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Community High School Starts Year In New Home

Community High School has moved into a renovated warehouse space on Campbell Avenue in downtown Roanoke.

by Gene Marrano

The start of a new school year also means a new home for Community High School, a private, alternative school in downtown Roanoke that places a heavy emphasis on liberal arts. Community High School has moved from 2nd Street and Campbell Avenue to its new home just across the railroad tracks at 302 Campbell SE, in a building formerly owned by the Taubman Museum—which had hoped at one point to use it as an education center.

Instead, the Taubman board sold it to a non-profit; now the renovated former warehouse and retail location, almost 100 years old and rechristened “Big Lick Junction,” houses Community High School on the ground floor and a dozen apartments upstairs. Community High School also uses one space upstairs for an arts studio, making its total occupancy more than 11,000 square feet in all. One room at the school is slated to become a fitness center.

Founded about a decade ago, Community High School, which currently enrolls about 60 students, will debut in its new space the day after Labor Day. Small class sizes (5-12 students) are a principal attraction for many parents and students; financial aid helps a “significant percentage” afford the $9900 yearly tuition for grades 9-12, according to academic director Josh Chapman.

A significant portion of students, “maybe half,” said Chapman, come from the Community School in Hollins, which Chapman calls a “sister school.”  Almost all come from the Roanoke Valley. Students have a 9-5 day with block scheduling. Classes are seminar based and have a college feel to them. “About half of the faculty members have taught in college,” said Chapman.

Second career artists and scholars are also brought in to round out the academic experience. “I look for people with multiple areas of competency and enthusiasm,” said Chapman, who earned a degree in anthropology, and has two master’s degrees—one in social science, and one in creative writing.

Also new at Community High School is the latest live theater space in Roanoke, a 150 seat auditorium that will be used by drama students and will also be rented out to parties like the Gamut Theatre troupe, No Shame Theater and perhaps Mill Mountain Theatre, which will be without its main venue for the next year as renovations at Center in the Square take place.

“It’s important for us to collaborate,” said Chapman last week, as he watched teachers move in to their new spaces and student volunteers load books onto shelves in the library. The Community High School building features the original brick walls and wood flooring, giving it a bit of an industrial look, unlike any other school in the area. One entrance room, featuring the original pine timbers, will also become a gallery space that will feature curated shows open to the public. “Rehabbing an old building fits well with the school’s philosophy,” said Chapman.

“I think the location is fantastic,” said arts teacher Brian Counihan, as he tidied up his new lecture room, which features a dramatic view of the Taubman Museum and the rest of downtown Roanoke. “The new rooms are so nice and airy. We can spread out and claim corners. I think there’s more of a sense of belonging and connection to the city.”

That connection was enhanced when Roanoke City donated a piece of right-of-way that has been turned into a green space. It is an outdoor spot where students can eat lunch and study. That was not possible at the old location. “We can finally see green – I didn’t realize there was green in Roanoke,” joked Counihan, who enlists others at Community High School to help him stage the Marginal Arts Festival each spring.

Every student at Community High School is required to engage in a “fairly significant amount of creative thinking,” when it comes to the arts, according to Chapman, who calls that an “important approach to learning critical thinking and problem solving.”

Americans are “less and less good at [critical thinking],” said Chapman, a short story writer himself and an adjunct curator at the Taubman Museum, where he helps put together the popular Conversation series with artists. Standardized testing and teaching to pass those tests at public schools have dampened that critical thinking, according to Chapman.

He couldn’t be more pleased with the school’s new home, and said early reaction from students that have stopped by to take a peek has been enthusiastic as well. “It’s good for us to stay downtown,” said Chapman, “and it was very important for us to stay down here.”

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