By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal & Guide
Residents were invited to participate in two town halls as part of a feasibility study to give their ideas on the curriculum and other programming at the city’s second-oldest high school.
The study was the central focus of a 2019 resolution adopted by the Norfolk Public Schools (NPS) School Board. The resolution noted the division’s support to respect the school’s historic significance and devote funding toward upgrading the building and resources to effectively educate students.
“With the town hall meetings and what we have heard from the community, I think Booker T. will continue operating, with upgraded facilities and academic focus,” said Carlos Clanton, the interim Chair of the school board, who wrote and lobbied for the resolution three years ago.
BTWHS sits in Ward 3 which Clanton, a Maury grad has represented on the school board since 2018.
Several years ago, NPS devised a plan to designate its five high schools as career “Academies,” along with traditional core studies.
For instance, students attending Maury focus on Medical Sciences; at Granby, Baccalaureate studies; and at Booker T, the Arts.
NPS, Clanton said, will be devoting resources once the feasibility study is complete, to convert the school into an Academy of the Arts along with a strong traditional academic program.
Even before those meetings were held, the NPS school board approved $30 million to replace the school’s aging HVAC system and intensive removal of mold and mildew created by the inadequate system.
Michelle Washington, the NPS Director of Communications and Community Engagement, told the GUIDE, contrary to rumors, no funds other than that have been approved for the school.
She said no funds will be allocated until the findings of the feasibility study are complete.
“What we have heard at the town halls and from actions from administrators is that Booker T. Washington High School and its legacy is secure,” said Ashley Avery, Sr., a 1965 graduate and President of the BTWHS Foundation.
He was among a large group of BTW alumni who attended both of the town halls to show support for their alma mater. The Foundation has raised thousands of dollars, via fundraisers, for academic scholarships and to support the school’s athletic programs.
“The alumni, the community, and the faculty support the community and the school division realize the importance of Booker T,” he continued.”
Keshia Osborne-Brown, a 2017 graduate, said she did not attend the town halls but strongly supports the school’s continuation. She said when she attended BTWHS, she was keenly aware of the structural problems and the negative perceptions people had of the school.
“I was told about the mildew and other issues,” said Brown, who is now a healthcare professional. “But we were proud of our school. I am so glad they are finally spending some money…to upgrade my school. I want my children and grandkids to be a Booker and feel the pride I do.”
“It is really about time,” said Cynthia Watson, who was BTWHS principal from 2002 to 2009. “A lot of people are saying the same. We are saving so much history and pride. It is just a shame that we had to wait so long.”
Watson was the principal about the same time that Dr. John O. Simpson was named NPS Superintendent.
She recalled the school had many structural issues and Simpson, after listening to pleas from her and staff, invested some funds in “basic repairs to the HVAC system, some new furniture, and equipment.”
Watson said even when the division imposed the Arts Academy designation on the school, parents and the community complained that no money was invested to give the concept muscle.
She said the division did replace curtains, the sound system, and some broken seats in the school’s auditorium.
“Booker T. was not the only school that needed repairs or to be rebuilt,” she recalled. I guess the division did not have the funds to work on other schools.”
Simpson served from 1998 to 2005. Afterwards a quick sequence of superintendents was hired and departed the scene.
But with the current Superintendent and new Principal, who has led an Arts school in another division, Watson sees a serious focus on BTWHS and facilities in the division.
While school alumni and the Black community today are assured of its future, there was a period when many felt the school’s 115-year legacy was in jeopardy.
In 2015 when Yvonne Wagner was appointed by the city council to the Norfolk School Board, she recalled the extensive discussion about the future of the roles of the city’s high schools.
The 1969 graduate of BTWHS sought to inject in those discussions “what was the future of Booker T?”
At that time the school was showing its age. Student enrollment shrank as families living blocks away were applying to enroll their children in schools outside of the BTWHS attendance zone.
There were concerns about SOLs and state accreditation.
At one point Wagner recalled Board members were approached by a group of deep-pocket businessmen, who proposed converting the school into a regional career center of Hampton Roads.
The group was led by Tommy Johnson, a well-heeled lawyer and former school board chair. He led the effort to end bussing as a tool to desegregate the NPS in the 80s.
This bit of his history raised a red flag for Wagner and others concerned about the future of BTWHS.
According to her, a plan called for $100 million from this business group matched by $60 million from the state. This new facility would be a charter school, “run on a business model” and free of NPS control.
She said students from all over the region would be selected to enroll.
Wagner said she got busy contacting fellow alumni and formed the Concerned Citizens. It was composed of BTWHS Alumni, civic leaders, parents, and “anyone else concerned and wanted the school to assure the school’s future.”
“Initially I was president of the group, but I resigned because of concerns about conflict of interest,” she recalled. “But I continued to attend the meetings and informed them of what I heard about Booker T at board meetings.”
Wagner said she and other members of the Concerned Citizens and the leader of the BTWHS Foundation met with Johnson and his business group.
“What they were proposing was not in the best interest of the school or what we wanted,” she recalled. “:We knew if we signed on to this plan we would
lose our school.”
The regional school idea faded after that meeting, according to Wagner, but the Concerned Citizens, the BTWHS Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and its Foundation, joined forces and continued their work.
“We formed that Triad to give support and assure the future of our school,” said Ashley Avery. “We wanted to raise attention and support for the school. So many people feared they were going to let the school go downtown justify tearing it down.”
In 2018, the city of Norfolk abolished the system of council selecting the board and adopted a ward system of electing the panel.
“He replaced me and I handed the baton to Carlos Clanton,” recalled Wagner. “He seemed very concerned about our fears about the future of Booker T.”
At the same time the Triad conferred with Clanton about their concerns and the 2019 resolution was generated.
“We are at this point because we stayed vigilant,” said Wagner.
“We were afraid this meant the old Booker T would be torn down. I feared that the school’s history, pride, and legacy would be gone forever. I don’t think Granby or Maury alumni would give away their history and legacy and why should we?”