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Fire that destroyed school now considered arson

By: Elizabeth Dorsett Email
By: Elizabeth Dorsett Email

Investigators now consider a fire that destroyed a Madison County school to be suspicious in nature.

The fire broke out around 2:30 a.m. Monday at the New Opportunity School for Women off Chestnut Street in Berea.

The school is part of an outreach program at Berea College that helps educate women in Appalachia.

Kentucky State Police say they are now investigating the fire as an arson.

The building is across the parking lot from Berea Fire Station 1, so firefighters were able to put out the flames quickly.

Jane Stephenson, who founded the school 24 years ago, says she can't believe what's happened.

"It's much worse than I thought," Stephenson said of the fire.

Stephenson says while the school may be looking for a new home, its mission will continue.

"We'll have lots of support," Stephenson said.

"The school means a lot to me," explained Lillian Pratt, who watched fire crews work with Stephenson. "I graduated in 2000 and since then, my life has changed. I bought my own house, I changed jobs; that school means everything to me."

Pratt has been employed at the school since her graduation and describes the graduates as being family members.

In the nearly 25 years in operation, the program has seen nearly 700 graduate.

"The program isn't the brick and mortar," explained Director Lori Siwa. "it's the women, it's the graduates and Jane."

Investigators say they're focusing on some surveillance video from a church next door. On it they say they can clearly see a man break in, and minutes after he leaves, flames are seen spreading through the building. Kentucky State Police say they believe the man stole cash from inside and then set a fire in the building, possibly an effort to hide the crime.

Police also believe the same man may be responsible for a small trash fire that was reported on Washington Street at about t same tie.

The New Opportunity School was set to receive a $15,000 grant for new laptops this week. Now, school officials are working to find out whether they'll have to use that money to rebuild.

The school was once featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

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