Driver school prepares for influx

Published 10:39 pm Wednesday, August 31, 2016

As work continues on the sites of two new schools in North Suffolk, an existing school in that area is preparing for an unusual influx of teachers and students on Tuesday.

A new elementary school and a new middle school are both in different phases of construction in the northern part of the city, but neither is expected to be complete until 2018.

Florence Bowser Elementary School, located on Nansemond Parkway, is being demolished and will be rebuilt. In addition, a new middle school serving northern Suffolk is being built along Burbage Drive. Blueridge General, a Norfolk-based contractor, is heading up both projects.

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“These are two greatly needed projects with the growth in Suffolk,” said Eric Stichler, Blueridge General president.

The new, 114,800-square-foot, $20.9-million elementary school is expected to span more than 114,800 square feet has been designed by RRMM Architects for more than 1,000 students. It will replace a much smaller facility that was rich in history.

Florence Bowser was an educator for more than 50 years. She taught in Suffolk and other Virginia localities and also served as a community advocate.

Bowser worked tirelessly to raise funds for a new school in Suffolk. Eventually, in 1920, she acquired a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to build a four-room schoolhouse. Rosenwald funded many schools for African-American students throughout the South.

The original Rosenwald schoolhouse stood a few feet from where the “new” Florence Bowser Elementary was built in 1963. Both will be demolished to make way for the new elementary school slated to open in May 2018. That school will retain the historic name.

For close to 15 years, Florence Bowser and Driver Elementary were paired schools, serving pre-kindergarten through first grade and second through fifth grade, respectively.

For the next two school years, all of those students and teachers will go to Driver.

According to the Florence Bowser website, more than 225 students attended the school last year. The Driver Elementary student population is expected to reach 500 with the additional students, according to Driver Principal Melodie Griffin.

To accommodate the additional students, fourth grade, gifted and special education classes will be placed in mobile units, according to the Florence Bowser website. Also, an additional second-grade teacher has been hired, according to Griffin.

In the past, Griffin served as the principal for both Florence Bowser and Driver. In addition, both schools shared several resource teachers, the guidance counselor, music and physical education teachers. The staff from both schools would convene together at one location for staff meetings.

“We did this so staff can hear the same thing at the same time,” Griffin said.

Now that all staff is under one roof, Griffin believes they can be more effective.

“We are all excited about being in the same house,” she said. “We will finally get to be in one building so we don’t have to split our time. I think it makes us more effective. Also, we get to know our colleagues even better and form different kinds of relationships.”

The new, two-story elementary school will include a cafeteria, lobbies, a media center and a gym, among other amenities. The site will also have several recreational fields for softball, soccer and other sports.

The second floor of the school will have designated spaces to accommodate project-based learning. This form of learning is a more collaborative approach, allowing students to work together and share their discoveries through presentations.

The area will feature unique, reconfigurable seating arrangements, additional classrooms and two televisions.

Once the new school is built, all the students and staff will move into the building. The future of the Driver school remains undecided.

The new middle school, a two-story, 125,200 square foot building, is projected to be complete by June 2018, according to Blueridge General’s Stichler. The $25.1-million school is expected to house up to 800 students.

The facility will include more than 25 classrooms, an auditorium, a media center and a soccer and softball field.

Stichler is optimistic about the impact the schools will have on the community.

“They will be a boost in morale for students and teachers,” he said.

Florence Bowser and Northern Suffolk will mark the sixth and seventh Suffolk schools built by Blueridge General. The company has also built Creekside Elementary, Hillpoint Elementary, King’s Fork Middle, Mack Benn Jr. Elementary and Pioneer Elementary.

The schools “still remain as remarkable projects throughout the region,” Stichler said.