EDENTON — Faculty at John A. Holmes High School had 15 million reasons to be excited by state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson’s visit Wednesday.
In a surprise announcement, Johnson presented school officials a check for $15 million to build a new state-of-the-art Holmes High School.
Johnson said prior to his visit that the check presentation was a surprise and that Principal Stephen Wood and Edenton-Chowan Schools Superintendent Michael Sasscer did not know the reason for his visit.
The announcement was made in the school gymnasium, where the mask-clad faculty was spread out across the bleachers for social distancing. Johnson addressed the audience from behind a podium at the opposite side of the gym.
“I think I have probably kept the administration on the edge of their seats for a number of days now,” Johnson said, before turning to Wood. “Principal Wood, how old is this school?”
Wood replied that Holmes is 70 years old.
“There’s a lot of history in this school,” Johnson said. “But the bones of this school, this community, deserve something state of the art, something new.”
Johnson, reaching for the check inside his suit jacket pocket, then called Sasscer and Wood to the podium.
“I am very excited to be able to present to you all $15 million,” he said, pausing while the audience cheered and applauded. “To build your brand-new high school.”
Sasscer and Wood pumped their fists as they approached Johnson.
“It is truly just an honor and a privilege I have as state superintendent to do this for you, but I am so thrilled that you all will be the ones who get to enjoy this, hopefully as soon as just four years from now,” Johnson said.
Sasscer, after accepting the check, thanked Johnson and looked to the faculty.
“This is yours. This is our John A. Holmes,” Sasscer said. “To have this opportunity right here, right now to design something that will certainly impact generations to come.”
Wood concluded the presentation by reminding those present about the many discussions school officials have had about a new high school.
“We’ve talked about it long enough. Let’s make this happen,” Wood said. “Let’s take the old and not put it in the new. Let’s bring the new and put it in the new.”
The principal was referring to the many instances where renovations and upgrades were made to the original building.
Wood mentioned an old couch at the school that he said his teachers often hear him talk about.
“We’re not taking that old couch into the new house,” he said, adding his teachers have often heard him talk about the future of education at Holmes.
“What are we going to do to teach in the 22nd century?” he asked. “This is a start.”
Before the presentation, Johnson thanked the teachers for their work in getting the school ready for the return of students.
Under the state’s current guidelines, only elementary school students can return for classes that are fully in person. Students in other grades have a choice between attending classes entirely online or through a mixture of online and in-person.
“Thank you for everything you’re doing in order to help students get back into the classroom,” said Johnson, who said he is looking forward to all students being allowed to return to school.
“There are so many students in this state that are ready to come back into the school building and they’re looking to your district, what you are doing here, through leadership, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he told teachers.
Johnson said after the presentation that one lesson learned in the age of COVID-19 is that there should never again be a need for “snow” days. Since school districts have become proficient at remote learning, schools should never have to cancel learning for the day because students can’t get to school in the snow.
Johnson, who last visited Holmes High in February, marked how much has changed since then. He was at the school in February to present a $25,000 Milken Family Foundation Educator Award to science teacher Rachel O’Kelly.
Johnson explained that the $15 million came from state Education Lottery proceeds. He said the funding program is for communities with aging schools that may not be able to afford the entire cost of a new facility. The $15 million will be matched in small part by Chowan County, he said.
The new high school will be built at the same site as the current facility, he said.
Earlier in the afternoon, Johnson began his visit to Chowan County by stopping at White Oak Elementary School. There, he was joined by Principal Sheila Evans, Sasscer and Jana Rawls, the district’s assistant superintendent. Johnson’s visit included meeting several teachers, including Jennifer Attkison, who teaches first grade and is this year’s Teacher of the Year for the Edenton-Chowan Schools.
The state superintendent also spent time outside seeing how the school is managing recess time for children. Back inside, he stopped by the classroom of remote-learning teacher Sarah Girbach, who was seated behind a laptop computer. She is teaching more than 50 first-graders, whose parents opted for their child to learn online only.