Decade-long effort to become a ‘two-high-school town’ comes to fruition

People standing on steps with balloons around them
Officials cut the ribbon to celebrate the completion of Rocktown High School at a ceremony April 26. (Photo by Avery Goodstine)

The cafeteria is the heart of the new Rocktown High School, with the academic, arts, STEM, and athletic wings extending off it. One of the cafeteria’s walls is a large window overlooking the patio with more seating outside. In the middle of the cafeteria, a wide staircase ascends to the doors of the learning commons—a library with study rooms. 

The arts hall features a TV studio. The STEM hall includes a spacious engineering room. And the athletic wing has a small fitness studio with sky lights and mirror-lined walls. 

Friday offered the first public glimpse of the school, which has been a decade in the making. Harrisonburg city and school officials celebrated the building’s near completion at a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday afternoon at the new complex between South Main Street and I-81. After the initial groundbreaking in 2020 and a year-long project suspension because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rocktown will be welcoming its first ever class of students and faculty for the 2024-25 school year.

The new high school’s classrooms are called learning labs, and have glass walls to encourage students to check out what their peers are doing, said Rocktown Principal Tamera Mines. She said the photos lining the hallways are of current Harrisonburg High School students, which she said helps tell the origin story of Rocktown because without that high school, there would be no Rocktown.

“We get to tell the origin story of Rocktown, and it was very important for us to be intentional about telling our origin story and understanding that it includes the history of a one-high-school city,” Mines said.

And for a city of more than 51,000 people, it is a big change and marks a key development, the officials said Friday.  

“We’re becoming a two-high school town,” said Deb Fitzgerald, who has been on the Harrisonburg school board throughout the development of the new high school.

There will be time for both schools to develop a Friendly City rivalry. But for now, Fitzgerald said, Rocktown’s opening is an opportunity to strengthen the community. 

“Our community needs to build the scaffolding within our families and neighborhoods, the supports and the connections and the structure to make a unique place for Rocktown alongside marvelous and magnificent [Harrisonburg High School], to build a relationship between the two schools that is healthy, resilient and strong,” she said. 

Superintendent Michael Richards began the ceremony with a speech thanking all those involved with the project. Current and past members of the Harrisonburg City Council and school board participated in the ribbon-cutting, as well as Brent Holsinger, founder of On The Road Collaborative, state Del. Tony Wilt, and legislative assistant to Virginia Sen. Mark Obenshain, Jennifer Aulgur.

“This space isn’t for us…It’s for students, they own it,” Richards said during his speech.

Students dig in as part of the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new high school in January 2020. (File photo)

Mayor Deanna Reed said the first city council meeting she attended in 2014 was about the overcrowdedness of Harrisonburg High School and was a major reason she chose to run in 2016. 

“This discussion has been ongoing for over a decade and our students and teachers have been making the best of an overcrowded facility until today,” she said. “I am confident that [Rocktown] will be a place where values of this city such as inclusivity and diversity are cherished and welcome.”

HHS was originally built for 1,350 students, Richards said, and it now has 2,000, so the addition of Rocktown will offer relief for staff and students. 

Students who go to Skyline Middle School will go to Rocktown and the students at Thomas Harrison Middle School will go to Harrisonburg High. Some rising Harrisonburg High School juniors and seniors will also switch to Rocktown in August. Those currently in the Skyline district will go to Rocktown.

Richards said he understands this change may not be ideal for some families, but he said he spent a lot of time talking with the Harrisonburg High School student advisory council to ensure the transition would be as smooth as possible.

“I think that we have a lot of trust in our community, and I think the large majority of people understand that no matter where their child goes, they’re gonna be loved and they’re gonna get the education that they need,” Richards said.

To decide which teachers would be moved to Rocktown, Richards said they did a blind study to assess the needs of both schools in terms of types of classes students would want and need. He said they looked only at credentials and experience when deciding whether to move a teacher, and they found that more than 85% of the time, the teachers were placed where they wanted. And if a teacher is really unhappy with their placement, Richards said he’s willing to “work with them as much as we can.”

Richards said the same classes will be offered at both schools, and the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and Fine Arts academies will extend across both schools. However, Rocktown offers some specific amenities, such as the dance auditorium known as Rocktown Hall,,that will be available to Harrisonburg High School students by bus.

As people toured the building and explored the facilities Friday, Mines, the Rocktown principal, said she’s most excited to meet her new students and for the rivalry to grown between Rocktown and Harrisonburg high schools.

“I want them to be able to say, ‘This is ours,’” Mines said. “We belong here and we can have shared accountability about making this school.”

Thanks for reading  The Citizen, which won the Virginia Press Association’s 2022 News Sweepstakes award as the top online news site in Virginia. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We value your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.