‘We Want a School There’

Walnut Hill neighbors say concerns about career institute scale are going unheard by district

Neighbors of Walnut Hill Elementary have been anxious about its fate since a tornado struck it in 2019. But they say they’re worried Dallas ISD’s plans for the site may be too outsized for an area still reckoning with a great deal of storm destruction and change.

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The building will become one of four career institutes the district has started, offering training in various career paths for students in ninth through 12th grade. The institute’s temporary digs are at 13400 Midway Road, in Farmers Branch and offers training in aviation flight mechatronics, cybersecurity, construction and carpentry, electrical and solar, HVAC/R technology, interior design, and plumbing and pipefitting. By 2022, it will add automotive technology, culinary arts, health science, and welding.

“The DISD plans on saving the portions of the existing school that are salvageable from the tornado and add on a larger addition to repurpose the school into the Walnut Hill Career Institute,” the land use statement provided in the district’s zoning change application said.

(Read: Our coverage of the 2019 tornado)

Students from Hillcrest, W.T. White, Thomas Jefferson, North Dallas, and Emmett J. Conrad high schools attend the school, which will offer a half-day of career instruction, with the core curriculum courses taught at the students’ home high schools.

(Read: Dallas ISD To Seek Zoning Change for Walnut Hill Career Campus)

The school’s neighbors, however, are worried about the size of the proposed building, and the traffic it will generate, which will be a change from the traffic and size of the former elementary school. They’re opposing the district’s request for a zoning change from residential zoning to a planned development.

“We really want to be clear,” said Marla Hartsell one Thursday evening before a weekly Zoom meeting with Walnut Hill residents, “we want a school there. We just want to have a hand in what it looks like, and have a say in what we’re going to be living next to.”

A traffic plan submitted with the zoning request indicates that the school can have up to two groups of 800 students coming and going each day. That number – plus the much larger footprint for the new building – have neighbors digging in their heels.

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Hartsell said that an array of stakeholders, from neighbors to parents, were involved in design charrettes for the new pre-k through eighth grade Walnut Hill School.

“And they have taken ownership of that school,” she said. “They feel like they really had a say, and were heard. But they don’t have that same feeling about this school.”

(Read: With Walnut Hill Design Talk, ‘No Perspective Is Wrong’)

But those meetings happened prior to the pandemic. When planning began for the career institute, Zoom calls replaced face-to-face meetings, and engagement was more difficult. There have been information sessions and community meetings held, but Hartsell and her neighbors say it’s not the same – and they’re left wondering one thing.

“What’s the rush?” she said. “Now that things are opening back up, why not slow down and have a design charrette in person, and really sell the neighbors on this?”

As it stands, the neighbors have been successful in lobbying the plan commission to delay their vote until another community meeting could be held. More than 850 have signed a petition against the rezoning circulated on Change.org. 

A version of this story was originally published in the June issue of Preston Hollow People. To see that issue, click here.

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 [email protected].

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