For the last time for the foreseeable future, buses carrying Huntington Middle School students pulled out of the parking lot at 3401 Orcutt Ave. on Thursday afternoon, leaving the historic building behind.
Teachers and staff members waved goodbye to their students for the summer — or for good — for one last time, some crying, some cheering and many doing both at the same time.
It was a “bittersweet” day, many staff members said, as possibly the last students to attend Huntington Middle School moved on from the school, which is to be closed June 28.
Some of the students who were promoted to ninth grade on Thursday will move on to Heritage High School as freshmen, while many of the remaining Huntington students will move into the new wing at Heritage that will house the school-within-a-school.
There, principal Courtney Mompoint, assistant principal Cathy Bacote and about 20 teachers and other staff members will move with their seventh and eighth-graders to Heritage in a wing that is mostly shut off from the older high school students.
They’ll have their own bell schedule, bus drop off and pickup times, classrooms, labs, library access and other amenities, all designed so that middle schoolers have as few interactions with high school students as possible.
It’s the option that acting Superintendent Brian Nichols presented to the School Board after parents strongly were in favor of keeping those rising students together, instead of rezoning all of them to various schools.
Students who would have been zoned as Huntington sixth-graders were instead divvied up into the Hines and Crittenden middle school zones, with some of Huntington’s sixth-grade staff accompanying them there.
“We’ve gone through the process of what we should do,” Nichols said Thursday as he spent some time at Huntington. “A pretty long process, a lot of conversations with the community, alumni and so forth. So we’re excited to move forward. Leaving the building and moving forward to do the Huntington-at-Heritage will really make way for the next chapter of the Huntington legacy.”
It came to this point after the building fell into a state of disrepair that on any given day, several classrooms could lack heating or cooling, or a thunderstorm would mean that water would seep into classroom walls through the crumbling brick exterior.
Many of its systems, including in-classroom HVAC units, are old, beyond warranty or without viable parts for replacements. Completing upgrading the building would cost $22.7 million, and a new middle school to hold the same number of students is estimated to cost $36.9 million, according to a firm that surveyed all of the school division’s buildings.
The first wing of the building, a three-story section of which only two stories are used due to safety concerns, opened in 1932 as the city’s black high school, with other additions completed in the ’50s and ’60s.
At its height, the building held somewhere between 1,500 to 1,800 students, serving as the heart of the East End where football games with rival Carver High School and early morning marching band practices dictated schedules.
It closed its doors as a high school in 1971 and reopened that fall as the desegregated Huntington Intermediate School, later switching to the middle school model in 1981.
Thursday felt like the last day of school in many ways for the approximately 520 students Huntington held this year, starting with a ceremony honoring the final eighth-grade class to leave the school.
Superlatives such as “most athletic” and “most likely to succeed,” as well as many academic awards, were given out. About 160 students were promoted to ninth grade as a big crowd of their family and friends filled the auditorium for its possible last assembly.
Students grabbed sack lunches to eat in their classrooms while helping teachers pack up. Most walls had been un-decorated, and rows and rows of boxes marked “Heritage,” “Hines,” “Crittenden” and teachers’ other future locations filled shelves in many rooms.
A room that the active alumni association used to hold yearbooks, memorabilia and photos of prominent alumni was cleaned out, while many other rooms, including the library, held mostly furniture.
Marcia Little, who runs the reading lab, has been at Huntington since it became a middle school in 1981. She was one of many staff members who said while they were happy for the next chapter for their students, they were sad to leave behind the legacy.
Little’s daughter also teaches at Huntington and helped revive the dance studio that long was dormant before Mompoint arrived two years ago. It’s that kind of work that has made the school community feel like a family, willing to do whatever to help its students.
“I always felt needed here,” said Little, who was named Newport News’ Teacher of the Year in 2008. I hope I can still feel that way when I go somewhere else, but I can say this about the children: they’re so resilient. They are actually looking forward to it. They’re looking forward to going to Heritage. They’re looking forward to their new schools. … It’s like a new day for them, so having said that, I can’t feel down and out because I realize they’re going to be OK.”
Mompoint publicly has advocated for some time that the school needed to be closed and a better option found for her students, many of whom are on free or reduced lunch or come from single-family homes.
Test scores are low: 43 percent of students passed the English Standards of Learning exam last year, 52 percent passed math, 66 percent passed social studies and 40 percent passed science. The school is in its second year of having its accreditation denied.
A fresh start, without leaking roofs, will help, Mompoint said, although she said she was “heartbroken” for staff who were sad to leave the historic building.
What comes next is largely up to incoming Superintendent George Parker III. The city has allotted $2.8 million to the school division in the upcoming year to help plan the next steps for the building and the students who are impacted by its closure.
Many in the alumni association have spoken to the School Board and City Council about the continued need for a middle school on the property, while Mayor McKinley Price has suggested a community center with resources for the neighborhood and perhaps a workforce training component.
Parker will have to make a final recommendation to the board by March 1, 2019, about what should happen to the school site and buildings. Until then, Mompoint said she and her staff will be focused on the upcoming school year.
“We’re going to be impacted in a positive way, and I think that will be because we’re going to be able to focus more and not have so many distractions or challenges just with the building itself,” Mompoint said. “I will probably say that when I think of a good testing environment or a place where kids can just come in and focus on academics. …
“In a building of this age, it takes a lot to keep it running, so I’m thinking taking away those challenges that we’ve had to face just in the simplest forms of keeping kids and staff comfortable, that should impact learning in a positive way.”
“Call of the Vikings”
The Huntington PTSA is hosting an open house for former Huntington students and those in the community who want to see the building one last time. Memorabilia will be available for purchase.
When: 4-7 p.m. Monday.
Where: Huntington Middle School, 3401 Orcutt Ave., Newport News.
Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.