BLOUTVILLE — The Wolf Pack is home.
Sullivan County's first new high school since 1980 has settled in along Lynn Road off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 in its second school year of operation.
West Ridge High School, the merger of Sullivan North, South and Central high schools, opened in August 2021 with about 1,900 students but has decreased to about 1,700, which is what was projected and for what the building was designed.
The school, which cost about $75 million, is in the middle of its second academic year of operation under the leadership of Principal Josh Davis.
The school's first prom in the spring of 2022 had a Ferris wheel. Davis during an interview with the school board when he applied to be director said he turned down the idea from students “14 times” as illegal, too expensive or simply impossible.
But he said sometimes your first or 14th response isn't the final one and the prom was memorable.
Retiring Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski, who has more than 40 years with the school system, also has had an impact on the school. She literally helped prep and open as a consultant after her first retirement before she returned as director with the retirement of David Cox.
However, she's retiring for a second and she says final time come June 30, with Chuck Carter of Hamblen County, who oversees career technical education for Tennessee, to start his two-year contract as director July 1 although he goes on the payroll March 27 to work with Rafalowski.
The school opened amid the last throes and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, an adversity adversity that people worked to overcome and make problems opportunities.
The last new high schools were North and South, which opened in 1980. West Ridge is among the largest high schools in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, a bit smaller than Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill high school.
The merged county school scenario is similar to what occurred in Southwest Virginia’s Wise County a few years ago, although none of those new or retooled schools are as large as West Ridge.
“It’s gone great to be honest with you,” Rafalowski said when asked about the school, which in its first year saw the Wolves football team making the playoffs.
Principal Josh Davis
“While we are not quite finished with our first year, I think it is safe to say that in many aspects our first year has been very successful,” Davis said in 2022. “Because of the many unknowns as we entered the school year, the administration made establishing a strong student culture as an area of priority.”
Davis said bringing three tradition-rich high schools together as one new high school would be challenging.
“We wanted to immediately create a new identity: a New Pack,” he said. “Our students, especially our seniors, stepped up and met that challenge head-on. The results of those efforts and their leadership were immediately felt in all aspects of our new school.”
Students embraced change and chose to lead rather than sit back and see what happened, Davis said.
“Our student spirit and love for their new school has really helped us move forward and create an identity quicker than we first thought possible. There are still, however, many challenges — many being faced by all schools right now. The effects of COVID are really starting to emerge in public schools, and we are having to adjust what we do in order to meet the needs of our students.”
Davis recalled the new school’s first football game on Aug. 20, 2021 at Volunteer High.
“West Ridge High School was officially born that night. Our students came together. They formed that New Pack and electrified all who were there. From that day forward, our students stepped up — especially seniors.”
Students began to organize clubs and spirit days, he said. They completely reimagined what Homecoming in 2021 should look like.
“The halls and the feeling of our school were immediately different,” Davis said. “Students began to describe the feeling as if they had known each other and been together for years. This momentum has carried throughout the year and had a positive impact on our culture and climate.”
Bumps along the way
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
The school off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 at 380 Lynn Road was to have opened earlier. However, a delay in final approval linked to some opposition to the school even though site preparation was all but done, a wet building season, and COVID-19 delayed the project.
After the project was all but complete, the ribbon cutting scheduled for August was postponed because of rain.
At that same time, a sinkhole or “dropout” appeared on the track around the football field, delaying the surfacing of that until this month.
The TikTok “Devious Licks” challenge also caused some plumbing and other property damage at the school, as it did nationwide in the fall of 2021.
An ongoing issue is access. The county highway department widened, repaved and improved its section of Lynn Road, and Kingsport also repaved sections of Lynn and other roads leading to the school.
Shortly after the first academic year started, a school bus rear-ended a student-driven vehicle, but no one was injured.
The school system is still working to get a secondary access to and from Henry Harr Road, and it bought property directly across from the front entrance of the school that someday could be used as a new access road going by and behind Second Harvest Food Bank, which is in the old Sam’s Wholesale Club building.
The school board in April may take action to do an online auction of an old farmhouse and property of about 2.4 acres fronting Henry Harr Road. The land may be split into three parcels and bring in extra money to be used for capital improvements, possibly including more access.
The school also has a swim team but no pool; it uses the Sullivan Middle School pool about three miles away and had used the Sullivan Heights Middle School until its use was suspended because of a leak and other issues that need repair.
The school board plans to consider repairs that could cost more than $200,000.
Athletics is a huge interest for Rafalowski, who taught physical education and coached in the school system starting in 1980 before become an assistant principal and going to the central office in 1999.
She also has been involved with West Ridge from the get-go, first on the staff of former Director Jubal Yennie when he got facilities studies going and completed, looking at the best path forward for a school system with too much space overall, but not where it was needed.
After he set a plan in motion for high school and middle school consolidations including the building of West Ridge and Sullivan East Middle, Yennie resigned to move to Wyoming to take a job there. He has since left that job and is an educational consultant. The school board named Rafalowski interim to replace Yennie and not long thereafter permanent director.
When she retired the first time, she became a consultant for West Ridge and Sullivan East Middle new construction while David Cox, who was chosen director in 2019, headed the school system. When he retired after two years, she again became an interim director before agreeing to become a permanent one again — but only until June 30.
In honor of her work on and for West Ridge, the building that houses the basketball gyms is called the Evelyn Rafalowski Athletic Complex.
