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Duke School Built to Withstand Severe Weather

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DUKE Okla_ 7News is continuing our coverage of schools in our area, particularly those that have upgraded their buildings with safety in mind.

In the town of Duke, which has a population of less than 500 and is located just west of Altus, the classrooms sit about 15 feet underground. The classrooms were built in 1964 after the old school burned down.  Back then, the motivation wasn't weather-related. Relations between the United States and Russia were incredibly tense, and the possibility of war between the superpowers had people seeking protection from bombs. Now that tension is gone, but the peace of mind remains during tornado season.

The underground portion of the school is about 23,000 square feet, which is half the size of a football field. Officials say it's all they need to keep their students and staff safe when it comes to severe weather.

Robetha Darby taught math at Duke Public Schools from 1974 to 1992. She was also a 16-year-old student there when the school burned and the decision was made to rebuild underground. The Duke Superintendent got the idea from a school he visited in New Mexico. The next thing Darby and the town knew, there was a huge hole in the ground.

"They were just very innovative, very insightful, and all the reasons that we would want because of safety," Darby said.

The school has 20 rooms. 15 are classrooms, and none of them have windows.

"It's just a classroom. Like all the classrooms across the state, you don't notice there are no windows," Duke Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Cansler said. "All the distractions have been removed."

It holds 210 students from kindergarten to high school. The walls are several feet thick, with a few feet of concrete above and below. So, when severe weather strikes, the kids below stay put. Those above ground come to the auditorium or an empty classroom. Superintendent Cansler said if a tornado were to hit, there isn't much the staff would have to go through to keep students and staff safe.

"The kids remain seated, and our joke is you just keep on teaching," Cansler said, "Because we don't have to make any special arrangements for any of our drills. The students who are upstairs go through the procedure of getting downstairs and going to their designated areas."

Cansler said the students quickly adapt to this unusual design, because not all their time is spent underground.  The computer lab, gym and library are in the more traditional locations.

"They're not in a storm cellar as what a lot of people would think of being underground," Cansler said. "This is a school that just happens to be underground. They're not in a trapped cellar. They still have the opportunity to see the outside world."

Cansler and Darby say the worst weather the town has seen so far is a hail storm and strong winds, but fortunately, no tornado. They say when warnings do come, they open it to the public. It can hold about 1,000 people, which is more than twice their population.

The underground school cost about $280,000 or about $12 per square foot back in 1964. Contractors say it would cost anywhere between $150 to $240 per square foot  to build something like that today.

 

 

 

 

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