By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
After last week’s announcement by the Norfolk Public Schools Board of its newest budget, supporters and alumni of the Booker T. Washington High School (BTWHS) said they were cautiously optimistic about the future of the historic facility.
The board’s vote on the budget clears the way for christening BTWHS as the division’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) Academy.
Several years ago, the Board defined each of its five high schools with distinct curriculum offerings. It was then that BTWHS was designated an Arts Academy.
“The school board vote on the budget indicates that Booker T will be here for the foreseeable future,” said Ashley Avery, an alum and leader of the Foundation supporting the school. “The new curriculum sounds fine. But we hope the school board will continue to back up its vote with proper faculty, funding, and material.”
The budget includes continued funding for the rehabilitation and replacement of the school’s HVAC system, roof, doors windows, and other mechanical operations.
The school board reiterated its support for a feasibility study to determine the future of BTWHS, which was erected in 1975. But the building eroded over time due to a lack of investment in the school’s physical and mechanical operations.
Maury High School, the oldest of the city’s five high schools, currently is the subject of a feasibility study which has highlighted the school’s extensive structure problems.
NPS is weighing the costs of replacing the school or undertaking rehabilitation.
In March, in a review of Norfolk public schools, David Sturtz, a consultant with Cooperative Strategies, said the division operated 17 “surplus schools” in 2022.
Eleven of the “surplus” were elementary schools, five middle schools, and one high school.
This definition of surplus was based on whether the schools were below 85 percent utilization by grade level.
The estimated cost of operating these surplus schools in 2022 was more than $20 million. Over the last 10 years, Sturtz said, the estimated cost to the division was about $81 million.
If NPS continues the course, it would be operating 14 surplus schools by 2031, costing about $15.5 million each year.
Tidewater Park Elementary School was closed to students at the end of this school year. Those students will be moved to Ruffner Academy. Easton Preschool was also moved to Fairlawn Elementary School. Both of these moves were approved in March 2022.
The idea of a lone “surplus” high school, according to supporters of the continued use of BTWHS, is a source of concern for people like Josette Hayes and Avery.
Hayes, a 1979 graduate of BTWHS, and other alumni and supporters of the school, came together in 2014 as the Concerned Citizens of Booker T. Washington High School (CCBTWHS).
The group was formed due to complaints from students, alumni, and faculty about the eroding mechanical and physical condition of the school.
Hayes said she noted personally the poor condition of the HVAC system, the mold of the ceiling tiles, poor lighting in the school’s auditorium and the inability of the bleachers on one side of the gym to open and close.
Members of the CCBTWHS, like Hayes, constantly stood before the school board to voice their concerns.
This group and the BTWHS Foundation have raised money to support student activities at the school, support faculty and staff, and create better communication about the activities at the school.
BTWHS and I.C. Norcom High in Portsmouth are the only pre-desegregation-era all-Black high schools still operating as such in Hampton Roads.
The budget report noted that the overall population of students attending Norfolk Public Schools stands at roughly 27,000 plus students, down from 35,000-plus a decade ago. The division has been losing some 500 students a year as Black and white middle-class families have enrolled their children in private schools or in neighboring school divisions.
They also have applied for admission in school zones within Norfolk that are not struggling.
Today NPS has a majority Black student population, similar to other urban locales in the state and around the nation.
In the budget report, it was noted that while the NPS Division was losing its student population, BTWHS was expected to have a projected increase in the number of students.
The approval of the budget took place recently after a joint Board/City Council meeting which centered around the shrinking student population and adjustments in the funding needs and use of existing facilities.
Council members noted their concerns about the shrinking student population. Several council members suggested consolidating or closing some underutilized schools would be in order to reduce the cost and funding pressure.
Hayes said the CCBTWHS group is recruiting a national STEAM Advocacy group to help with the implementation of the new curriculum at BTWHS.
A feasibility study on the school nor the funding pressures, she said, will deter organizations like the CCBTWHS from keeping up their guard.
“Several years ago, the Dr. Adale M. Martin, chair of the Board, said that the city of Norfolk could support five high schools,” said Hayes.
“We hope that is true moving forward.”