It was hardly a secret, but it was surprising just the same.
Almost since the time they got to Huguenot High School, seniors Alexandryah Hill, Jazmine Hill and Yulmi Salgado have been watching a new high school rise next to their crumbling old one.
“This is amazing,” Alexandryah said. “Finally, we have enough space for all the kids.”
“I was hoping it would be everything they said it would be — and it is,” Yulmi said.
The $63 million school, the first new high school in Richmond since what is now Armstrong High opened in 1968, was quickly dubbed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones as “the Taj Mahal of high schools in the state of Virginia.”
He and half a dozen students cut a ribbon in front of the school at 7:07 a.m., then they and about 1,400 other people went to the gymnasium for a ceremony similar to a pep rally.
Principal Jafar Barakat, Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, School Board Vice Chairwoman Kristen N. Larson and City Council member Kathy C. Graziano joined several students in officially opening the school. Larson and Graziano represent the district that includes the school.
“The children deserve this,” Barakat said as he helped guide the students from the brightly lit cafeteria to the gymnasium, both of which front glass walls that overlook the school’s new football field.
Bedden said study after study indicates that “facilities matter in academic achievement” and that Richmond has a chance to prove it.
“Our commitment is, we will take advantage of the bricks and mortar to ensure that academic performance meets the standards of the facility.”
Larson said the building was a good example of what’s needed in a city where school infrastructure does not meet the needs of current educational standards.
While Bedden is working to improve academic results, she said, the board was working to identify other schools that could be replaced or combined so scarce dollars could be used most effectively.
“That work has started,” she said.
The 250,000-square-foot building features state-of-the-art technology, including a wireless computer network designed to prevent even the briefest of outages, a necessity in an age of online state testing.
Two floors of classrooms feature natural light and the latest in everything from whiteboards to handicap-accessible lockers.
There’s a 1,000-seat auditorium; a 2,500-seat, three-court gymnasium; and a 2,500-seat football stadium.
The school is the fourth and final of a group Jones pushed through after first being elected mayor six years ago. New Broad Rock and Oak Grove Elementary schools opened in January 2013, and a new Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School opened last January.
Money has been allocated for a new Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, but that project has yet to begin.
Jones said the schools prove what happens when there’s “cooperative effort” between his office, the City Council and the School Board.
The school is near capacity and could go over next year, if Yulmi, Alexandryah and Jazmine follow through on a playful promise to come back for another senior year so they keep enjoying the new building.
“They might not be able to get me out,” Alexandryah said. “This is my mansion. I’m not leaving.”