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Watch Now: ‘This will be their legacy’: Inside West Ridge on the cusp of opening

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — West Ridge High School began in 2014 as a nameless possibility: an option on the table as Sullivan County school leaders began exploring how to address declining student enrollment at the county’s four aging high schools.

By late 2015, it had graduated to a commitment: a cutting-edge facility the Sullivan County Board of Education agreed to build to replace Sullivan Central, North and South high schools.

Watch Now: The road to West Ridge: Officials discuss improvements to access road

It became a physical destination in 2017, when the school board bought a 115-acre patch of land in Blountville, just off Interstate 81. The name and wolf mascot arrived the following year, as the property transformed into an ant hill of construction activity.

Evelyn Rafalowski, the director of Sullivan County Schools, talks about how students will drive the school's identity and success once its doors open to students Monday.

On Monday, when West Ridge finally opens to students, they’ll step inside the nearly finished product: a $75 million, 305,000-square-foot space offering dozens of advanced placement, career and technical education and college credit courses, two gyms, an innovative study lounge and, everywhere, natural light pouring in through its hundreds of windows. It’s the county’s first high school in more than 40 years.

Since the beginning, the new school has generated disagreement and confusion as well as excitement and praise. There were the complaints that the school system’s North zone was overlooked during the initial consolidation planning, and the false alarms about sinkholes on the school property. There are the parents frustrated and worried about the distance and safety of their children’s new commutes. And, like an epic with no ending, there has been the yearslong feud between the school board and Sullivan County Commission over what seems like every penny earmarked for West Ridge.

But for the people preparing for the school’s opening, all of that clamor has been pushed to the background by the swarm of final logistics: HVAC system installation and floor cleaning, staff training and student schedules, traffic direction and emergency drills. Looming over their task lists is the ultimate question: What will the students for whom this school was built think of it?

“In the end, they will set the tone for this new school,” Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said recently. “Once the doors open, I think the students who enter these halls — this will be their legacy.”

The architect (July 21, 19 days to opening)

On July 21, the entrance driveway to West Ridge was braided in dirt tracks from the trucks and other construction vehicles still entering and leaving the site. But the administrative entrance — a mix of stone, brick and glass with a two-story atrium poking from the middle — looked just like the artist’s rendering of the design by CainRashWest Architects, the firm behind it.

In a conference room inside, Dineen West pulled the plastic packaging off a new chair to sit before a table piled with architectural plans of the building.

A slender 60-year-old with hazel eyes and a quiet, steady manner, West is CainRashWest’s president and the school’s chief architect. She didn’t seem to notice the chatter of a group of school administrators hashing out logistics just outside the door.

“We broke ground right over the hill here,” West said, nodding toward the spot. “That was pretty exciting.”

West said she’s been involved in the project since day one, from the Board of Education’s first interview with her firm, to the site research and selection, the yearlong design process, the construction and, now, the wrap-up.

In the last weeks before the school’s opening, she said, her big role has been ensuring that all of the tasks on the punch list — a master to-do list for the final stages of the project — get checked off. That list involves not just CainRashWest and J.A. Street & Associates, the main construction company, but also a host of contractors working on drywall, painting, electrical systems, plumbing, floors, ceilings, even sprinklers.

As of that day, West said, the punch list was complete for the front of the building, which holds the academic wings, and the basketball gym. The team was in the process of hooking up the food service equipment in the school’s massive cafeteria.

The auditorium will be completed last, along with some of the athletic fields, West said. (Not the football stadium and field house: She said those are ready and waiting for the Wolves’ first home game on Sept. 3.)

“I would say [that after the school opens] there will be a couple of months of what we call the final punch-list items,” West said. “Because, quite frankly, the building is the highest priority.”

Asked how many people West Ridge’s creation involved, the architect had to think for a bit. There were probably 100 people involved in the design process and 300-400 more who had a hand in the preparation of the land, construction and various parts of the school’s physical preparations, she said.

If student enrollment stays at 2,000, that’s a design and building crew equal to somewhere between 20% to 25% of the student population,

“This is the largest project I’ve ever worked on,” West said. “I feel really good about it. I’m excited for the kids. And I hope that they are as excited to be in the school, as I think the whole design team is excited to see them experience it.”

