Richards, naming committees finalize details of new high school, set to open Aug. 2024


Used with permission by Craig Mackail

After starting construction again this past summer, the footers and walls of the building are beginning to go up for the school.

Maya Waid, Editor-in-Chief

The construction of the new high school began in January of 2020, after the plan was approved in 2018. Today, four years into the project, Harrisonburg City Public Schools superintendent Dr. Michael Richards and his team have started to narrow down the specifics of the school. One of the main things Richards and his student committees have been working on is deciding on the name, colors and mascot for the new high school. 

After their work to narrow down the suggestions to the final seven, the committee will take the ideas to the school board in April to further narrow it down to three possible names. 

“On April 5, the naming committee, which has been meeting, is going to come to a school board business meeting. The naming committee chair, Cathy Copeland, is going to present the work of the committee. Right now, they have about seven front runner names. These names have come in through surveys from the community. [The committee] will give a list to the school board of at least three names they want considered,” Richards said. “At the work session in mid-April, the board will narrow it down to three. Then, they will get more input from the community when they announce the three options. On May. 3, they will have a public hearing and vote on the name.”

Similar to the timeline for the name decision, the committee has also been working on deciding the school’s colors and mascot over the past few months. Nielsen Builders, Inc. has asked Richards and his committee to make this decision by May so they can order all materials well in advance, since they expect shipping delays related to COVID-19

“This high school is being built in a time when there was a supply issue in terms of all construction materials. Our builder, Nielsen, is doing a great job of preempting any problems with that by being early. They have asked us to have colors and a mascot earlier than you normally would because then they can order those materials early,” Richard said. “The [naming committee] seemed like the perfect group to also suggest mascots and colors. Those will be finalized in the May meeting as well. When the builder asks for that information we can provide that so they can put it into the design. Normally, you hire a principal and the principal helps with the selection process of the colors and mascot, but in this case that is going to happen before we have our principal.”

As far as staffing goes, Richards hopes to give all current staff members the opportunity to choose which school they would prefer to teach at starting in 2024. 

“Principals are hired generally a year in advance of the school opening because they manage the hiring of new [staff]. When it comes to our [current] staff, we want to give them choices. We don’t want to dictate where they have to go. The first round of that will be asking staff where they want to go and what their desire is. We want to give staff choices since they may live closer, so the commute is better or whatever the case may be. To the largest extent possible, we want to honor those staff choices,” Richards said. 

We are trying to balance the two schools to have equal programs.

— Michael Richards

Although Richards hopes to respect staff preferences, he is aware that the new school will still require the hiring of new staff members. Once the new principal is selected, they will take over managing the hiring process.

“We will need to hire new people, too. The [new] principal will start the hiring process. In this case, we also want to hire a counseling director a year in advance because the two schools are going to share some facilities. We need to have a counseling director in place a year in advance to help manage that crossover,” Richards said. 

Richards also understands the hiring process will be a challenge due to the teacher shortage that has already made an impact in city schools. 

“[Teacher shortage] is a problem across the state and the country. Our HR department does pretty well with recruiting. We are always planning for the worst and hoping for the best. We just hired a consultant to help us branch out more in terms of helping us reach into more universities to get staff. It is going to be difficult, it really is. We are thinking of some creative potential solutions. We are talking to companies that provide virtual courses if we can’t [hire the teachers for the course]. We are also thinking of strategic partnerships with [James Madison University] (JMU) and [Eastern Mennonite University] (EMU) to bring in computer science graduates to teach. Since they won’t be certified teachers, they may not be able to stay with us for long but they may be here for a couple years.”

Despite their efforts to keep both schools equal, there are certain classes and programs that are only taught by one staff member and will need to be started from the beginning at the new high school. 

“There are some positions that are unicorn positions. [The current high school] has done a fantastic job of developing those resources for students so that makes it very difficult to fill those positions. We also have this idea that we may have a studio set up where that teacher can teach across the city [to the other school],” Richards said. “We are trying to balance the two schools to have equal programs. There are only a very small number of courses that would be unique to each school. For example, advanced fine arts courses that would require an auditorium would need to be [at Harrisonburg High School]. Advanced mechatronics courses that require a lab would need to be [at the new high school]. In terms of journalism, JROTC, band, etc. all of those will match.”

Since there is a high probability of students traveling back and forth between schools, Richards and city officials are taking initiative to get buses and transportation details ironed out in advance. 

“The city runs the bus and they are working with us very closely. They have already purchased three more buses. They are getting buses ordered now, so they will be ready later. We are not sure exactly how it is going to work at this point because we have a programming committee that is looking at it with transportation,” Richards said, “[Possibly], students would get on the bus in the morning and go to their home school to check in with an advisory and then they might get on a bus and go to the other school midday. They may do their core courses in the morning and then go to the other school for their advanced classes in the lab in the afternoon. It will be a bigger cost for transportation, there will be a cost for that, but all that stuff is being [worked out] now so it doesn’t hit the city all at once.”

Along with transportation details, Richards is also focusing on scheduling logistics with partner programs such as Massanutten Regional Governor’s school, Massanutten Technical Center (MTC) and Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC). 

“The biggest challenge is coordinating the governor’s school. MTC is pretty close and we have already worked that out. The big challenge [with MTC] is aligning our schedule with them. The superintendent and I work very closely together, so we are able to do that without much tension. Governor’s school is different because it is in Shenandoah [County]. Most of the students already have that situated if they drive to school. There won’t be much of a change regardless of which of our high school’s they are assigned to, they will still get on their bus and go out to the governor’s school in the same manner,” Richards said. 

Moving forward, Richards and his committees will continue to finalize the details of the logistics for the new school, which is now set to open in the fall of 2024. The next major milestone in the build process is the topping ceremony that will take place May. 6, 2022 at 3 p.m.. At the ceremony, city leaders and members of the school board will have the chance to sign the final steel beam that will be placed in the school’s structure.