Any time there is talk of building a new school, there is inevitable controversy. Make no mistake, the discourse of addressing the high school facility is fair, and the robust dialogue is healthy for our community.
The discussion regarding the high school is perhaps the biggest decision our county has faced this century. While the construction of a facility has been the focal point, there are also incredible achievements that are occurring right now within the high school that are a result of an outstanding faculty and staff, community partners, and most importantly, the students who are capable of competing anywhere in the world.
The 2018-2019 school year marks a year of outstanding achievement for the high school, and it behooves us to step away from the talk of facility for a moment and share the accomplishments of our Blue Comets.
Halifax County High School students have excelled in sports, technology, the arts and in career and college preparation.
We were all thrilled by Coach Sterling Williams’ high flying Comets as they made a run deep into the state play-offs.
We can visibly see the spirit created by Domonic Stephens’ high stepping marching band who performs at many civic and school events all over the county, and we can take pride in the resurrection of our drama program.
Both the girls and boys tennis teams won district titles this year. In fact, the boys team will be advancing to state competition this week.
The track team is sending athletes to state competition, and our baseball and softball teams are poised for state championship runs.
Many of our seniors have earned acceptance to UVA, Virginia Tech, ODU, JMU, Longwood, VCU and other outstanding universities.
HCHS teachers continue to increase rigor and real world applications in their curricula. All of these programs are visible to the public and part of a well-rounded high school.
Beyond these programs that are visible to the public, there are also a number of other programs that are exceptional and that are a driving force for making our community vital. Perhaps the highest achieving program in our school division is the CometBots.
The Halifax County High School robotics team competes at the very highest level of robotics against some of the most noted localities in the country. Recently, our CometBots competed just outside our nation’s capital at George Mason University. The CometBots took top honors in engineering design and earned a prestigious second trip to the World Robotics Championship in Detroit, Michigan. The CometBots students demonstrated exceptional prowess in design and created a robot that was extraordinary. The skills of collaborating to build a robot and competing against students from across the country must be attractive to employers in our community. In fact, several of our largest employers are CometBot sponsors and partners including the Industrial Development Authority, Microsoft, Sentara Health, Mid-Atlantic Broadband, Long and Foster Realty and Dominion Power among others.
Speaking of creating jobs in the community, our culinary arts program is excelling and preparing graduates to enter a growing hospitality industry in Halifax County that includes some of the commonwealth’s best eateries.
Recently, our Comet culinary students competed in the state competition, where three students took top honors, earning a trip to Anaheim, California, to compete and learn with students from across the nation.
Perhaps even more interesting is that the culinary arts program is beginning to partner with programs within the school such as our agriculture program to reach out to the community in benevolent ways. This program moves well beyond the skill of cooking and prepares our students for careers in hospitality.
During the hurricanes last fall, the instructor and other volunteers fed hundreds of Halifax County citizens who lost power during the devastating storms.
Along with the growth of culinary arts, our welding program also is thriving. Two seniors, Nelson Conner and Isaiah Witcher, were selected by ABB and became Halifax County High School’s first two registered apprentices. This is a great opportunity for these two young men as they begin their welding careers while still in high school. In addition to a full-time job after graduation, they will be able to continue their education to complete a two-year degree from SVCC with all expenses paid.
One HCHS junior, Jared Dawson, earned a career studies certificate in mechatronics by enrolling in the Career Tech Academy at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.
One of our new programs this year is the Halifax County High School leadership class. This class was intentionally built as conversation began in the community-wide strategic plan that our county needed not only to develop leaders but also to be intentional in attracting the best and brightest students to come back to our county.
Our leadership class is beginning to change the culture of the school and the community. Our students work hand-in-hand with community leaders to examine and collaborate on issues in our county.
One outstanding example of the success of the leadership class is student Jillian Waller who began advocating for a new high school without being prompted. Jillian tirelessly worked to gain the facts regarding our high school needs and began advocating for House Bill 1634, which gives Halifax County the opportunity of local option sales tax that will pay a significant portion of the cost for building a new high school to meet the needs of 21st century students and society.
Members of the general assembly provided profuse praise in recognizing such a student advocate and indicated that her voice was central to their vote.
In terms of community partnerships, our high school has developed a productive partnership with the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and our neighboring counties. The SVHEC Career Tech Academy (CTA) is a hands-on training program available to dually enrolled 11th and 12th grade high school students from Charlotte, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. Students may earn community college credits, the Career Studies Certificate and other industry certifications in the information technology or mechatronics field.
Working in collaboration, the Career Tech Academy partners’ primary objective is to proactively support the establishment of a talent pipeline for technology and engineering careers in Southern Virginia. Achieving this objective will answer a market need for skilled workers that can support the job requirements of both existing and new employers. The success of the Career Tech Academy will be a mechanism for talent recruitment, business retention and business attraction.
During the past two years, our business community has made it clear that a primary focus of Halifax County should be developing a workforce for our community. Our high school followed their initiative and is modeling a workforce development program for our school system.
To be clear, we believe that we have students in our school who are assets for our workforce today and in the future.
Our Teach for Tomorrow program had 20 students most of whom gained industry certification to become paraprofessionals. In addition, nearly 20 of these students completed internships with our teachers this year.
In addition, one student who is a Spanish speaker became an essential aide for us at South Boston Elementary School. Yes, we were paying her to be an employee, while she worked in our schools.
In addition, five of these students will be paid aides this summer. Most significantly, we have created a partnership with the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, our local community college and Longwood University that allows our students to stay in our community for their education while continuing to work for us and benefitting from our professional development.
We are keeping the best and brightest not only in our county, but we have also created a clear path to keep them in our school system.
Halifax County High School is poised to partner with our community to meet the ever-changing needs of the workplace. Our principal Michael Lewis has been leading an innovation team for the past two years who is already removing the constraints of perpetual standardized testing movement and focusing on a model of student learning that emphasizes collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship and career development.
Plans are in the works to develop a health science curriculum that starts preparing students for careers in the healthcare field starting in ninth grade. Their classes will be specifically geared to promoting student success by designing classes relevant to this career. For example, their English classes would emphasize medical career research and medical technical writing based on best practice research.
The conversation of our high school facility will certainly be a focal point as we move into summer and next fall. As we engage in this dialogue, let’s take a step back and focus on the success of our students and staff and remember that our high school is not only a multifunctional centerpiece of our community but also an evolving program intent on meeting the changing needs of our community.