Dr. Debra Harrison, assistant superintendent of Upshur County Schools, discusses the proposed new Comprehensive Career and Technical Education Buckhannon-Upshur High School and reimagined Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School at a Nov. 30 public informational forum. / My Buckhannon file photo by Beth Christian Broschart

Upshur Schools officials say new CTE high school, reimagined middle school will transform learning locally

BUCKHANNON – The gymnasium at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School was packed Tuesday evening as folks gathered to hear Upshur County Schools officials sketch out a ‘Vision for the Future’ ahead of the upcoming bond levy election in January 2022.

Upshur County voters will take to the polls Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, to cast their votes in the special bond levy election, which, if passed, would provide $49.4 million for a new comprehensive career-and-technical education high school and a reimagined middle school that would also, for the first time, offer students in grades 6-8 CTE learning options.

If a simple majority of registered voters vote in favor of the bond, the West Virginia School Building Authority will contribute another $21 million to the project, school system administrators said.

The last informational meeting about the election is slated for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14 at Union Elementary School, but residents with questions may call the Upshur County Board Office at 304-472-5480 or request that a representative attend their organization’s meeting to answer questions.

During the Nov. 30 forum, school officials said the proposed bond would provide funds to construct a new Buckhannon-Upshur Comprehensive Career and Technical Education High School and renovate the current high school into a reimagined middle school. The school bond is for $49.4 million and the School Building Authority, upon passage of the bond levy, will add an additional $21 million for completion of the project, Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus said.

Stankus said school system officials are focused on a vision for the future of Upshur County that is all-encompassing.

“It doesn’t just involve children but involves our entire community,” Stankus said. “This is not just about a building; it is about a new way of teaching and learning in Upshur County. It involves learning skills, associate degrees for some of our students, and involves an economic boost because we are going to be offering classes for adults in the evening. This will also offer a new way of thinking about career and technical education and the impact that can have on the future for our students.”

Stankus said if the bond passes, Upshur County will be the only county in the state of West Virginia where middle school students will have access to career and technical programs that are now only available to high school students.

“That will open up doors for our middle school students beginning in sixth grade,” Stankus said. “Our students will be able to explore and find the things they love and the things they are interested in. It is going to change the way we are doing things for our middle school students. I am really excited about that; we are really excited about that because our students will have the opportunity to create and innovate and get into touch with their imagination.”

“I think that is really critical for our students,” she added. “We should always be encouraging creativity and innovation because those are the skills our future will require, and that is where we need to be with our students.”

Stankus said the SBA has already committed to providing the $21 million if the bond call passes.

“Once we pass our bond in January, they will move forward with the $21 million in funding,” Stankus said. “When we passed the school levy in January 2019, it passed with a percentage of 66.8 percent of the residents supporting the levy. That was the largest passage rate in the history of school levies in Upshur County.”

Stankus said when officials met with the PTO presidents about the upcoming school bond, one of the parents said, “The people who came before us did this for us; it is our turn,” in reference to building Buckhannon-Upshur High School in 1974. Stankus said this statement was powerful.

Assistant Superintendent of Upshur County Schools Dr. Debra Harrison said the school bond is about providing Upshur County youth with the kind of education they deserve.

“It is about providing an appropriate education for all of our kids,” Harrison said. “It will provide the opportunity for every student who graduates from Buckhannon-Upshur High School to either be college-ready or career-ready.”

“That is why we are taking a comprehensive CTE approach to education and working with institutions of higher education to provide our students with programs that will allow them to graduate with an associate’s degree if they are college-bound or allow them to graduate with a variety of certificates that will allow them to be productively employed in their own community, if that is where they choose to be,” the assistant superintendent added.

Harrison said the comprehensive CTE high school and renovated middle school are not just buildings but rather, represent a different approach to education.

“It is looking at what is really needed by our students and listening to our students and allowing them to tell us what they like and what they are interested in,” Harrison explained. “Once a student realizes you care what they think, their interest increases. Once you start offering them programs that are attractive to them, they are going to stay in school. The good thing about this is, we are going to be offering this in middle school, and middle school is where a lot of students tend to lose interest in school. With the new high school and reimagined middle school, our goal is to create an educational atmosphere that is unique in the state and truly meets the needs of all the students in our community.”

Upshur County Schools Financial Director Jeffrey Perkins said now is an ideal time to run the school bond because of historically low interest rates.

“Right now, interest rates are between 1 and 2 percent, where traditionally they are about 6 percent,” Perkins said. “Over 15 years, that will save us a lot of money. The other takeaway is that costs to continue to maintain the current Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School are not sustainable. We are going to have to do something and passing the school bond is our best option.”

Perkins said if the school bond passes and both schools are located on one campus in Tennerton, plans are in place to address and alleviate some current traffic concerns.

“The main traffic issues are at the intersection of B-U Drive and Route 20,” Perkins said. “What we are looking at is a traffic circle at that intersection which will allow for free movement of vehicles through the intersection. In addition to that, there will be an exit from the campus onto Route 20 that will be north only. Eighty percent of the vehicles that exit the high school now go north when they exit. By taking them out of the interchange, it will allow for better flow of transportation. It creates a safer environment because the nature of the roundabout or circle causes vehicles to slow down as they navigate that area, and it should improve safety and accessibility.”

If the school bond passes in January, Upshur County Schools will be allotted three years to build the new CTE high school.

“The SBA will provide the last one-third of our project cost – $21 million – once we pass the school bond,” Stankus said. “That is huge that we are promised that from the School Building Authority, and the director of the SBA told me he has not been excited about the curriculum of a project since he started his job, but he said our Upshur County School project makes him excited. He told me he was a kid in middle school and high school who did not want to do more worksheets. He said he wanted to do things with his hands – to be able to build things and create … he said kids want to innovate and to create.”

Harrison said a new high school and reimagined middle school will enable the school system to offer those new ways of learning to students.

“The students of Upshur County deserve buildings that will allow them to be the kind of learners that we want them to be,” Harrison said. “We want them to be able to be in facilities that will afford them the opportunity to do a variety of things they have not been able to do. We are going to offer students the opportunity to not only leave with a high school diploma, but also an associate degree.”

“Upshur County schools have some of the best kids in the nation, and they deserve an education that is inferior to none,” she concluded. “We deserve to have every opportunity for our students to excel and be out there in the world, representing Upshur County in a positive manner.”

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