BLOUNTVILLE — Come Monday morning, Sullivan County Schools will open the first new high school in the system since two new high schools opened in the fall of 1980.
For context, that was some 41 years ago when a peanut farmer and a Democrat named Jimmy Carter was president and a Republican named Lamar Alexander was Tennessee’s governor.
The Ridge, as it is labeled throughout the more than 300,000-square-foot campus, cost about $75 million. That marks the largest and most expensive Sullivan County government construction project in history.
West Ridge High School, located at 380 Lynn Road in Blountville (off Exit 63 of Interstate 81), is the second new county school to open since 1980 — the first being Sullivan East Middle, which opened in January 2020.
Both of the schools were funded mostly by a more than $140 million bond issue the Sullivan County Commission approved in December 2016. But the schools date back to the DeJong-Richter facilities study in 2015 and discussions about the school system’s future led by former Director of Schools Jubal Yennie, who left for Wyoming shortly thereafter.
That study’s data pointed the way to a long-planned course of “rightsizing” the school system, which has steadily lost student population since Sullivan South and Sullivan North high schools opened in 1980.
West Ridge Principal Josh Davis was principal of North, which when it closed in May was Sullivan County’s lowest-enrollment high school. The school system tapped Davis to oversee West Ridge, which at about 2,000 students is easily the largest Sullivan County high school ever.
BACK TO 2015
“This has been a six-year journey, not just one year or two years,” Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Randall Jones said recently at a work session.
At the same July 29 work session, interim Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski thanked the school board for its continued support of West Ridge and said she was happy to have had a “small part” in the development of the school.
Jones, however, differed with her.
“You had a large part. It would not have been done without your driving force behind it,” Jones said.
Rafalowski was director for much of the planning for West Ridge and after her retirement in 2019 became a consultant for it and East Middle.
The school has faced challenges, including some public and county commissioners’ opposition even after the contract to J.A. Street & Associates was awarded for its construction and the project was underway.
Additionally, the Sullivan County Highway Department has widened and filled in dips in Lynn Road near the campus so school buses can pass, although the planned driveway to Henry Harr Road and often-proposed new road by Second Harvest Food Bank have not been built. The school board is buying land for the proposed road project.
Meanwhile, Rafalowski has stepped back into the role as head of the school system, albeit as interim director. Two-year Director David Cox, a Hawkins County native, retired at the end of June after two years with the county system and more than 37 years overall in education.
Architect Dineen West of Cain Rash West Architects said she’s been involved with the project since 2016.
“It’s been very rewarding to see everything come to completion,” West said.
“I’m really proud of these projects,” Rafalowski said, adding that she is proud of the board for “fighting” for the school and that a grandson who will attend the school gives her part of its legacy.
In 1980, she worked as a teacher and coach at Sullivan North after it was formed by the merger of Lynn View and Ketron high schools; now West Ridge has been formed from the merger of North, South and Central high schools.
One of her fellow teachers at North in 1980 was Charles Hubbard, who oversees maintenance and janitorial services for the school system and has been a construction manager for West Ridge.
Rafalowski said the board made a “great” decision to put artificial turf at the new West Ridge field and to retrofit Sullivan East High’s field with the same material.
Rafalowski also said the new school’s natural light and Learning Commons addressed the two top priorities a student survey found when the school was being planned: “No. 1, natural light and No. 2, a gathering place.”
Culinary arts teacher Angel Welch said the school has the feel of a small college rather than a large high school.
Junior Kaylia Joyner, one of 16 ambassadors who will help acclimate classmates to West Ridge, said before cheerleading practice at the school Wednesday the more than 300,000-square-foot school is a “huge” facility. “It’s super pretty and I’m so excited.”
Another ambassador is senior football player Fletcher Gibson, who Rafalowski said held up the Wolf mascot head at the groundbreaking for the school on May 4, 2018. He also served on a naming committee for the school.
Jordyn Adkins, a cheerleader captain, said the football field and stadium is her favorite feature of West Ridge so far.
“It’s really nice compared to my old school,” freshman Karson Osborne said of West Ridge compared to Colonial Heights Middle. “I like that big wall in the cafeteria with the wolf.”
LOOKING TOWARD MONDAY
Juniors and seniors will attend West Ridge Monday and Wednesday, with freshmen and sophomores attending Tuesday and Thursday and all four grade levels in school on Friday.
Rafalowski said that gives the system an opportunity to ease into the operation of the school and address any needed tweaks to things like parking and bus routes and have time to get into the groove of cafeteria operations.
Speaking of the cafeteria, one of three large murals is there. The others are in the adjoining Learning Commons and the front entrance. Some furniture for the commons area, including shelving and the circulation desk, will be late and is supposed to be en route.
Before school starts, bus riders will enter on the Kingsport or west side of the commons, while car riders and drivers will enter on the Bristol or east side. It has large “steps” with smartphone charging ports and places to sit.
Once in classrooms, there are no desks per se but tables and chairs. Rafalowski said those are easier to move quickly and have been a hit with teachers.
Each classroom will have at least three marker boards and one tackboard, although some will have more. Classrooms have lots of natural light with windows but also have shades that when shut block much of the light and the view from outside.
Rafalowski emphasized that the school is ready to open, but she added that Building D, including fine arts, will be the last section to be occupied by students. She said the more than 550-seat theater and drama classroom will not be turned over to the school system until Aug. 16. In addition, the football practice field is not ready, nor are the baseball and softball fields.
She said those are awaiting the arrival of the correct sod.
Other kinks in the process in the past weeks have included difficulty in getting materials — even some paint.
“Construction materials are slow. They are not coming in very quickly, and they are sparse,” Rafalowski said.
LEGACIES FROM OTHER SCHOOLS?
Rafalowski said physical education lockers removed from Holston Middle School have been installed at West Ridge, with the blue and black color fitting in with the West Ridge colors. Wooden benches from Holston also were moved after being refinished, she said.
And a design feature in the basketball gym came from Sullivan North. Instead of pushing back, the upper deck bleachers push forward, making a “wall” between the main gym and an auxiliary space on the upper deck usable for volleyball practice, physical education and other activities.
In addition, a wolf-head metal sculpture to be in the circle in front of the school was crafted by welding students from the merging high schools.