Last Thursday, over 200 people from all segments of the community gathered together to dedicate the new Eliza Miller Building at J. F. Wahl Elementary School. There are few moments during my time serving this school district that rival how special that ceremony was. It symbolized everything that is great about our school district and our community. We showcased a state-of-the-art facility for our youngest students while marrying together on one campus the legacies of two of the most impactful individuals in the history of the Helena-West Helena School District – J. F. Wahl and Eliza Miller.
The construction of this new facility stands as a symbol of how far the district has come. Six years ago, things looked pretty bleak. Many policy makers and political prognosticators had written us off. However, this community rallied around this district like the sisters of Lazarus in the Gospel of John and refused to let the district die.
The journey began with the appointment of Suzann McCommon and Ulicious Reed as the chief administrators of the district, continued with the appointment of the Advisory School Board, the hiring of John Hoy as Superintendent, and then the return of local control. During that time, the district had to make many tough decisions. Those decisions allowed us to reach the point where we are today where we are opening the first new building in the district since the construction of the Central High School Gymnasium in 1981. And as that building rose out of the ground, test scores rose for four consecutive years, the finances were stabilized, local control returned, the district’s reputation with many of those state policymakers that had been so skeptical improved, other smaller facilities projects were completed, and our patrons rewarded the district with the first millage increase in approximately three decades, which will allow us to soon begin a major building program to make our high school facilities some of the best in the region.
Today, the district and the community are poised to see a steadily upward trajectory of success. However, none of the opportunities for growth would be present for us today had it not been for the determination of so many to save our public schools and position them to provide the students of this community with the quality public education students have in communities across this state. Thankfully, our community support continues to grow just as the new facilities rise from the Delta soil that has economically supported this region for hundreds of years. I, along with our Board, Administration, and Staff thank each of you that has supported us as we have risen from the ashes when so many thought our demise was imminent.
Thursday’s ceremony wasn’t just a celebration of the resurrection of the school district. It was a powerful symbol of how far this community has come in terms of overcoming the divisions of the past so that we could work together toward a brighter future. One of the most difficult issues for our community, along with other communities throughout the Delta region, to navigate has been issues related to race. The flashpoint that has hindered our region’s ability to move forward has been the interaction of these issues with public education.
J. F. Wahl was the longest serving Superintendent in the history of the Helena-West Helena School District and its predecessor districts with 41 years in the position. His leadership resulted in so many accomplishments that this community placed his name on what is now our only elementary school. Eliza Miller dedicated herself to making sure that African-American children in this community received an education and donated the land where the first Eliza Miller High School was built. The site is now the location of a park. Both of these individuals worked hard to further the education of children in this community. They both did that work in an era of segregation. Those were tough times and we can look back on them now with the benefit of hindsight and see mistakes were made that could have been avoided.
Thursday provided us with the opportunity to show the great strides we have made to overcome the divisions of that era in our history. After decades of real segregation and then the continued symbolism of that era with the legacies of these two great advocates for public education segregated onto different campuses, HWHSD brought these two legacies together with the naming of the new facility for Eliza Miller on the J. F. Wahl Elementary campus.
This was an important moment for our school district and our community. We honored positive legacies from the district’s past and held a coronation for a building that stands as a beacon for the bright future that is on the horizon. It was an honor to be a part of it. However, we can’t rest on this one accomplishment. More work remains to be done. Each one of us must keep pushing in our various roles to take action that moves this community forward.
Until next time, GO COUGARS!