The first time leading a school into a new academic year is always challenging; you cannot be sure what to expect. As a new head of school at Second Baptist School in Houston, Texas, never did I imagine what the beginning of this school year would bring—Hurricane Harvey, a historic Category 4 storm that devastated the Houston area, including the area around Buffalo Bayou, just steps from the school campus. I had expected to spend the last days of August greeting students and families as they returned to school. Instead, I found myself leading a community through the most destructive storm in the history of Houston.
Strength and Courage in Christ
As the water subsided, I walked into the home of one school family to see a mother devastated, unable to fully comprehend the effects on her home. I sat across from a father forced to evacuate his home by boat in the middle of the night with his wife, two children, and grandmother. Yet in the middle of this unfathomable damage and destruction, I saw God’s hand at work. One parent, on her own, immediately rallied upper school students to serve families impacted by Harvey. Our faculty reached out to families, via email, to make sure everyone in their students’ families were safe. SBS alumni spent 36 straight hours rescuing families. By the first week of September, nearly 20,000 volunteers partnered with our school’s church, Second Baptist, to clean over 1,000 homes and distribute almost a half-million bottles of water. Harvey brought fear and destruction, but we found strength and courage in the promise and person of Christ.
During the storm itself, my family and I evacuated 3½ hours away to Tyler, Texas. Our new neighborhood in Houston was flooded, although our home remained dry and unaffected. The head of school at Grace Community School, Jay Ferguson, graciously provided me an office at his school for a few days until it was safe to return to Houston. During my few days at Grace, Jay provided valuable insight and perspective as I began working through challenges I knew would be ahead of me of managing the needs of my school and our community.
First, I needed to get in contact with my leadership team. I immediately turned to technology to offer my team of 10 executives an effective way to collaborate and communicate as we began to move forward making decisions about our school—all while being separated geographically. Using Google Docs and Google Sheets created a platform for our command center, which was a practical solution easily accessible by phone, tablet, or computer. To keep up with lengthy text conversations, we established a GroupMe for our team. This allowed us to separate our text messages and helped streamline immediate communications.
Creating Feedback Loops
Second, to lead through this storm, I needed to create feedback loops throughout the community so we could receive up-to-date and accurate information and begin to organize relief efforts. My team and I were constantly assessing the situation to determine the needs of our community and the priorities for each of us. Despite the citywide devastation and flooding from Harvey, the storm thankfully had minimal impact on our school buildings. However, approximately 25 of our faculty and staff and more than 50 school families’ homes were filled with water, and many of them do not have flood insurance.
Because of the continuing changes with the city flooding, street closures, and neighborhood evacuations, the dates to resume school were a moving target. Together, my leadership team and I made the choice to be informative, intentional, and well-defined in communicating with school families. Our communications team was helpful in disseminating information through school emails and our emergency notification system. Being informed, collaborating on decisions, and consistently communicating throughout the 10 days of Harvey and its immediate aftermath gave our families great confidence in the leadership of the school and helped ease anxiety.
Planning for the Return to Campus
On the day that most of my executive team could reach campus, we held a four-hour meeting to work through countless details for our return to school. We reviewed the documents and spreadsheets we had been working on the past several days. We meticulously planned every detail to help our school community recover from the incomprehensible event. We made plans after plans after plans to make sure that our return to campus would be as seamless as possible. We also knew that everyone in our community experienced Harvey differently and would have many different stories. We knew without a doubt that our first week back would be filled with challenges.
Despite all of these efforts, we could not have done any of this on our own. I spent quite a bit of time on my knees in prayer for wisdom, discernment, and grace. I prayed for my school, for my leadership team, for our students and their families, for safety, and for mercy. We were sustained each day through the strength of our Savior. In my first faculty address after Harvey, I encouraged our staff through three reminders:
- God is in control.
- People are more important than possessions.
- God has given us a great opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
I also encouraged them to continue to fill their tanks spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I reminded them that our job as a school is to help families transition back into routine and find a sense of normalcy. I encouraged each of them to care first for the hearts and souls of our students, and second to educate the mind.
As a leader, I had to trust God through this experience and continue to make my relationship with Him a top priority. When people go through tragedy like this, we must work to understand what has happened and how we can extend grace. While Harvey was a community event, we experienced it individually—every family’s story was different, and they each came out of it with different needs. It is key to understand the individuality of each person and to extend grace both in the immediate aftermath and throughout the coming year.
Recover and Rebuild
Now that the storm has passed, many have asked how the school is doing. The hard work of recovery and rebuilding has begun in Houston. SBS has benefitted tremendously from our partnership with a mobilizing church; in a time of crisis, we had access to an abundance of resources. However, our local community still faces overwhelming needs. Specifically, we need a service team in September and October as well as financial resources to help the people of Houston. Most importantly, we are in great need of continued prayer—for physical provision for families whose homes were flooded, as well as spiritual opportunity to impact the hearts of students, families, and the city of Houston. By God’s grace and empowerment, Houston will recover. Our families will heal and rebuild. We are #SBSstrong.
How you can help impacted Christian schools and communities:
- Visit second.org for more information on how to help the Houston area.
- Visit ACSI’s online donation page for Christian schools impacted by the 2017 hurricanes.
About the Author
Don Davis serves as the head of school at Second Baptist School in Houston, TX. He is married to Jessica and has two sons, Trey and Jacob, and one daughter, Natalie. He has served in Christian education for sixteen years. Don has a passion to lead Christian schools in the pursuit of Christ-centered excellence. He will complete his PhD in the spring of 2018, with his dissertation titled “School Culture and Student Retention in Private Schools.” Don can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.