Highland rises from the ashes: “Back and better than ever”

POCATELLO — Pamela Fleischmann’s classroom filled with smoke in the early hours on April 21, as Highland High School’s cafeteria, gymnasium and music rooms erupted in flames. In the aftermath, the government teacher cleared her room in two hours at the direction of the fire department, and prepared for an uncertain future.

She didn’t know when — or if — she would ever return to Highland High.

But just four months after the devastating fire, Fleischmann entered that same classroom Wednesday for the start of a new academic year — her 29th year of teaching at Highland. That feat, she says, is “unbelievable.”

Prior to its Wednesday start, Highland received a new fire sprinkler system and other fire safety measures. The district found a solution for every displaced teacher and class, utilizing off-campus resources and getting creative with on-campus spaces.

And the district demolished the damaged school remains before students stepped foot on campus — something district spokesperson Courtney Fisher said was a priority. Though the project was slightly delayed, the district began the demolition as soon as the demolition site was returned to the district’s custody.

All of that will contribute to a safe, secure and joyous new school year, said Fleischmann.

“We know it’s not perfect,” she told EdNews just before school started Wednesday. “There’s a lot of work to do to get the little things done, but classrooms are ready. The fact that we actually get to be here this soon after a fire is absolutely unbelievable to us. It literally was a statewide and community effort to have this happen…We’re grateful, we’re thankful, and we’re trying to put the soul back into this building.”

32-year teacher Pamela Fleischmann returned to her classroom Wednesday, for the first day of school after the April fire that destroyed segments of Highland High School / Sadie Dittenber, Idaho Education News.

Fleischmann wasn’t the only one excited about returning to the building — smiling students and staff flooded the halls Wednesday morning. Friends reunited after a long, uncertain summer, giddy to be returning to a familiar space. Staff donned T-shirts printed “Back and better than ever” and sent each other reassuring glances in passing. Cafeteria workers offered students breakfast as they walked in, greeting them with empathetic smiles.

“It’s exciting to be back,” said Alaina May, a Highland senior and student government officer. “We don’t know how badly we actually want to see each other until we can’t anymore. As much as we complain, the fire made a lot of us realize we actually do like being at school.”

“It’s really surreal for me,” said Zoe McEwan, Highland’s student body president. “We went from a time of panic to something so much more stable. I’m really excited for this year, I hope that it’s going to be the best one ever.”

McEwan and her student leadership team have spent all summer preparing events that will bring students together. They want to unite the Highland student body, and ensure that no one feels excluded from school activities this year.

Students returned to Highland for the first day back after the fire Wednesday.
Students crowded the halls as they navigated and unfamiliar school layout.
The district reorganized Highland, putting lunch tables where lockers used to be.

But the morning was also tinged with a sense of tremendous loss.

Highland’s halls are still marked with reminders of the devastating fire.

As students and staff headed to the back-to-school pep rally, they skirted past the demolition site that once held the school’s gymnasium, cafeteria and band, orchestra and choir rooms. Some teachers, like Fleischmann, still haven’t visited the area because it holds too many memories.

“It has been hard,” Fleischmann said. “I grew up in the gyms here…when the last beam of the Highland gym came down, it just hurt my heart…I got my first concussion in the Highland gym, it’s been an infused part of our life.”

And students navigated their way through an unfamiliar school layout — with one hallway closed due to fire damage and no gyms or music rooms available, classes have been spread out across town. Band, orchestra and choir are held at the Calvary Chapel, just down the hill from Highland, and health classes were moved to an auxiliary building behind the school. Lockers were removed to create a cramped cafeteria space in the foyer of the school, and lunch workers now prepare food in the auxiliary building, and truck it over to the school.

Demolition began in July, according to district spokesperson Courtney Fisher. The process was slightly delayed, but the district began demolition as soon as the lot was returned by the insurance company.
Students crowded the hallway and makeshift cafeteria during their noon lunch-hour. Many students traveled off campus for lunch.
Cafeteria workers prepare lunch in an auxiliary building behind the school, and truck the meals over to the main building at lunchtime.

And the Highland family didn’t shy away from these challenges — they hit them head on, just like Rams ought to do.

“Teachers are caffeinated, the books are on the shelves and we’re ready to start school,” yelled Principal Bradley Wallace, to loud cheers from hundreds of students standing in the football stands for Highland’s back-to-school assembly. “We’re all over this town, but that’s alright, because this is our town.” 

By the end of the assembly, chants of “you wish you went to Highland” echoed through the Pocatello valley, as the student body jumped, clapped and cheered in the bleachers, before heading back to the classroom.

Students gathered Wednesday for a back-to-school rally.
Student leader Alaina May held up the spirit stick, which each class later competed for.

Wallace emotionally expressed his gratitude to the community, faculty and staff for helping get the school back in working order Wednesday. And after COVID, Wallace said, students and staff are resilient. Although he hopes there aren’t too many challenges in Highland’s future, Wallace said he’s confident the Rams know how to roll with the punches and power through tough times.

“It feels like coming home,” Wallace told EdNews. “There’s always a special feeling going back to school, but there’s this extra special feeling being back in Highland. It’s a huge deal to us and our students, and we couldn’t have done it alone.”

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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