HOULTON, Maine — Students from Summit Academy have found a temporary new home and are slowly getting back into a comfortable routine after a Jan. 9 fire damaged their building.
The exact cause of the fire remains under investigation, which has hindered the ability of school officials to assess the damage, but classes resumed Monday, Jan. 13, at a new location.
Thanks to the generosity of the building’s former owners — Military Street Baptist Church — students moved to the church’s current location at 307 Military St., utilizing space in the church for its classes for the foreseeable future.
Summit Academy, a four-district collaborative alternative education school for RSU 29 (Houlton), SAD 70 (Hodgdon), RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook) and SAD 14 (East Grand), was rendered unusable Jan. 9 when a computer room fire caused extensive water damage throughout the building.
The school opened in September and has about 30 students from the four school districts enrolled.
RSU 29 Superintendent Ellen Halliday said she hopes students will be able to return to the building — which many students have come to describe as “a second home” — although that may not occur this school year.
“We met with the kids on Monday and Tuesday and helped them process the events that transpired,” Halliday said. “The kids are doing fabulous. Their biggest concern was a fear that the program would not be able to continue. [The students] have really gotten attached to that facility in a short amount of time. Our days are going as normal as they can be.”
Dawn Matthews, one of the instructors at Summit Academy, said students seem to be acclimating well to their new surroundings.
“The kids are doing as well as can be expected,” Matthews said. “Obviously, they are sad. It’s a transition and all transitions are difficult. That building was their own and they want to go back.”
Matthews added that many of the students were curious about the damage inside the building. A few students have yet to return to classes since the fire.
Trynity Mills, a junior enrolled at Summit Academy, was one of the students in the building when the fire broke out. She said she was cleaning paint brushes in one of the bathrooms when the lights suddenly went out.
“It was pretty scary,” she said. “We walked out [of the bathroom] and smelled the smoke, so we ran to tell a teacher. We all had to grab our coats and get out quickly.”
Mills said that she and many of her friends at the school were deeply saddened by the loss.
“It was really sad watching the fire,” she said. “We were all sad because we weren’t sure what was going to happen and if we would have another place to go to.”
Summit Academy, located at 56 Military St., is a converted church which served as the home of the Military Street Baptist Church for 101 years. The building, constructed in 1919, was purchased in 2019 by the collaboration of school districts, thanks to a $570,000 grant from the state under its Fund for Efficient Delivery of Educational Services program to create a regional alternative education center for students.
Matthews said members of the church were quick to offer their support and have been gracious hosts to the students.
“We are very, very fortunate this worked out,” she said. “We have two classrooms here and a kitchen. The church has moved things around to accommodate us.”
Military Street Baptist Church Pastor Randall Burns said offering his church as a temporary location had the overwhelming support of his board of directors, both because of the connections to the old building and because of the church’s ongoing mission to help others in need.
“To see the ‘old 56’ [the street address] in flames was very traumatic emotionally for me,” he said. “Especially knowing how much time and energy went into keeping that building in use. I felt we had the space here to help. It’s why we built this building.”
He added the motto of Adopt-a-Block, which is a philanthropic subsidiary of the church, perfectly fits this situation.
“The motto is ‘Find a need and meet it. Find a hurt and heal it’ and this is perfectly one of those extensions,” Burns said.
While the inside of the school in the former church building has extensive water damage, Halliday said she was unsure how much of the technology inside is ruined.
“We have a mitigating company that is in there now drying things up and cleaning up the debris,” she said. “We just need a chance to go through the building to see what we have lost. We can’t get to some of the areas because they are still cordoned off [as fire investigators] look for the cause.”
For example, many of the students’ laptops have been inaccessible because they were located near the source of the fire.
“Through the grant we had, we ordered enough to have backup machines, and some of the students had their laptops with them,” Halliday said. “The kids really didn’t miss a beat when it came to their education.”
Halliday said that assessing the damage inside the school has been a slow process.
“Military Street Baptist Church has been extremely accommodating,” Halliday said. “The outpouring of support from the community as a whole has been tremendous.”
That support extended to a local internet provider agreeing to increase the bandwidth for internet at the church so that students can complete their assignments in a timely manner. Halliday said the district is seeking a more permanent temporary location to house the students.
Returning to the academy building this school year remains an outside possibility, but Halliday said alternative locations must be considered.
“We are looking at possibly renting or leasing a place for six months to a year,” she said. “We don’t know for sure that we won’t be back in the building this school year, but until we have our structural engineers go in and come up with a plan of action we won’t know for certain.”