Rising from the ashes: How Shaker Heights plans to rebuild its beloved Fernway Elementary

When fire ripped through the roof of Fernway Elementary School in Shaker Heights on July 10, 2018, it not only devastated the approximately 300 students, teachers, and staff housed in the almost century-old building, it devastated the community.

As insurance claims are settled and after the Shaker Board of Education voted to earmark funds for renovations, the Shaker Schools Foundation is leading its own charge in the community to raise an additional $500,000 toward updates that will make Fernway one of the most contemporary and cutting-edge elementary schools in the district.

The Foundation launched its Fernway Forward fundraising campaign on Monday, December 10—exactly five months to the day after the fire. It is, at least in part, a way for the community to help rebuild the late 1920s school, according to Holly Coughlin, executive director of the Shaker Schools Foundation.

“It’s our job to raise money, but the community wanted to help,” says Coughlin of the neighborhood concern. “They were begging to help.” She reports that many area residents watched the school burn, and Fernway alumni—many of whom still live in the neighborhood—have come forward with stories and memories for their days at Fernway.

At the start of the 2018-19 school year, Fernway students and teachers were relocated to classrooms in three other Shaker schools. Almost immediately, city and school officials, as well as the community, knew they had to rebuild the landmark school, the smallest of the five Shaker elementary schools and an icon in the neighborhood.

No one was hurt in the fire, which was ruled accidental during roof repairs, yet the damage was extensive. “The fire was limited to the roof, but there was extensive water damage, says Scott Stephens, Shaker School District’s executive director of communications and public relations.

“But the school could be rebuilt. Once you get over the shock of this happening, you start to think about the possibilities.”

An insurance settlement will pay $14.5 million to rebuild the 29,925 -square-foot school, and the Shaker Board of Education voted in November to commit $3 million to the renovations. The total of $17.5 million will cover repairs to the damaged building' build an elevator (which didn’t exist previously); and add bathrooms in the kindergarten classrooms, as well as a security door system on the front entrance. (Previously, the main entrance was in the rear of the school and officials could only monitor visitors through monitors.) Other measures will also be incorporated to bring the building up to current building code standards.

The Fernway Forward campaign will supplement those efforts to bring added amenities to the building—including a cafeteria, dedicated areas for occupational therapy, art and music rooms, a media and design center, and outdoor community and play areas.

Coughlin says the planned design lab will introduce dedicated areas for STEM and STEAM education, and an overall more collaborative design will be incorporated into the classrooms.

“Nowadays, when schools are built, [collaborative and STEM learning] are a given,” Coughlin says. “But when our schools were built, those weren’t considerations. Fernway will be the first elementary school [in Shaker] to have a design lab.”

Like the planned design lab, Coughlin says the classrooms designed 100 years ago didn’t account for collaboration and teamwork, where kids and teachers may group together. “The goal is to create a more collaborative space,” Coughlin explains. “It used to be that students would sit at their desks and look forward. Now it’s a more collaborative environment where kids are moving desks into groups. It’s just a different education mindset today than it was when that school was built.”

Coughlin calls the improvements that will be made through Fernway Forward as “icing on the cake,” and the community members who have wanted raise money for the renovations “everyday heroes.” While the Fernway Forward goal is $500,000, Coughlin says most of that will be secured through the Alumni Foundation’s applications for grants and donations from foundations.

She says the goal is to raise $100,000 from the community. The peer-to-peer effort has already raised more than $9,000 through 84 donations since the campaign launch. While gifts of $1,000 or more can be spread out over three years, Coughlin stresses that any donation amount is welcome.

The top individual donations have given more than $3,000 to the campaign, while the Fernway Staff Team has given $3,485 toward their $5,000 team goal and the Shaker Schools Foundation Team has raised $502 toward their $600 goal.

In the meantime, Gilbane Building Company and Van Auken Akins Architects have already been working on the plans for the new school, which are still being finalized. “They are running the show in terms of rebuilding,” says Stephens. “[Gilbane and Van Auken Akins] are meeting on a weekly basis with the committee, the community, staff, and administrators to work out a plan of what $17.5 million will get us. We’re essentially going to get a brand-new school.”

Stephens says Gilbane is estimating the entire project will take 18 months—four months of designing and 14 months of construction—with completion by spring 2020. While students and teachers will be displaced until the start of the 2020-21 school year, Stephens says they are trying to keep an optimistic outlook.

“No one ever wants this to happen,” Stephens says. “But we look at the bright side: It’s an opportunity to get a new school that we’re excited about.”

Donations to the Fernway Forward campaign can be made here. For more information contact Shaker Schools Foundation at (216) 295-4329.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.