How do you take the freshman class out of high school and put them on their own campus? We sure had a lot of questions about the practicalities of that move as Vestavia Hills High School prepares to open its new Freshman Campus in the former Pizitz Middle School building this fall. To answer them, we sat down with Tyler Burgess, the principal over both campuses, this summer to talk about their plans to offer freshmen all the opportunities they had before just a few minutes’ drive down the road.
Can you paint a picture of the school population growth that created a need for more space?
Last year the senior class had 480 students, and this incoming freshman class has 575 right now. The current seventh grades class is trending about 615, so about every other year you are seeing large numbers of growth as our city grows. It’s a good problem to have, you just have to be able to address it.
When the school system was looking at different options for growth in school system population, why did it choose to create a new freshman campus?
We had all these new land acquisitions and had to make a decision out how to best utilize them. We saw a freshman campus as a win-win to help capacity issues, adding 600 students to a school that holds 1,200, and to address ways to transition students into high school in a better way than throwing them straight in with 2,000 kids and 18 year olds and intimidation factors.
What has transitioning looked like for ninth graders in the past?
All high school students have lunch study period where they lunch for 25 minutes and 25 minutes of free study time. For our ninth graders we saw we could structure that time better, providing a curriculum that daily addresses note taking, mental health issues, hygiene and social issues, organizational strategies, keeping up with grades and how to be a self-advocate.
We have written a curriculum for this class, and have been doing it for two to three years for freshmen and it’s worked really well. Now going to the new campus we have a chance to expand on that to help and add components to it to help more instructionally.
What are other benefits of having freshmen on their own campus?
We are seeing and hearing from past freshmen that freshmen eating lunch with other freshmen and building relationships with their grade level should be less stressful experience. Having freshmen sit at a lunch table with students in other grades they don’t know comes with a lot of anxiety, particularly when you have students coming from two different middle schools like we do. For a class of about 600 students, about 150 come from Liberty Park and the rest come from Pizitz. When you merge them together at a new school, you have to help them make those friends and build those relationships. That’s easier to do on their own campus. Having them gel as a class before they jump into those experiences will make for more meaningful experiences.
Will there be times where all four grades come together?
Bussing 600 plus kids over in the middle of the day is quite the task, one we can’t do often. We plan to have a big homecoming week where we will include freshmen with the main campus for a lot of those activities. We want to create new traditions as well. We plan for at least one other pep rally type experience in the fall or spring where they will all be together. Toward the end of the year we are working on opportunities either through live stream to participate in large school celebrations as well. All of our extra-curricular activities are open to all students in all grades.
What will sports look like with two campuses?
Most sports have a ninth-grade team, so most will practice on that campus. Some sports only have JV and some freshman play varsity, so they will be bussed to the main campus to practice on those teams. Some JV teams will practice on the new campus since we have more spaces there. Athletics should look like what it looks like now only we have more space and can spread out better. On the main campus last year we had three teams’ practices stacked on top of each other, and some students weren’t leaving practice until 7:30 or 8 at night.
What about activities in the arts?
We are offering choir on the freshman campus as well as theatre and dance. We are teaching band on the main campus in the morning and bussing freshmen back to their campus afterward so they can practice with the marching band before school and take advantages of the fine arts equipment and spaces on the main campus. The robotics team will come to the main campus for the robotics lab too.
What changes are you making to the new freshman campus building?
I had the good fortune of being principal at Pizitz for one year before coming to the high school, so I have good working knowledge of that facility. We are sprucing up the school to make it look like a high school and not a middle school. We are rebranding the pirate logos and creed in the gym and turning them into 1 Rebel branding and adding our alma mater. We are also turning the old band room into a black box theatre and teaching space, so there will be a dance floor that also serves as a theatre stage. It can be used for in-the-round theater experiences that our auditorium would be too big for and for daily instruction for dance and more.
Do you have unique experiences planned for this first class?
We wanted to make the gym there look as similar to the high school main campus as we can since it’s our place of spirit and where we celebrate students. We have a giant school flag that hangs in our main campus gym that was donated by a graduating class, so we are going to put a giant flag in the new gym and have our students sign it as the first class in the building to imprint them into the tradition of the campus.
How will traffic change this year?
Pizitz has been crazy in the past with 1,200 students not driving, so with reducing it to 600 students with half of those participating in an activity after school, we shouldn’t have a carpool issue before or after school on the ninth grade campus. It will also take 600 carpoolers off of the main campus, which should open up traffic flow for students who drive. The only problem we foresee is those students where the older sibling drives taking someone to the ninth-grade campus. One hard thing is those who have siblings at the new Pizitz on Columbiana too. We are trying to make sure those times match up since it’s now further away, but we think it will work itself out.
What have you heard from parents of students about the new campus?
Parents who have had previous students and liked their older students’ experience wanted to make sure their younger students would have opportunities for extracurriculars like their older children did. Once we were able to assure them of those things, they were very comfortable with the idea and looking forward to it.
What’s been a challenge in planning these changes?
When you have a good culture like we have at VHHS, identifying around 40 teachers who are willing to separate from their peers was a challenge, but we were able to find those people who are passionate about it and wanted to be there specifically for freshmen. Three assistant principals will stay here at the main principal, and two will be at the freshman campus. I anticipate being on both campuses every day at some point.
How will the main campus look different this year?
We will have more elbow room in the hallways, but it’s amazing how quickly spaces fill up. We had a number of teachers who were floating and have moved those teachers into their own classroom spaces. Some rooms we will use for common planning, and we only end with one room that is empty.
Any final thoughts to share heading into this school year?
There will be a lot of new normals to get used to. We love our traditions, and we are trying to keep our traditions intact and will also create some new ones. I think that will be exciting for these students coming though.