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Bristol and ARPA: a new school building

Bristol officials are using ARPA funds to build a new school -- the first one in more than half a century.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Bristol Superintendent Keith Perrigan

All this week we’re taking a road trip across Virginia — checking out what localities and state agencies are doing with their COVID relief dollars.

Today, we go to far southwest Virginia, where officials in Bristol are building a new public school for the first time in more than half a century.

“But this is a constant issue with water…”

Superintendent Keith Perrigan points out peeling plaster in the copy room of Highland View Elementary.

“And in 2011, they told us that this school was functionally obsolete,” Perrigan says. “And so, since that time, we've been trying to make it happen and haven't been able to do."

By ‘make it happen’ he means shut the school down.

“Hey, guys, how are y'all doing today? Have a great afternoon.”

But they haven’t had the money to build a new school. So, in the meantime these students have plugged on through roof repairs, water damage and more.

"We kept everything rolling but we just didn't invest big money on those projects that we you know that you would do in a typical school,” Perrigan says. “Hey guys how y'all doing today?”

“And in 2011, they told us that this school was functionally obsolete. And so, since that time, we've been trying to make it happen and haven't been able to do."

Making our way through a crowd of kids, Perrigan takes me down into the basement.

“We’ve had a few little upgrades. But as you can see the original panels those are still in use.”

Those are electrical panels, from the 1930’s.

“Some areas we can’t even go into because of the amount of asbestos that’s there,” says Perrigan.

“That’s a big ‘Dangerous Asbestos’ sign,” says Noe-Payne.

But these are all things kids and families will no longer have to worry about.

Because a few miles away construction has started on a new school.

“Almost 100,000 square feet, all state of the art technology, we'll take you through there and show you some of those highlights.”

There’s a dedicated science and STEM lab, a huge space with big open windows…

“As you can see there'll be plenty of students plenty of room for our students to collaborate together and to experiment together and to do hands on activities.”

There will be classrooms with their own restrooms. Secure entrances. A courtyard with an inclusive playground.

Bristol will shut down three old elementary schools and open up this one new school.

Perrigan says he thought maybe it would never happen… Until the COVID-relief money came their way.

“So even though COVID was terrible in so many ways,” Perrigan says. “It really the funding that came along with COVID, open doors in the city of Bristol, that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

The city is so cash strapped no one will lend to them. They couldn’t pull together the $2 million needed for a down payment.

That’s why Perrigan calls the federal funding a godsend. Because they’re combining three schools into one they’ll be saving money on staffing. And those savings will allow them to pay off the new building over time.

About 90% of Bristol students live in poverty. Jared Rader is an elementary school principal here.

“I think a new environment for students gives them a realization,” Rader says. “They can dream bigger, because things become a reality to them when they're involved and in the middle of it.”

Carmen Harper is a former science teacher with three children in the district. Her youngest will go to the new school.

“And the thought of it almost brings me to tears,” she says. “Because none of my other kids have been able to be in a new school.”

It’s tough, she says, when they travel for sports and see some of the fancier buildings in central and northern Virginia.

“Even just a squeaky clean entryway or you know, it being with windows and sun coming in and open areas and areas where kids can collaborate,” Harper says. “The fact that my youngest will get to have that, the fact that it will be something that she’ll get to look back at and be proud that she went to that school. It's a game changer.”

Bristol’s newest school is on track to open for the 2024 school year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Corrected: June 20, 2023 at 8:44 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect photo caption.
Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.
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