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Charlottesville rallies around high school after recent turmoil

Charlottesville High School students received an especially warm welcome on Monday morning.

For the first time in more than a week, students returned to school after class was unexpectedly canceled for three days leading into Thanksgiving break. A week before Thanksgiving Day, a series of brawls broke out on school grounds, prompting teachers to call out of work the following day and the school district to declare Monday and Tuesday teacher workdays.

It was the culmination of months of rising violence and disorder at the school.

But it was open arms, not violence, that greeted students as they exited their school buses Monday morning, their return cheered by 40 parents, staff and other community members. It was all part of an effort to bring a sense of pride and optimism back to the institution after a tumultuous start to the school year.

“I’m not surprised by the turnout. Charlottesville sticks together. That’s what we do,” Nick Feggans, a CHS alumnus who now has a child of his own in the school, told The Daily Progress.

As a former Black Knight, he called the stories he’s heard of recent CHS incidents “disturbing.”

“But we know change is going to come, and that’s why we’re here today,” he said as kids walked past and into the school, high-fives and words of encouragement all around them.

It was an outpouring of support spurred by what some say is a broken culture at the high school. Employees have told The Daily Progress stories of roving bands of students in the halls, disobeying administrators and starting fights. Staff say they fear for students’ as well as their own safety.

Nonetheless, teachers have carried on, trying their best to maintain order while also educating the overwhelming number of students they say are genuinely interested in attending class and learning.

Two weeks ago, was a different story: They had reached their limit.

On Nov. 16, multiple brawls erupted on school grounds, and at least one intruder — and 18-year-old who does not attend CHS — was admitted into the building by a student for the sole purpose of joining the fray.

The next day, so many teachers refused to come to school that classes were canceled. It was followed by two more cancellations on the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving; instead of instructing, teachers had two days’ worth of work sessions where they collaborated with each other and administrators in an attempt at a “hard reset.”

But even the teacher workdays were not safe. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, teachers and administrators were sent home early due to a reported bomb threat after a student shared what appeared to be a photo of an explosive device with schoolmates on Snapchat. No bomb was ever found. The school district later said the student responsible regretted the post.

Nevertheless, teachers have spoken highly of the work sessions, with some feeling confident there will be improvements as the year continues and others asking the community to remain involved.

So far, the community is listening, as CHS has seen more adults asking to volunteer and help however they can. Monday morning’s welcome was the first part of that process.

The crowd included parents, alumni, school board members and other elected officials, including Mayor Lloyd Snook and Del. Sally Hudson.

“We know that what’s happening in Charlottesville High School right now is community problems being brought into the school. If there’s going to be a solution, it’s going to be a community-based solution,” Snook told The Daily Progress. “It’s not enough for us to sit there and say, ‘Oh, that’s a school problem. It’s a council problem.’”

“It’s a community problem, and we’re going to try to be a part of that solution,” he said.

The event was organized by CHS parent and former city councilor Wes Bellamy, who put out a call on Facebook for community members to join the impromptu welcome committee by 8:30 a.m. Monday.

“We’re here for them, and we’re going to make sure they have not only a great day back but also a great week, a great semester, and we’re going to be present,” Bellamy told The Daily Progress. “The community answered the call.”

Among those in the crowd was Sissy Leatherwood, wife of interim principal Kenny Leatherwood, a retired basketball coach, teacher and principal who has served Charlottesville City Schools for 44 years. Leatherwood was appointed to the position last week after the surprise resignation of Rashaad Pitt, who served as CHS principal for a little more than a year. The school district said Pitt left “in order to focus on his family and health.”

Principal Leatherwood’s reputation as a strong leader has preceded itself, and many parents said they are already hopeful he can get CHS back on track.

“He’s ready for things to be back the way they were. And I know things have changed, but kids haven’t changed,” Sissy Leatherwood said of her husband. “They still need attention, education and safety.”

Amanda Burns, who recently won an uncontested race for a spot on the city’s school board and is set to join the body in January, told The Daily Progress she’s excited to get to work.

“We’re going to put leadership in place that can support the great work that our teachers and staff have been doing and help the kids in the community that need it the most,” Burns said.

Solving the school’s ongoing problems, she said, could be a matter of enforcing existing policy. Some have been critical, teachers included, of administration for not doing enough to discipline students who break rules.

“And I think it’s looking at current policies and seeing if they align with what our students need right now,” she said.

As a parent of a CHS student, she called recent incidents of violence at the school worrisome.

“But I don’t think these problems are unique to Charlottesville. It might be unique in how we need to address them, but I don’t think they’re unique to Charlottesville,” Burns said, echoing school district statements made over the course of the past year that the problems at CHS are typical of high schools nationwide. “Whether it’s our students with their behavior, how we enforce policy, how we make policy, we can all do better.”

William Monroe was a CHS student in 1970 and among the many community members seeking to help his alma mater. He said he was there Monday to look out for Charlottesville’s next generation.

“They got too much brain power and too much talent to go through what they’re going through. We need to help them any way we can,” Monroe said. “If this can help them by inspiring them, this is what we’ll do.”

He’s one of many that believe the problems occurring in Charlottesville’s high school — whether it’s absenteeism, poor classroom performance or fighting — begin outside of the classroom.

“All your issues start in the home. If we can get to them before they get to 11th or 12th grade, we got a chance,” Monroe said.

Although Allison Spillman, who recently won a contentious school board race in Albemarle County, is not a city resident, she was standing with the crowd at CHS Monday.

She said it was important for the entire community to show support.

“We’re too closely related to not be here for each other, and I just think it’s really important for the parents and the students and the staff to see that we’re all one community,” Spillman said. “People are so excited. I think there is a renewed commitment. It really feels like a call to action.”


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