Eastside High in Coeburn will welcome its first students this week. Stephen Igo photo.
WISE — By any measure, the 2013-14 school year in Wise County will be a very special year for the county’s high school students.
Three new high schools, already marching along the last two years under new names, school colors and the works, will signal the true beginning of a new era in the county’s secondary public education foundation.
After years of divisive rancor over consolidating six high schools into three, the result will be on display starting with Eastside High School in Coeburn. Finishing touches on significant upgrades to the former Coeburn High School will continue through September, but Eastside students will enter their true high school on Aug. 8, the first day all Wise County students begin their new school year.
Last school year students from Eastside — a consolidation of Coeburn and St. Paul — attended the old St. Paul High School facility while the old Coeburn facility was basically gutted and refurbished, along with new construction.
Workers will still be at it when Eastside students walk into their new surroundings on Aug. 8, but Wise County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Perry on Tuesday said the school division anticipates a mid-September ribbon cutting.
“We’re going to bring the Eastside students back. We will open the new school year with them back in Coeburn. We will have the vast majority of things completed and we certainly appreciate Quesenberry (the project contractor based in Big Stone Gap) and Thompson & Litton (the architectural/engineering firm based in Wise) pushing to keep things on schedule as much as possible to make the start of the new school year,” he said.
Mother Nature has not been very cooperative to that end, Perry added. 2013 has turned out to be one of the wettest years on record so far across the region.
“It’s been an extremely wet year. We’ve had an enormous number of rain dates that really hampered the construction process. There will be some elements (at Eastside) not ready. The new science wing will be one of those areas, and we’re working feverishly on the cafeteria and kitchen area,” he said.
“But the computers are installed, the laboratories are installed, new furniture is installed, and the phones are working except for a few other things we need to do there. The vast majority of the painting is done. We’re working right behind the contractors when they do their final cleaning and buffing of floors and that sort of thing.”
Paving on the main parking area is completed, as is installation of new heating and air conditioning systems as well as new fire warning and suppression systems and electrical and plumbing upgrades.
“All those elements are pretty much complete, but we anticipate we won’t do a final punch list with total completion probably in September,” Perry said.
Completing the new science wing at Eastside is the biggest ticket item remaining to be finished after the students return on Aug. 8, but Perry anticipates formal ribbon-cutting ceremonies to take place around mid-September.
For at least two Eastside teachers last year’s trek to St. Paul turned into a ball. Literally lots — and lots and lots — of endlessly, maddeningly, bouncing balls. The pair must have boosted local off-the-shelf headache remedy sales by a good bit.
Turns out the St. Paul classrooms assigned to Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Allyson Sutherland and Government teacher Judy Abbott were located directly below the gym.
“Last year every ball that bounced and every pair of feet that jumped and hit the floor was on our head,” said Abbott. “And when they jumped rope, oh boy, jump rope, that was really your favorite, eh, Allyson? And to get to our rooms? We had to go through a room to get to her room and through her room to get to my room.”
Abbott made a cryptic sign declaring last year’s subterranean, gymnastically enhanced classroom digs in St. Paul as “Area 51,” but this coming school year the only thing alien about their new surroundings will be ... daylight!
It’s all brand new, superbly equipped, doesn’t include overhead gymnasium acoustics and, yes, there’s daylight!
“We have windows!” beamed Abbott. “We have real windows! We actually have daylight! And the computers are working and everything is lovely and it’s all working out so very, very nice and, hey, it’s just going to be great.”
Sutherland said everyone is excited to get back into their regular, much improved, home back in Coeburn.
“The kids are going to be really excited. The learning environment is so much better. Everyone is anxious to get started,” she said.
A new grand entry hall and lobby will greet students and visitors directly with Eastside’s administrative center straight ahead. Eastside bookkeeper Melissa Thorpe said having an office all her own to keep the school’s fiscal books straight is a godsend.
“It’s wonderful how this place is shaping up. Our (office staff) area worked out really well. We have a window for students and parents to check in, to use from the lobby without having to come into the office unless it’s really necessary. And I, finally, after seven years, have a separate office,” she said.
“I can’t begin to tell you what a separate office space means to a school bookkeeper. And let’s face it. We’ve been the traveling Eastside High School for two summers straight now, so we’re glad to be able to stop traveling and I can’t tell you how happy we are that we’re finally able to settle back into our real home.”
Eastside secretary Nora Slemp loves the new work room that contains employee mailboxes, the copy machine and other equipment, and declares the new improved Eastside digs “really, really nice. Two summers on the move and, finally! We’re settling in and we’re excited about the start of school.”
Meanwhile, construction proceeds apace on two new high school facilities for other attendance areas of the county.
A new Union High School arises behind the former Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap — a 1950s building that will be erased once the new facility is completed — and a new Central High School in Wise rises as well on a site just above the Walmart shopping center complex just off U.S. Route 23.
Those schools are the consolidation of Appalachia and Powell Valley, and J.J. Kelly in Wise and Pound, respectively. Currently the combined student populations have been attending the old Powell Valley and J.J. Kelly facilities while the new schools are under construction.
That construction is scheduled to be completed and the doors open to their inaugural student bodies in January. If things go according to plan — and Perry said so far things are pretty much on schedule in spite of the weather — then Union High School and Central High School students not only return to resume their school year after the Christmas and New Year’s break, but will finish out the school year in brand new surroundings.
“You know, it has been a short summer where we got out a little bit later (due to a need to make up snow days during the 2012-13 school year) and we start earlier. But things have gone well,” Perry said.
Besides the launch of three high schools during the upcoming school year, Perry said the school division was fairly well pleased with the overall results of last year’s round of state testing as well a range of other areas.
“We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made with our construction processes, and even though we feel like we made some difficult budget decisions early on, I think that helped us not to be in the financial crisis some of our surrounding school systems find themselves,” Perry said.
A 6 percent raise for school division personnel mostly covers higher costs handed school divisions statewide by the Virginia Retirement System, but that was better than having employees eat those higher expenditures themselves, he said.
“We have been able to keep our staff levels. We have been able to keep programming we thought was important. We are pleased to keep our instructional programming a priority. So we are excited this coming school year,” Perry said.
“We are going to be opening three new schools and we will be able give those staffs and students the kinds of facilities they can be extremely proud of, and we have other things in place we think will move us forward academically. So we are excited about the school year. There are always challenges, of course, but Wise County has an extremely bright future.”