Two years after roof collapse at Broward school, students and staff are still in portables
Tirza Clarke was there that day in March 2021 when a roof collapsed at Rickards Middle School.
“So we heard the first thump and then it just collapsed,” she recalled. And we were in an office where it's only one way out and had to crawl our way out.”
Some staff said when they first heard the bang, they thought it was a bomb going off. Clarke — a school counselor at Rickards — still gets choked up talking about it.
“I’m standing here and I’m reliving it, honestly,” she said.
The school district broke ground on the construction of the new Rickards Middle School building earlier this month — more than two and a half years after the roof collapse that traumatized teachers and has forced some students to spend nearly their entire middle school experiences in makeshift portable classrooms.
When the roof over the Rickards media center collapsed in 2021, it became a symbol of Broward’s mismanagement of a massive, district-wide reconstruction effort. The roof caved in due to a "structural failing in the building that supported the roof," according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Speaking to students, staff and local elected officials at the groundbreaking ceremony, Broward schools Superintendent Peter Licata acknowledged that the community had to fight to get the new school built. Licata joined the district in July 2023.
“These children should walk through a building that looks like every other building in the district.” Licata said. “And they will get that.”
‘We don’t have anything else’
Behind the construction site that will one day be home to the new school sits the maze of portables where the Rickards Rockets now spend their days.
“So this is our only soccer field that we have. This is our … like our gym, if you will,” explained Rickards Principal Erick Gurreonero. “This is it. We don't have anything else.”
Walking across the campus on a recent afternoon, Gurreonero pointed out the one building that’s still standing from the old school, where sixth grade classes are now held.
“And then all here is … portables. So our band room is this big portable, which is two classrooms combined,” he explained. “And then the cafeteria is also two modulars combined.”
The rows of beige portables look pretty heavy duty, like they’ve been stuccoed on the outside, with white fabric awnings shading the pathways in between.
Inside, teachers try to make the portables their own. Language Arts teacher Lisa Smith-Lopez has turned hers into a cozy, colorful space, with a little reading nook in the corner.
Paper lanterns are suspended from the ceiling, and twinkle lights and green ivy hang from a wall, over a big poster board that says “words matter!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on page 32 and Anna is going to read the first two lines of 'Interflora',” Smith-Lopez tells her class. “Loud and proud mama, let’s go.”
School facilities ‘reflect who we value’
Gurreonero has been the principal here since 2022, the year that students were able to return to this campus after being split up and sent to other schools. It was important to community members that the Rickards Rockets be able to stay together on this campus — even if it meant operating out of temporary spaces.
Still, the portable campus sends a message, says School Board Member Sarah Leonardi, a former teacher who has been critical of the lengthy delays and increasing costs of the reconstruction effort.
“Listen, as a teacher I always felt like the facilities that you're going to school in really reflect who we value, right? And the community really wanted to be together, they didn't want to be separated among three different schools,” Leonardi said. “So the portable campus made that possible. But it's certainly not what the students deserve. And that part makes my heart hurt.”
Even the temporary separation was tough. According to enrollment data from the Florida Department of Education, since the year of the collapse, Rickards has lost about 200 students, plus staff. And those who did come back are still affected by that day.
“A lot of people think, oh, no one got hurt. Everyone's fine. But that wasn't the case,” Gurreonero said. “A lot of our teachers really got impacted on how difficult it was. They were then separated into different schools. It was quite traumatic, so … a lot of people don't realize that until you're in it here and you really see what happened.”
‘We discovered our strength’
It’s been a hard few years. First COVID, then the roof collapse. Staff say many of the Rickards families are undocumented and low income, and are struggling to keep their housing.
But there are some bright spots. The band is going strong under the direction of Jennifer Luechauer. She says one of the eighth graders just made it in the All State middle school honor band.
“The students over there actually started their music career on the cafeteria stage at William Dandy [Middle School] after the roof collapse. And here they are now, eighth grade, all grown up playing here,” Luechauer said, introducing the band at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Eighth grader Luna Algañaras took the podium to tell the crowd of elected officials and community leaders what she and her classmates have been through.
“Our school is a testament to show that we have had our weathered and difficult times but also celebrated great accomplishments. In the past, we shared both joyous memories and faced major challenges,” Luna said. “However, it was through the separation that we discovered our strength and united once again.”
Luna will be heading off to high school next year and won’t be able to experience the new building, which district officials expect to be finished in 2026. But she says she’s ok with that.
“As long as we … the generation before us gets the building, it's worth it,” she said.
Even after everything they’ve been through, Principal Gurreonero says the Rickards Rockets are finding their way.
“The thing that I know about kids is they're resilient. What they're looking for is good teaching. And that's what they got here. For us as adults, we see the need. But for them, they're content. I know they are, with great teaching happening,” he said. “Most importantly for us is we’re together. We’re back home.”