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The design of I.M. Terrell’s new building is meant to address a prominent part of the city’s black history. Photo by James Russell.

Monday, August 20, was a big day in race relations for the city and Fort Worth school district. The Texas Education Agency released its controversial report cards that rate school districts. On an A-F scale, Fort Worth scored a C. That same day, the city council-appointed Race and Culture Task Force released a draft report with recommendations on how to improve racial and cultural equality in the city. And a historic school re-opened its doors with a new purpose, design, and an additional building.

The new digs for I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA are designed to significantly elevate the school district’s stature and acknowledge a prominent part of the city’s black history. The public magnet high school recently opened to 160 students interested in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the visual and performing arts. The campus has been open since 1921 and served as both a high school and an elementary school near the Butler Place public housing development at the eastern edge of downtown. In the new design by Corgan Associates of Dallas, the campus added a third structure with a prominent canopy that connects the new and old buildings – a symbolic feature as much as a functional one. Corgan’s Eric Horstman told the Fort Worth Business Press in 2016 that the canopy intentionally overshadows the old yellow-brick building, as it spans above a concrete courtyard.

Until this past year, I.M. Terrell, one of the city’s most storied public schools, was barely visible from the highway. Packed between Fort Worth’s mixmaster of highways, the school is still hard to reach. The 65,000-square-foot addition finally gives the school an esthetic that befits its history. 

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The goal of the magnet school is to add 200 students each year, with a target of 800 enrolled in grades 9-12, eventually. The new modern-looking building of steel, glass, and brick will easily accommodate them. The facility’s architects used popular trends in higher education design: high ceilings, lots of light, and flexible space. Locally, buildings on the campuses of two universities have similar-looking facilities: TCU’s Rees-Jones Hall, which opened in 2014, and the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education Building that is slated to be finished later this year. 

Terrell’s first floor has a new auditorium that seats about 900 people, a black box theater, and a concession stand. The second floor includes an art gallery, practice rooms, and a stunning vista of downtown. Visible from any practice or classroom with windows, the view rivals the picturesque and nostalgic panorama from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

The academy is the fourth transformation of the I.M. Terrell campus and the school’s second location. When it was founded in 1882, the then-named East 18th Street Colored School No. K was located a few blocks away from the current building. With no gym, cafeteria, or library, the school clearly represented the worst aspects of racial segregation. An out-of-towner, Isaiah Milligan Terrell, was the first principal, and the school was renamed for him in 1921.

After demographics changed in the Butler Place neighborhood, Andrew J. Chambers School, an all-white elementary school, moved into Terrell’s building, and the all-black, resource-poor school was forced to find a new location in 1938. Court-ordered desegregation closed Terrell’s erstwhile campus in 1973, but it later reopened as an elementary school in 1998. The school district’s information technology and institutional research departments were also located there.

In 2015, the school board voted to establish the magnet school on the campus. Paid for with 2013 bond money, the newest building was designed to bring visibility to the school and create a gateway to downtown. 

In the recent redesign, the old building on campus was upgraded, too. The state-designated historic landmark includes more open classroom, rehearsal and common spaces, and a hallway full of award shelves and bookcases honoring former students – the school’s alumni group is one of the most active in the country.

In a city finally recognizing its failings, the Terrell Academy also shows we are recognizing our strengths, too. It just took a while.

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