Gracie McBryant, a 14-year-old freshman band member from West Ridge, died in an accidental camper fire at her parents' home in the Akard community just outside Bristol, Tennessee on Oct. 1, 2022.
Counselors were on hand at the school the week after her death to help students, staff and faculty deal with her death, which drew an outpouring of support from high school band programs across the region and helped a GoFundMe campaign raise money for the family for her burial.
SELECTED HIGHLIGHTS SO FAR
Among other highlights of the first year, select pupils at the school became student ambassadors, guiding visitors through the facility.
One of the first-year student ambassadors was Kaitlyn Lemmons, a Sullivan North High student who made the transition to West Ridge and was part of the first graduating class from there in May.
“Everything we do at West Ridge is so special and unique in its own way,” she said in 2022.
The cheerleader, also HOSA president and a member of the Key Club, Beta Club and Pep Club, said North was a great school but that West Ridge offers more programs of study than North or Sullivan South and Sullivan Central could.
In addition, feathers in the cap for West Ridge its first and second years include:
• 2022 Senior Cooper Johnson was named a Roan Scholar at ETSU. The honor includes a four-year scholarship plus enrichment trips and activities in the summers.
• 2023 senior Olivia Nothnagel, was named West Ridge's second Roan Scholar. She is a varsity tennis player, secretary of the Key Club and is a Beta Club Scholar and National Honors Scholar. She was named homecoming queen in 2022 and operates her own online small business, Liv’s Boutique, outside of school.
• In 2021, students Bethanie Haga, a junior, and Allison Bennett, a senior, won recognition in the Barter Theatre’s 20th annual Young Playwrights Festival. Bethanie’s one-act play, “The Robbery,” won second place, and Allison’s one-act play, “Surprise,” earned honorable mention, which put it in the top seven.
• In 2022, West Ridge students participated in the 21st annual Young Playwrights Festival, held by the Barter in Abingdon Nov. 14. The four winners were junior Wyatt Peters, 16; sophomore Katelynn Mitchell, 15; junior Angelina Fitzgerald, 17; and senior Bethanie Haga, 18 and a repeat winner from 2021.
Wyatt won second place for “The Standoff,” while Angelina won third place for “Mime Your Business. Bethany won honorable mention for “The Duel,” while Katelynn won honorable mention for “The Current.”
• West Ridge students are in their second year of participating in work-based learning with Eastman Chemical Co. and others, with plans to expand the program in which students earn credit and get paid.
• The 2023 Eastman Black History Month Oratorical Contest winners included fifth place finisher and West Ridge junior Reid Haas, who wrote an essay on theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander.
• West Ridge junior Jalyn Hilton-Abernathy has drawn the artwork for the annual Christmas card of the Knoxville Ronald McDonald House for two years in a row, 2021 and 2022.
• West Ridge junior Lindsay Chapman, 17, flew a plane solo with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Powley in October. She also found out in January she won a spot in the U.S. Air Force Flight Academy this summer and will have the chance to earn her private pilot's license in the program.
• Career technical education teacher Sally Shipley received the first Leader of the Wolves student award for the week of Sept. 27 through Oct. 1, 2021. The tourism and hospitality instructor also received the Kingsport Times News Teacher Spotlight recognition via a nomination by Principal Josh Davis.
• Other West Ridge Teacher Spotlight winners include history teacher Thomas Gilbert, who also was chosen the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2021-22; special education teacher Beth Quillen and most recently math teacher Krystall Wallen, who also was the 2022-23 high school teacher of the year systemwide.
• In 2021, the Board of Education held its first meeting at the school, in the auditorium, Feb. 4 and approved a $150,000 donation from the J.A. Street family for a video scoreboard to be in place at the football field well in advance of the fall football season.
Davis said the rest of the $230,000 scoreboard cost, $80,000, was raised from other donations and work by the West Ridge athletic boosters. The school’s audio visual productions students, taught by Jason Sanderford, will do video of football, including for the scoreboard, and already are doing it for basketball.
• The ribbon cutting, delayed from August because of rain, occurred Nov. 11, 2021 and included a Veterans Day tribute, as well as a visit from former school board member Jerry Greene of Bristol. Greene and former board member Dan Wells of Kingsport were among school board members who supported the school; Wells was narrowly defeated in his re-election quest shortly after that vote.
FIRST-YEAR, SECOND-YEAR LEGACIES
In years to come, the legacy of West Ridge will grow, but the first two years, warts and all, never can be repeated.
“We are unified as one. We are West Ridge,” 2021-22 Student Body President Gracie Olinger said at the ribbon cutting, which was followed by an open house.
“It’s hard to pick who was a (Sullivan Central) Cougar, who was a (Sullivan North) Raider and who was a (South) Rebel,” said football player Fletcher Gibson, a senior who went to South until this school year.
“When we started out, I was not into it. I wanted to stay at South,” said Fletcher, who like Olinger and Benjamin Novak served on the school naming committee. “Coming to know the football team is like introducing a whole new family into my life.”
Some adults agreed.
“I had a vision of what this could be. It turned out so much better,” Sullivan County school board Vice Chairman Michael Hughes said of the $75 million school.
Rafalowski quoted President Abraham Lincoln, saying the best way to predict the future is to create it.
And county Mayor Richard Venable paraphrased an old saying about a house not being a home until the family lives there by saying, “A building is not a school until the family moves in.”
The West Ridge Wolves, it seems, have moved in and settled in to their home on Lynn Road.