Standing Together

Article excerpt

MERGER BETWEEN THREE HIGH SCHOOLS AND A TECHNICAL CENTER COULD RIVAL A BUSINESS DEAL

Imagine teaching at a technical center with a faculty of eight. Then imagine coming in the next day to find the faculty expanded tenfold and the place transformed into a comprehensive high school.

That didn't happen overnight in Rockbridge County, Virginia. But after two decades of lobbying and referendums, the school board succeeded in consolidating the county's three high schools into its vocational-technical center.

The newly renovated technical center serves 1,000 high school students during the day and 300 to 400 postsecondary students at night. Former students from Natural Bridge High School in the southern part of the county, Rockbridge High School to the north and Lexington High School in the center now have access to high-tech facilities and vocational courses all under one roof. The computer labs are so well equipped that the community college uses them by night.

The consolidation plan dates back to the 1970s. The county had bought land to build a comprehensive high school. But parents and students complained that it would too big and impersonal. Issues of turf and sports rivalry strengthened the opposition. "(The bottom line was) no one wanted to give up their school in their community," says Scott Hannah, the school's vocational director.

The only solution

Time and practicality were on the side of the consolidation's proponents. Before the merger, high school students had trouble finding courses they wanted. Regardless of their school, they were limited to the two vocational programs available. Travel to another school was out of the question since that meant a missed class period. And, most important, each high school couldn't afford to add more programs.

Faced with those obstacles, the county voted for the merger in 1990. Natural Bridge, the smallest of the three high schools, closed down and Rockbridge and Lexington became middle schools, replacing Brownburg Middle School. The high school teachers and staff either transferred to the new Rockbridge County High School or the new middle schools. The center was renovated and enlarged with the addition of a $13 million wing onto the southeast end of the original building, the Floyd S. Kay Tech Center. To top it all off, the pooling of financial resources allowed for the installation of a $250,000 technology lab, four other computer labs and a computer in every vocational classroom.

The school, which replaced Rockbridge High School as an SREB "High Schools That Work" site, opened in 1992 to a mix of reactions. Depending on where they lived, students had to ride the school bus for as long as an hour. Once there, they had to "start over" with students they didn't know. The administration encouraged school unity by leaving it up to the students to choose things like the school colors and football uniforms.

Parents were still skeptical about what Rockbridge County High School had to offer. For many, it was hard to see the closing of a school that they had attended as teenagers. The new faculty, however, was more optimistic about the chance to work with a wider range of students.

"We actually looked forward to it," says Jim Jones, building trades instructor. "A lot of students wanted to come to the center (before the consolidation) but couldn't because of travel time." History teacher Elizabeth Ramsey had transferred from Lexington, a school that prepares most of its students for four-year colleges. Nevertheless, she also was excited about working with the vocational teachers, some of whom she knew personally.

After giving everyone a year to settle in, Hannah brought the teachers together to begin curriculum integration.

Breaking new ground

About half of the 90 high school and vocational teachers went on a mountain retreat together at Doe Run Lodge. Divided into four academic and four technical groups, they took turns meeting to establish teaching criteria and common goals. …