Officials of the Chickasaw County School District, whose only school is in Houlka, regretted the loss by fire of that campus’ most historic building early Wednesday afternoon, but moved quickly and with determination to start the 2014-2015 academic year Aug. 6 in structures that escaped damage and in other quarters.
The fire, at times its smoke visible from as far as two miles away, swept through the 1938 structure housing some classrooms and the auditorium, described as a total loss as the flames were brought under control.
Generations of residents in the Chickasaw County town and the district know the structure as the place where they started school and graduated even though its current use was for middle school-age classes, with other grade levels in other buildings. Houlka has slightly more than 600 students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12.
As in many other small cities and rural towns across the nation, Houlka’s school has been the iconic unifier for the surrounding community. Houlka Attendance Center is the only school in the Chickasaw County School District. It boasts a 96.43 percent graduation rate, which is the ninth best in the state.
Houlka has about 650 residents, and it has a rich history. The first residents of what is now Houlka arrived in 1812, before Mississippi statehood and before the Chickasaw Cession, a land transfer from the Chickasaw nation to the United States.
Any time a community loses a school building, conflicting emotions arise – sadness and regret first, and then determination to rebuild.
Wednesday’s fire thankfully was without injury. No children were present because of summer vacation and the workmen repairing windows in the school building escaped without harm.
At the core of moving ahead is a basic understanding of a school’s importance.
The website Opportunity Nation says this about public schools:
“Public education has … traditionally played a powerful role in building communities and fostering a civic spirit. Across the country, local schools serve as important symbols of community and gathering places after school hours. Historically, American public school systems’ mission was to not only educate the population but to turn out good citizens with a firm grasp of government and a commitment to contributing to their communities.”
Towns like Houlka, historic and close-knit, may understand that better than big cities and huge districts.