The director (July 27, 13 days to opening)

Rafalowski sat in the same conference room a week later, yawning. The plastic coverings had come off the rest of the chairs, a large TV screen now hung on the wall, and the architectural drawings had vanished.

It was late afternoon. Rafalowski and the school’s principal, Josh Davis, had just finished two days of orientation and team-building exercises with West Ridge’s new faculty. At around 9 p.m. the Sunday before all of that, Rafalowski said, she’d come to the school during a storm. She wanted to see how water flowed off the property, and whether it was getting trapped anywhere.

“[There was] one space where we had some water come in the door,” she said, pausing for another yawn. “But the flashing on the bottom of the door had not been installed yet.”

“We have a project manager, and we have a construction manager, we have a principal here and a staff,” said the director, dressed in two shades of blue, her dark hair pulled back in her signature bun. “But in the end — and I think it’s just my personality — I feel like I shoulder it. In the end, if there’s something wrong, I’ve got to fix it. … [This school has] been something that I haven’t been able to let go of very easily.”

Her career trajectory reflects that. Rafalowski became director of schools in 2015. Even after retiring in 2019, she kept working for the school system as a consultant — largely, she said, to make sure that West Ridge was completed. After David Cox, her successor, announced his own retirement early this year, she agreed to become interim director and fully take the helm again after his departure in June.

BHC 08082021 West Ridge High School 03

West Ridge High School will officially open on Monday. Student from Sullivan Central, Sullivan North and Sullivan South will combine at the new school.

Launching West Ridge has involved not just finishing the new campus but closing and moving teachers out of the three schools it replaces. Meanwhile, the school system has also been shifting from five to two middle schools and moving students from the now-closed Blountville Elementary to Holston and Central Heights Elementary.

All of those moving parts have turned her brain into a task list factory on overdrive, Rafalowski said. When she gets up each morning, she said, the factory starts spitting out lists, which she works as fast as she can to capture in the notes app on her phone or her master list, a Google spreadsheet separated by month and week.

“You’re working to prioritize everything that’s going on and what you need to address, first versus last, knowing that you’ve got to give everything equal attention as quickly as you can. And somewhere, in the midst of all that, you grab a bagel and a tea,” Rafalowski said.

By close to 5 p.m., the yawns had subsided and Rafalowski’s pace was brisk as she led yet another tour through the school.

In an art room now filled with upturned stools, the director opened a door that led outside, to a space students can use for open-air work. She showed off the ADA-friendly kitchen, bathroom, washer and dryer in a space for where students with intellectual disabilities will learn life skills. She pointed out the array of different seating options in the cafeteria: high tops, standard tables and booth-style seats along the walls.

“This is something that I’ve had a lot of input into,” Rafalowski said, “because we’re not all the same size.”

The tour ended back at the school’s front, in the biggest learning space: a massive lab lined in smaller classrooms, all part of a branch for health- and criminal justice-focused CTE courses. The central room was still a jungle of boxes — “this has been the perfect staging area for us,” Rafalowski said — but hospital curtains hung from the ceiling of a side classroom that will be used for the school’s nursing assistant certificate program.

Rafalowski said that students who decide to go to college can benefit just as much from West Ridge’s CTE programs as those who don’t.

“Not only does it provide them a window into a career, but it may be that intermittent career that provides them financial assistance while they go to college, if it’s needed,” she said. “Our goal is, when students graduate, they don’t just graduate with a high school diploma. They graduate with a high school diploma and a certification, or a high school diploma and at least a year of college credit, or a high school diploma, a certification and a year of college credit.”

Rafalowski turned to an IT specialist who sat hunched over a laptop between several stacks of boxes and asked, playfully, “Burning the midnight oil?”

The school staff (Aug. 3, 6 days to opening)

At 9:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3, Josh Davis, West Ridge’s first principal, bustled into the school’s main office with a clipboard pressed to his chest, past the two receptionists now sitting behind desktops and a group of people seated on the new waiting-area chairs.

A giant iced coffee sat on the desk of his own office at the back. The 42-year-old principal said he doesn’t normally drink caffeine. Then again, he said, he doesn’t normally work 20-hour days.

