A cross-town high school rivalry of Lightning vs. Thunder?

A drone shot from above the new high school’s construction site in south Harrisonburg shows the progress in early April 2022. (Courtesy of Harrisonburg City Public Schools)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

The Harrisonburg School Board on Tuesday continued its efforts to name the new high school, and two names seem to have emerged as finalists before the board picks the name at its May 3 meeting.

South Ridge, which was the choice of the Naming Committee that made its recommendation to the board earlier this month, and Rocktown High School, which was the most popular name suggested by residents, appear to be the contenders. 

Most school board members during the work session seemed to be leaning in the direction of Rocktown High School as their preferred new name. The new high school, which is under construction, is slated to open in fall 2024.

Board President Nick Swayne was quick to point out at the start of the discussion that the board had no plans to change the name of Harrisonburg High School, which prompted nodding and laughter by board members. 

The naming committee had previously suggested renaming the current Harrisonburg High School at the Boards last meeting, and Swayne said that while he was grateful for the committee’s work, that recommendation “created a lot of interest.”

“We are saying, time out, there is no plan to do that. It is a recommendation,” Swayne said. 

And it’s one the board members aren’t eager to embrace. 

“We are not renaming Harrisonburg High School,” Vice-Chair Deb Fitzgerald said later in the meeting. 

Superintendent Michael Richards said he met with Harrisonburg High students last week, and they opposed changing the name.

Fitzgerald said Rocktown was on her short list, and other board members seemed to lean that way as well.

School Board member Obie Hill said he also liked the name “Valley View.” 

Richards said the next plan is to survey middle and high schoolers in Harrisonburg, giving them lists of possible names, mascots and color choices so they could also have a say in naming the new school. 

How housing can affect school decisions

While discussing the potential names, board members got into a wider discussion about housing development plans and how adding more people in the city will affect schools. 

Fitzgerald said she’d heard from community members who said the board might need to consider adding elementary schools to handle and additional influx of students in light of new housing development proposals.

Newtown, a nod to Harrisonburg’s first African American community following the Civil War, was one of the finalists for the new high school but could be a possible name for a new elementary school in the Northeast Neighborhood. 

“If all of those affordable housing complexes get built like the one with the 1,000 units up on Garbers Church Road, we are going to need a new elementary school sometime really soon,” Fitzgerald said. “And that should go into the Northeast Quadrant, and…we should reserve that name for an elementary school that’s actually close geographically to where Newtown was.” 

Richards said the development Fitzgerald mentioned was one of four possible housing complexes proposed for the city. Administration officials use forecasting tools from Weldon Cooper Center For Public Service to try and understand population growth, but it only looks at previous years’ data to draw conclusions about future population growth.

Richards said while the new high school is being built to allow for expansions based on possible population increases, they had always recognized a possible need for another elementary school in the city.

Referencing The Citizen’s article about a proposed 1,000 unit complex, Fitzgerald asked for meetings with those in Community Development and the Housing Association in Harrisonburg to further assess how their decisions will impact the schools’ populations. She said it would be helpful to have conversations about housing decisions that will affect where the students will need schools. 

“If the costs of the schools are not factored into the development of those new facilities, then the taxpayers are supplementing the income that will be made by the developers when they sell those houses,” Swayne said. 

Mascots and Colors

Board member Kaylene Seigle said her choice for mascot was either “the Thunder” or “Rolling Thunder.”

Richards said students he met with loved the idea of “the Thunder,” and they loved the relationship between the thunder and lightning — a.k.a. Harrisonburg High School’s Blue Streaks. 

“They lit up over that … They said, ‘The Lightning and the Thunder, that’s so cool,’” Richards said. “‘It will be the perfect storm when they play.’”

The color choices of red and black that the naming committee suggested went over well with the group of students Richards met with, although some noted they were the same colors as East Rock High School. Harrisonburg and East Rock currently do not compete but could if the new school puts both in different divisions based on population size. 

Richards asked the board for an information item at the next school board meeting to bring the surveys gathered from the city’s high school and middle school students, then call for public comment, and then vote on the new name. 

The next board meeting will be May 3 at the city council’s chambers at 7 p.m. 

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