In the span of several months, the Wharton Independent School District Board of Trustees have heard several ways that the community can benefit from what was once Stephen F. Austin Elementary School (SFA) many decades ago.
WISD administrators began telling trustees and the public in 2019 that housing was needed to retain teachers. WISD had reported that a General Land Office (GLO) grant would provide for 34 homes, just over 50 percent of which would be at or below-median-income dwellings and 49% market-value.
At a Dec. 17 regular meeting, the contract with GLO was on the agenda but not one trustee made a motion to enter into a contract.
Whether it was because several people came to numerous WISD meetings to voice their opposition is not known, but those who did said SFA is a historical edifice.
In fact, it eventually led to the creation of the Wharton County Heritage Partnership (WCHP) late last year.
SFA’s original name derived from the “Father of Texas” and changed decades ago to be known as Abell Street School, and finally Minnie Mae Hopper.
Now Hopper is the focus of WCHP and members this week began reaching out to the public.
In an email to the Wharton Journal-Spectator, WCHP’s Pat Blair said members are trying to convince the Wharton ISD board to donate the property to WCHP if Wharton ISD does not intend to utilize the historic school for educational purposes.
“WCHP believes a great template for this project is a similar project in El Campo called the Northside Education Center. The Northside Education Center project was spearheaded by Gordon Sorrel, who also attended Stephen F. Austin Elementary School along with many of the members of WCHP,” the email said.
During a Nov. 19 regular meeting, Wharton County historian Meryl Hudgins told trustees about El Campo’s Northside Education Center after she visited an El Campo post office.
Months later, she presented WCHP and Blair a color photo in front of SFA. The photo does not have a date, but information attached to it suggests it was from the 1930s.
The email reads as follows: “BACK TO THE FUTURE. That old 1930 Ford parked in front of the historic Stephen F. Austin Elementary School is not a DeLorean (the time machine/automobile in the movie Back to the Future), but it helps to date and showcase how the school, restored and rehabilitated for educational and community purposes, could appear in the near future.”
Many know the building was constructed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program. According to the WCHP, it was built in 1935 with a grant from Public Works Administration.
An email from Blair said it was erected through a large-scale nation-wide public construction program created in response to the Great Depression.
The school was designed by well-known Austin architect August Watkins Harris, Blair said.
The WCHP email said: “If you have photos of the exterior, interior, or playgrounds of Stephen F. Austin Elementary School, please share them with Wharton County Heritage Partnership via Pat Blair or Merle Hudgins to make copies. Your help in endeavoring to repurpose this building is greatly appreciated.”
Blair has been told that Wharton ISD can’t donate (or sell for $1) the Hopper campus, as it did with the Dawson campus where Just Do It Now is now located on MLK Boulevard in the city’s West End.
In the email, Blair said “The TEA legal department provided us a copy of the Texas Education Code, which states the property can be donated to a non-profit. There is a procedure to be followed.”