Davis started his career as a teacher and instructional coach, then spent 10 years in administrative positions: an assistant principal at Sullivan Central High, a principal at Rock Springs Elementary and, most recently, principal of the North Middle and High complex.

“Nothing compares to what I’ve been doing here over the last few weeks,” he said. “I usually go until about midnight, one o’clock,” he said.

Then he’s up at 4 a.m. each morning for a Peloton workout, which he said doubles as a mental outlet and ignition for the next round of work preparations.

“I [have] the exact opposite of [a] spreadsheet brain,” Davis said of his work style. “I’m able to cast a vision, see the whole picture, that kind of piece of it … which is why I’m very, very glad that I have Ms. Rafalowski. … She kind of has the [details] planned. The minute details are not my forte — they stress me.”

Besides working down task lists with Rafalowski, Davis said his own priority at the moment was the new teachers and staff, many from Sullivan Central, North and South. All of them had started working full-time in the office the day before, but Davis said the two-day orientation the week before had offered a jump-start: some extra time to introduce everyone to the school, each other and himself and the other administrators.

“We did some team-building, we did some tours, we just talked a lot about processes, their questions, their concerns, what fears they have, what anxieties,” he said. “We built a lot of time for them ... to kind of process the space.”

Staff would split this week between unpacking in their various offices and rooms and going through school-wide drills and processes, he said.

One floor up, biology teacher Sharon Lisenby was busy figuring out where to put everything in the biggest lab she said she’d ever worked in.

“Being in a lab, there’s just so much equipment and things to deal with,” said Lisenby, 55.

At the moment, she said, she and several science colleagues were making decisions about glassware and a small pyramid of white, sealed buckets at the back of the room: animals for dissection.

“Fetal pigs. Frogs. Sharks. Cow eyes,” she said, then added, after a pause, “Cats. That might be controversial.”

Not everybody at West Ridge has their own classroom — Derek McGhee, for instance. The 38-year-old, who was roving the building that morning, explained that he’s a special education teacher who will teach using an inclusion model.

“It’s where regular ed and special ed students are in the same classroom, like, for math and English,” McGhee said. “And you shouldn’t be able to tell who’s the regular ed teacher and who’s the special ed teacher.”

McGhee said he’s been teaching special education for 12 years. But this will be his first time teaching Algebra 2 through the inclusion model, he said, in a new school to boot.

“I kind of felt overwhelmed [at first]. It’s like [being] a first-year teacher again,” he said, looking out over the learning commons from the second-floor cafe. “But then I just realized, everybody kind of feels like that, so you just kind of have to be patient and wait for things, to find out things, because everybody’s in the same boat.”

“It’s exciting to be here… It’s going to be really nice,” McGhee said. “I’m just anxious to get started.”

Come Monday

Davis said that any teacher or staff member who said they weren’t anxious was not being honest.

“Because ... this hasn’t been done in a long time, and, you know, we’re truly opening,” he said.

He repeated himself, as if taking it in from an aerial view: “We’re opening a new school for the first time in a long time. I mean, a high school. A large high school.”

Tomorrow, the principal said, his attention will shift to the 2,000-odd students who will start stepping off buses and out of cars, filing into the gym to receive print-outs of their schedules for the first semester of classes at West Ridge. Juniors and seniors will show up Monday and Wednesday, freshmen and sophomores on Tuesday and Thursday, and everyone together for the first time Friday.

Davis said he expects his own anxiety to dim once he’s greeting students inside the gym.

“For a year ... I’ve been the principal of this school that hasn’t had kids, and it’s been difficult,” he said. “I’m just not at a point in my career where I want to be away from kids yet.”

“I think, come Monday, no matter what the chaos is that is going on here — and most of our teachers will be the same way — no matter what we’re dealing with, when [the kids] get here, things will be OK,” he added.

Back on July 27, Rafalowski said she was in the same boat.

“I want to see students’ faces when they get off the bus. I want to see students’ faces when they walk in and they see the learning commons, they see the gym,” she said. “I want the affirmation, the confirmation, that we got it right. Because much of what the students asked for, they got in this building. … And I want to talk to them.”

swade@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @swadely

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