The HelenaWest Helena School District dedicated the new Eliza Miller Building on the J. F. Wahl Elementary Campus, marking the first time an entirely new school building had been built in the district since the Central High School Gymnasium was built in 1981.

The HelenaWest Helena School District dedicated the new Eliza Miller Building on the J. F. Wahl Elementary Campus, marking the first time an entirely new school building had been built in the district since the Central High School Gymnasium was built in 1981.

Over 200 people joined in the festivities and heard entertainment from the Central High School Band and the J. F. Wahl Elementary Drumline under the direction of Patrick Mugridge. There were speeches from multiple school officials and dignitaries and remarks from U. S. District Judge Brian Miller on behalf of the Miller Family.

The significance of the moment for the district was encapsulated in the remarks by School Board President Andrew Bagley, who began by noting that things looked bleak for the district six years ago when it entered a second state takeover for fiscal distress, had crumbling infrastructure with no money to fix or replace it, and had some state officials calling the situation impossible.

Bagley continued by noting how different things are today saying, “H-WHSD is like Lazarus in the Gospel of John. It would have been easy to finish the inscription on our tombstone and bury the district, but this community rose up like the sisters of Lazarus with a determination to save this district and this new building today stands as a metaphor for the resurrection and the continuing rise of our schools”

Miller, in his remarks, began by noting the initial hurt at the realization that the current Miller campus, which was the second Eliza Miller High School before serving as a junior high and elementary, will eventually close. He said, “Initially, I was hurt that the campus would close but I am so glad that the school board and the district chose to keep this important legacy alive by marrying the legacies of J. F. Wahl and Eliza Miller.”

He continued by recounting the history of Eliza Miller, who donated the land for the first high school to educate African-Americans where the first Eliza Miller High School stood, and her impact on the lives of generations of black students in the Helena-West Helena School District. He also told a very moving story of how J. F. Wahl called his Aunt Maxine Miller, who worked the district for 39 years, and offered her a job after she became paralyzed in an accident.

He closed by saying, “This is a moment where the symmetry of these two legacies has finally come together. I want to thank Andrew, Mr. Hoy and the school district for keeping this history alive and for their hard work to make this day possible.”

Both Hoy and Bagley commented on the significance of bringing the legacies of Wahl and Miller together as well.

Hoy said, “Both of these individuals were difference makers. Making sure these historical legacies is preserved is important and I have told our principals that we need to be sure we teach the students of this district about both of them in our Arkansas History courses.”

Bagley added, “The construction of this facility also symbolizes how we are coming together. J. F. Wahl Elementary is named for the longest serving superintendent in the history of H-WHSD and its predecessor districts. He served for 41 years at a time when the schools were segregated. Eliza Miller led the efforts to procure educational opportunities for African-American children in that segregated era. Today, we bring those legacies together on one campus….It is my hope that the optimism of this moment and the symbolism that it brings will inspire us to make sure we do all we can to have great public schools, which are essential to a great community.”

The crowd also heard from J. F. Wahl Principal Jewel Hamilton, who told a very personal story about how much it meant to her to see the improvements in the district.

She said, “I am a product of this school district. I went to school here my entire time and graduated from Central. This is a huge step forward for us and it is going to be great for our children.”

State Representative Chris Richey reminisced about how his first meeting as a legislator was with then Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell about the plan to get H-WHSD back on its feet and returned to local control.

He said, “It’s been a journey. It started with Suzann McCommon and Ulicious Reed. It continued with the advisory board and then added Mr. Hoy. Now we have local control, a new building, and a district on the rise. That’s a testament to the hard work and leadership from the board, Mr. Hoy, and the rest of the district.”

State Senator Keith Ingram applauded the work of the district leadership.

He said, “You are fortunate to have board and administrative leadership with a vision for this district who have worked hard to get the district to where it is today. Facilities are very important. People judge your community by what your schools look like and make judgments about what happens on the inside of these buildings based on what the outward appearance is.”

Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell thanked everyone for the efforts being made to improve the schools in the city and pledged the cooperation of the city to support the school district moving forward.

He said, “It’s a great day for the school district and the city. I am proud of what has been accomplished and honored to be a part of it.”

The ceremony concluded with a ribbon cutting as the band played the school fight song in the background and then those in attendance went on a self-guided tour of the building.