Sullivan County set to build first schools since 1980

Rick Wagner • Jan 1, 2017 at 2:00 PM

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” — quote by Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. president, used by Sullivan County’s superintendent in presentations about two new schools

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County education officials are working on some new chemistry or math these days. It’s called C2 or C², short for college and career ready squared or times two.

It ties directly into a new comprehensive high school with a special focus on career technical education (CTE), dual enrollment and Jump Start with Northeast State Community College. Advanced Placement and extra- and cocurricular activities won’t be left out, either. And it ties in with a new middle school emphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

To put things in perspective, these will be the first new county schools since Jimmy Carter was president.

Now that funding is approved and the county school system is moving forward with the two facilities, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said work will ramp up on the new buildings in the new year. Yet to be determined is the exact timetable, which she said likely will change from what was outlined in the facilities study that laid out plans for the new schools to open by about 2020.

LEAPing into action

“We’re doing everything we can to protect the programming of the school,” Rafalowski said Dec. 28 of the new high school, to be behind the former Sam’s Wholesale Club and the Shriners’ Temple, just east of Shipley Ferry Road. Most of the details have yet to emerge about the design since the site must be fully explored with core drillings, but the ideas gathered in meetings with current students, faculty and staff included more natural light and more collaborative areas, as well as more robust Wi-Fi and technology for everyone.

And flex labs, Rafalowski said, would allow varying uses as the needs and demands of education change over time; they also would allow interdisciplinary work between academic and CTE classes. Bo Shadden, secondary education supervisor and coordinator of CTE and STEM for Sullivan County schools, will be intimately involved in planning for the school, Rafalowski said.

The high school is to work directly with local employers to meet specific workforce needs; establish apprenticeships, internships, education cooperatives and other on-the-job training opportunities; and work with local higher education to become a stronger diploma-plus school, according to Rafalowski. The goal is to educate students to help meet the demands for manufacturing jobs, a goal of the Tennessee Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP).

The idea, Rafalowski said, is a high school diploma, plus an industry-endorsed certification; a high school diploma, plus a year of college credit; or all three. In an example of the latter, a group of machine tool students at East and welding students at Central last school year earned a high school diploma, a year of college credit and a certification.

Faced with what school officials called a need for new facilities in strategic locations and a low-interest bond market, plus about $4 million in debt rolling off the books, the County Commission Dec. 12 approved floating a $140 million bond to fund the county projects plus others in Kingsport and Bristol. Savings from the bond payoffs and a 9-cent property tax rate increase would fund the bonds, county officials have said.

Design, other details not yet known

On the design front, however, Rafalowski said folks shouldn’t get too intense about the preliminary schematic diagrams for the county plans since they will change. In a presentation to commissioners, she said equitable access to CTE programs is crucial to the school system’s future, but there is nothing concrete in the schematics.

“The rendering that you saw was just a prototype that was put on there,” Rafalowski said. “It will not be what the school will look like.”

Rafalowski said she’s already gotten questions about why the new high school schematic showed no tennis courts. She said she’s assured people the school will have tennis courts and probably two baseball and two softball fields. She said the plan is for the school to have a 300-member marching band, about the size of the Dobyns-Bennett High School football band.

Before the band or football players can have a field, however, the school system must do its due diligence by exploring the sites, including core drillings, and then negotiating a selling price through its buyer’s agent. Another question yet to be answered, she said, is will the facilities be single level or multi-level? And like any construction project, she said, wants and needs among various programs must be weighed against one another and available funding.

The county’s plans are for a $60 million, 1,700-student high school near Exit 63 of Interstate 81 and an 800-student middle school on Weaver Pike near Sullivan East. The former will replace North and South and also take in most Central students, with the others, projected to be about 250, to be rezoned to a renovated East. The proposed sites were chosen by the Board of Education in a called meeting Dec. 17.

The new middle school will take the place of Bluff City and Holston Valley middle schools and the middle school portion of Mary Hughes School.

North High/Middle is to be bought by Kingsport for $20 million and converted into a middle school, while South will become a middle school to replace the leaky Colonial Heights Middle School and the dilapidated middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8, the former Sullivan West High School. Kingsport will build a regional science and technology center at D-B and renovate North, while Bristol will build a new Vance Middle School.

Rezoning will take place across the Kingsport and county districts.

In the county, Rafalowski said, other changes likely would address the situation at Weaver Elementary School, which had to be closed in the fall for some repair work to shore up the building. She said a study will be done to determine the best course for Weaver. Originally, the school was to transfer to the Holston Valley building, but another option is for its students to be absorbed among existing elementary schools in that area.