Cedar Ridge fire keeps students out for weeks

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published January 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 16, 2013 at 10:21 a.m.
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— When Ann Webb got a phone call from the Independence County Sheriff’s Office at 3:40 a.m. Jan. 11, she knew she was in for a long day.

“I wasn’t expecting a real fire,” said Webb, superintendent of the Cedar Ridge School District. “I thought maybe it was a hot wire. … We’ve had that before.”

She threw on jeans and a T-shirt and headed to the school, making it there before 4 a.m.

But this wasn’t just a hot wire. Responders from across Independence County had sent personnel, including crews from Newark, Batesville and Charlotte.

A fire had started in Priscilla Callahan’s business classroom, just north of the school library, and spread to Shanda Wood’s classroom next door.

“My janitors left at [midnight],” Webb said. “They didn’t smell anything or see anything, so it had to be after that. Around 3 a.m.”

The minute Webb pulled up to the school and saw all the fire trucks and smoke, she knew the district would need to cancel classes. Around 5 a.m., she sent an alert from the district to parents and staff that all classes had been canceled for the day.

Webb began a long day of meetings, planning and interviews about what the next few weeks would bring.

“I finally went home and took a shower around 2 p.m.,” Webb said.

Although the fire investigator had not visited the school as of press time, Webb said the cause of the fire was likely electrical.

The flames were contained to the two classrooms, but smoke damage was extensive in the building, and Webb said wood and ceiling tiles throughout the school need to be cleaned.

In a meeting with the school’s insurance company Friday, Webb was told it could be four to six weeks before students could return to the classrooms in the high school.

“I nearly fell out of my chair,” Webb said. “I said, ‘No, no, no, we can’t have the kids out that long.’”

A new estimate puts the time the students will be displaced at between two and four weeks, though students could return to eating in the cafeteria — an area only lightly damaged — much sooner.

Beginning Jan. 16, the roughly 400 seventh- through 12th-graders in the district will be divided into small, grade-level groups placed in spare rooms throughout other district buildings, including Newark Elementary School and the new junior high school. Two to three teachers will be in each classroom, with less than 20 students in each group.

“I told my staff this morning that this is their time to pull out their tool bag,” Webb said. “This is a time to try and do those things they’ve always wanted to do, to try some extra science experiments or engage with individual students more. But it’s going to be tough.”

Webb said the high school gym was not affected by the fire, and winter sports schedules will go on as planned.

Classes officially resumed Monday, with seventh- through 12th- graders heading to Little Rock and Batesville to visit the Independence County History Museum in the latter community and the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. Webb was on board with the plan after hearing that insurance would cover the cost of the trip and a lunch for the students.

“It’s a great opportunity for them, and they got to go and sit down in restaurants to eat,” Webb said. “We’re at a 71 percent poverty rate in the district, and that’s a big deal for our kids.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .

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