Moving from one high school to two…can it be done?

Cathy Copeland’s speech to City Council on 11/28, in response to worried that moving from 1 high school to 2 would be difficult to do for our community. Short answer—it isn’t, but we need to move forward now rather than letting tensions continue to build.

Splitting into two high schools can be done. It does require hard work and dedication. It also requires that the town support the new high school and that mixed messages (the old will they/won’t they deal) eliminated.

In my examination, I concentrated on two high school districts. In Indiana, Hamilton Southeastern School District (Fishers, IN as the main city) had a massive population growth (10% every year since the mid-1990s). They built a $90 million high school in 2006; the growth still hasn’t slowed, and they are currently considering a third high school. Hamilton SE doesn’t have the same size restrictions to the city that Harrisonburg has; they are also one of the wealthiest suburbs of Indianapolis. So it has a different composition than Harrisonburg. But, in the mid-1990s, when the population started to grow drastically, they established the HSE Foundation, an initiative to have continuous money sources for the schools. The Foundation works to find and earn federal, state, and local grants. They have been extremely successful, and this could be a viable idea for Harrisonburg to start having a focus on how to bring outside money into the school district.

From Montana, there were actually a number of towns that had moved from 1 to 2 high schools within the last two decades. This article (https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/education/splitting-one-high-school-into-two-what-can-bozeman-learn/article_047c1c9f-f58c-55c7-afd8-202c83ae75b2.html) examined how Bozeman could learn from Kalispell, which built a second high school in 2004. Kalispell had difficulties that we don’t have. Their original high school was built in 1898 and, when a $50 million bond was issued for the construction for a new high school, $40 million went to the new high school and $5 million was designated for improvements to the original high school. In Harrisonburg, we wouldn’t need to worry that one high school was significantly newer than the other. The article gives suggestions for how to approach a transition from 1 to 2 high schools such as having an educational project team that planned for a year about the transition, timelines, communication to public, and more.

I found this research through several dedicated web searches and through discussion with my father, a retired public school administrator in Indiana. I think it also would be useful to look at Lawrence, KS. In 1997, they expanded to two high schools and, because the University of Kansas is within Lawrence, there are similarities to our Harrisonburg/JMU population. At the time of my speech to City Council, I had not fully researched this area.

I bring up these examples because Harrisonburg is not in a unique situation. We can learn from other school districts. The challenges they faced were not insurmountable. But they did have to carefully think about how to act. Our town will encounter problems (indeed, we already have) but we can’t let this dissuade us from a second high school, and we can’t let the worry slow down the construction on a second high school. It needs to be ready to open in the summer of 2021.

Imagine the research and the resources available when the school board and the city of Harrisonburg devotes time and energy to how to deal with a transition rather than kicking the decision down the street for another decade.

We need the City Council to make a definitive leap. Vote to go forward with the second high school so that we can go forward. ForHHS2.org lists why a mega-high school won’t work and why we need a second high school and why a grade realignment is not a feasible option and what comparable high schools cost, in addition to much more information. Every possible solution has been researched and debated, and our community deserves to move FORWARD rather than re-hashing why we need a second high school. Our City Council members need to deal with the issue, vote for a second high school, and let us move to the next step. Trust in the School Board; trust in our community; trust in education. Please, act NOW—in 2017.

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