LITTLE ELM — Locals once called the area “Fruit Jar Junction.”
With myriad addresses listed under towns such as Little Elm, Aubrey, Cross Roads and Oak Point, one thing seems to unite the people living in the U.S. Highway 380 Corridor between Denton and McKinney: the schools.
In 2007 and 2013, taxpayers approved bonds for a $149 million high school on Navo Road that would serve as Denton ISD’s fourth comprehensive high school and the first built outside Denton city limits. In its inaugural year, Braswell High School has already left a sizable footprint, but not just on the students who walk its halls.
Braswell Principal Leslie Guajardo spent nearly a year and a half hiring staff, going over construction plans, ordering furniture, picking out school colors and overseeing anything else that needed to be done. By the time school started in August, she was ready to welcome more than 1,200 students.
But before any teenager set foot in the building, Guajardo made sure her employees knew what they were in for.
“I told them that we would have a lot of issues thrown at us this year,” she said in August, “but we needed to remember what our focus is: the students”
Now four months later, Guajardo said things have settled down. Students have begun to establish their own traditions while staff members work amid ongoing construction.
Because of heavy rain delays last spring, construction crews are still working on the building. When the doors opened in August, the competition gym, auditorium, a few athletic fields and a classroom wing remained unfinished.
Now at the semester break, district officials say 95 percent of the construction is done. The baseball and softball fields should be finished by the end of December while construction on the auditorium will wrap up by January’s close.
“We’ve been able to coexist with Balfour-Beatty [Construction] very well,” Guajardo said. “Our people understood their boundaries and it’s all been fairly easy.”
One thing that hasn’t been fairly easy is the increase in traffic on U.S. 380 as the corridor continues to boom.
Sgt. Jay Compton, who heads the Little Elm Police Department’s traffic division, said the number of accidents near Braswell has inched up since last year.
In September, October and November of 2015, the department handled nine accidents, with one occurring at the intersection of U.S. 380 and Navo Road. That number went up to 10 accidents in the same time period this year and two accidents were reported at the Navo Road crossing.
Compton said officers have stepped up enforcement around the school. In 2015, police issued 89 citations on U.S. 380 near Navo, but that number more than doubled to 228 this year.
Marked crosswalks and pedestrian signals have been added to the intersection at Navo Road while the Texas Department of Transportation makes plans to widen the highway in an $80 million project.
The finished product is still years away, though. Officials expect construction to begin in spring 2018 and wrap up by 2021, but the schedule depends on funding.
“We think that [widening the road] will assist in safety of everyone,” Compton said. “But with the uncertainty of when it’s coming, we do what we can to make the highway safe for everyone.”
With more highway traffic comes more businesses and more customers for the U.S. 380 Corridor. Some owners said sales have spiked since construction on Braswell began.
The Exxon Icebox gas station sits across Navo Road from the high school. Construction workers enjoy eating lunch there, but students provide the bulk of the convenience store’s business before and after school.
“Before, it was a lot of construction people who came in, but now we see a lot of kids come in to get breakfast or get a snack after school,” said store owner Shelli Maso.
One particular item appeals more to the younger crowd.
“We sell so much candy,” she said. “I just had to put another order in today.”
Back toward Denton on U.S. 380, It’s a Burger restaurant serves lunch to families decked out in Braswell apparel. Thomas Lamarche, the general manager, belongs to the Braswell campus leadership committee. He does what he can to help out, including sponsoring events and hosting fundraisers.
“The schools have had a very positive impact on business,” he said. “Parents are constantly bringing their kids to the restaurant.”
As the area continues to grow and thrive, Lamarche said he sees “numerous opportunities” on the horizon for business owners.
“The possibilities are endless as long as everyone maintains a positive attitude,” he said.
Before Braswell, families along the U.S. 380 Corridor were divided. Some parents slapped Ryan Raider bumper stickers on their cars while their neighbors displayed Denton Bronco yard signs.
“We all attended the same elementary schools and then we all moved to Navo, so these kids grew up together,” Braswell Parent-Teacher-Student Association president Cindy Carmack said. “Then all of a sudden, they had to split and go to different high schools. And not just different high schools, but rival high schools.”
The Carmacks moved to the Paloma Creek South neighborhood in 2006 and enrolled all seven of their children in Denton ISD. They spent many hours battling traffic on the 14-mile trip to Denton High School.
“We were excited when Braswell was approved and was being built because we had been told that by 2009, there would be a high school out there,” Carmack said.
As completion of the building inched closer, a sense of elation settled in the Carmack household. But it was tough, she said, bringing together families from two schools to make one Braswell community.
“The first semester has been interesting,” Carmack said. “We’ve had some hiccups with sports and things like that.”
Currently, Braswell only houses ninth through 11th grades, but still competes against teams with senior players. Coaches have struggled to mesh the styles and personalities of previous Denton and Ryan players, Carmack said.
“At the first football game, I just went, ‘Wow. We’re in trouble,’” she said. “But as we’ve watched it over the season, they really came together and started working as a team.”
Other teams and organizations have found success more quickly. The girls varsity cross-country team took first in their district this year, the marching band received a superior rating at its regional contest, and the International Thespian Society named two Braswell students as national qualifiers at the state competition.
Carmack said that camaraderie in the halls shifted once the school had its “BeComing” pep rally, the Braswell version of homecoming, in the newly finished competition gym. Painted banners line the halls, and students are about to get fitted for letter jackets.
There’s still competitiveness between households as some parents opted to keep their kids in Denton High or Ryan High for their senior year, Carmack said, but most families have come together to support Braswell.
“It’s important for us to feel like a community since we’re kind of isolated from everything,” she said. “It all starts with the schools, as far as I’m concerned.”
Denton ISD officials face more school construction projects in the 380 Corridor — at least one more middle school and several elementary schools. Even so, Guajardo predicts the high school will serve as the community’s cornerstone for years to come.
“We’re already seeing spurts of brilliance in sports and fine arts,” she said. “I think we’re well on our way to building a legacy that people can look back on with pride.”
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.