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Start over at HCHS / July 12, 2018

(The following is a commentary that Mikeala Skelton of South Boston presented to the School Board on Monday night. She made her remarks, published as a Viewpoint letter in today’s N&R, during the public comment portion of the meeting — Ed.)

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Mikeala Skelton. I grew up attending Halifax County Public Schools and graduated from Halifax County High School (HCHS) in 2012. Looking around the room, I seem to be one of the most recent graduates of HCHS present, if not the most recent graduate with the most recent experience of spending five days each week for four years inside the high school building. The matter of renovating or re-building the high school is why I am speaking to you tonight.

I’d like to begin with a story. My sister, Marynn Skelton, graduated HCHS in 2006. In the fall of 2010, she was in graduate school at the College of William and Mary earning her masters of arts in education. During one of her introductory courses titled Education by Design, her professor told the class that he was going to walk them through a slideshow of schools built with poor design for learning. The class would then indicate what they saw in the pictures that made the schools bad for educators and learners. The list of pictures went from best to worst. Listed at the number 3 spot, as in third worst, was Halifax County High School. Marynn listened in silence as her classmates began examining the poor design of the building: closed off entry spaces, lack of windows and natural lighting, restricted areas for movement, and lack of spaces for collaborative work.

Eventually, she raised her hand and owned-up to being a graduate of HCHS. Her class listened, impressed, as she described interior conditions even worse than those readily visible from the pictures. She described headaches from flickering lights, allergies brought on by pervasive dust and mold, bad smells lingering in halls and stairwells for days and weeks at a time, sounds carrying from classroom to classroom up and down the hall, cramped space in the hallways as students tried to change classes, and, worst of all, the daily blinding she received upon walking out of the high school and into the sunlight outside. She was not exaggerating when she said it used to take her all the way from the exit door by the band room to the stairs of her bus just to regain her vision.

I experienced the same conditions during my time at HCHS, with the addition of weekly cigarette and marijuana smoke inhalation caused, in part, by a failing ventilation system that would pump smoke from bathrooms where students would lite up into classrooms where the rest of us studied. I attended many classes in rooms lacking windows and natural light, an issue I regard as one of the high school’s biggest architectural failures. In college, I referred to my high school as a prison, which made my friends laugh, until I showed them an actual picture of the building.

It’s known that Halifax County High School also has its problems with mold and pests. In 2010, my sister, Emarie, and I helped move our mom into a classroom on the ground floor of the high school’s A wing. I wish I was exaggerating when I say that the entire room was covered in fuzzy, green mold. It grew on her desk, on the doors and on the left-over art projects. Not only that, but we found dozens of dead mice, mice droppings, and even the skeleton of a decomposed mouse inside of a glass bottle. Her first year teaching at the high school, my mom caught 23 mice in her classroom and has caught more since. Let’s also not forget the time Halifax County High School went viral after a student posted a video of roaches inside a girls bathroom on the second floor.

Over a year ago, my mom developed a cough. At first, we thought it was simply a cold, then worried that perhaps she’d contracted pneumonia, but after visiting a pulmonologist and multiple other doctors, she was diagnosed with asthma. My mom’s never had asthma before. Even more interestingly, her cough goes away each summer when she’s not spending each day inside Halifax County High School.

Do I believe Halifax County High School is making my mom sick? Yes. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the building making people sick. Teachers and administration have done what they can, but the fact that the high school building was poorly sited, in a drainage valley between three hills, results in moisture and occupant health issues that cannot be resolved by replacing finishes and/or reorganizing spaces.

I don’t believe renovating the high school will improve things in the long run. The renovated middle school may be doing just fine, in your opinion, but the original middle school building did not suffer from the same issues.

Members of the board, if you truly are considering making an improvement to the educational space for scholars of Halifax County, I urge you to knock down the current building and invest in the future by starting fresh.

Mikeala Skelton

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