it came high. For the next several weeks it just seemed like a state of disarray in our community. We began to ask questions about how did this happen, why did this happen and where was God in the midst of all these times? As we stood together — many of us on front porches mudding out homes, passing out bottled water and cleaning off furniture — today we’re reminded that God is where he has always been, ruling and reigning from his throne in heaven.”
For the past three years, Clarkdale students attended two separate schools, Austell Intermediate and Compton elementary schools in Powder Springs. Attempts to keep the community together came in the form of joint faculty meetings, PTA meetings, science fairs and other activities.
However, the opening of the new facility means the Clarkdale community will be reunited under one roof.
“It troubled me deeply that we had students after the flood that were being shipped to two different schools, effectively splitting families up, which is problematic,” said Cobb County Board of Education President Scott Sweeney, who was elected in November 2010.
In February 2010, Cobb school board members voted to build a new, larger Clarkdale, which would also relieve overcrowding at Hollydale, Sanders and other nearby elementary schools, to replace the old building constructed in 1962. It had 22 classrooms and 13 trailers.
The new, $16.6 million facility – paid for by insurance payments and SPLOST funds – has 52 classrooms and includes a media center, gym, cafeteria, clinic, music and art rooms, an amphitheater and playground. It’s big enough to hold about 837 students. But nearly 700 students will be attending classes when they begin next Monday, said Principal Marjorie Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff had the honor on Saturday of cutting the red ribbon at the entrance to the school.
Walking inside the school, she proudly pointed to the large, white letters hanging above the vestibule’s doors that spell “Clarkdale.” They, along with a quilt, were saved from the old building. Students will also find small but familiar friends in the lobby area. Four turtles, plus a new one, were also saved and have a new paludarium.
In addition, the lobby and cafeteria have similar murals depicting the Austell area that were in the old building. Aged bricks that were salvaged from the old site were sold at the dedication for $10 and $15.
“Every time somebody brought something up to me they really wanted back, we tried very hard to do that,” Bickerstaff said.
Bickerstaff, who used to divide her time between Austell Intermediate and Compton, said she always believed that Clarkdale would be reunited.
“We said Clarkdale is not a building, Clarkdale is a community,” she said. “Just to be here and watch the teachers come in and former students – it’s a big day for everybody.”
Though his former school building and home were destroyed in the flood, Yamil was determined to remain a part of the Clarkdale family. He first attended Compton and then Austell Intermediate, alongside other displaced Clarkdale students, with the hope of reuniting with friends and teachers as a fifth grader at the new facility.
“I made sure to find a house to rent in the Clarkdale district,” said his mother, Allison Gabriel, a former Campbell High School teacher. “Getting up at 6:30 a.m. for buses was tough, but it was worth it because he has really succeeded at Clarkdale.”
Standing in one of his new school’s long, wide hallways, Yamil said he was happy with how everything turned out.
“Just because the flood happened doesn’t mean I had to quit Clarkdale and go to a new school,” he said. “I like it very much that everyone pitched in, had fundraisers and said, ‘Just because the flood happened doesn’t mean you can just give up on the school.’”