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Rebuilt Tampa Heights Elementary will open Monday

With a new name, the historic school closes the door on a difficult three years.
Tampa  Heights Elementary School is reopening on Jan. 4. The rebuilt school retained many design features from the original school, which burned in a 2017 fire.
Tampa Heights Elementary School is reopening on Jan. 4. The rebuilt school retained many design features from the original school, which burned in a 2017 fire. [ HCPS Twitter ]
Published Jan. 4
Updated Jan. 6

TAMPA — Gutted by fire and brought back to life in a pandemic, Tampa Heights Elementary School will enter a new and happier time when students return to class on Monday.

More than 300 children will be welcomed into the historic school at 305 E Columbus Ave., rebuilt after extensive damage from an electrical fire in 2017.

“It is really beautiful, and we are truly blessed,” principal Wendy Harrison said Wednesday. “We are very excited.”

Originally called the Michigan Avenue Grammar School, the century-old institution was renamed for Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1943, an era when Southern cities and towns frequently honored Confederate leaders in their buildings and monuments.

The Hillsborough County School Board had already begun discussions about a name change for the prestigious magnet school when, on Sept. 12, 2017, the building was consumed by a nighttime blaze that could be seen for miles.

Aerial view of a 3-alarm fire at the Robert E. Lee Magnet Elementary School as firefighters pour water into the burning building on Sept. 12, 2017.
Aerial view of a 3-alarm fire at the Robert E. Lee Magnet Elementary School as firefighters pour water into the burning building on Sept. 12, 2017.

Because of the naming controversy, there was speculation about arson. But it turned out the cause was more benign.

Hurricane Irma had knocked out electricity throughout the area for more than a day. When power was restored, a surge shot through the wiring and ignited the largely wooden structure. There were no fire sprinklers. Heavy winds accelerated the fire’s spread. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Students and teachers were relocated to Lockhart Elementary, another magnet school in nearby East Tampa. The two schools worked to maintain their autonomy. But supporters of “Lee,” as it was then called, were insistent that they wanted their own school.

“We have always had a close-knit, family-like culture,” said Samantha Levine, who teaches fifth grade and is in her ninth year at the school. Teachers, students and parents spoke often about their excitement over returning “home” to Columbus Avenue.

As the district filed insurance claims and planned the reconstruction project, the School Board again deliberated on the name change. They voted on Nov. 15, 2018, to adopt the Tampa Heights name.

As time passed, some students moved on to middle school or transferred to other elementary schools. But some of the students and teachers who were there before the fire are still at Tampa Heights, Harrison said, and will be there Monday. All but about 36 students are attending school in person.

The rebuilt Tampa Heights Elementary School combines historic design features with modern architecture.
The rebuilt Tampa Heights Elementary School combines historic design features with modern architecture. [ Twitter ]

Awaiting them is a building that preserved some of the design elements of the old school, including the brick facade, pitched roof and cupola. Inside are areas that incorporate the original floor boards and colorful tiles.

But there also are modernistic features, designed to support the school’s work as a magnet for world studies. These include a learning corridor — with display areas, seating and writable surfaces — and a three-story connector at the heart of the school.

“I cannot wait to show my students the school and have them create memories in the new building,” Levine said.