My family contains a pair of bookends. My oldest son graduated in the first class at Holly Springs High School in 2008 and my youngest daughter is getting ready to graduate in 2016. That same daughter was a third grader in the south wing of the high school during its first year of operation. Over the course of those ten years, I have watched the school blossom into a place that attracts students from all over the area – it has become a mecca for artists and athletes, as well as students looking for an academic challenge. It was not always that way, however.
When Holly Springs High School launched its 9th and 10th grades in the fall of 2006, the students came from all across the SW Wake area – from different middle and high schools. Many of them didn’t want to be there. They had plans to go to other schools and had those plans diverted when they were reassigned to the new high school. It took a while for the school’s culture and motto, “Building a Tradition of Excellence,” to take flight. “The school had to write its own history and make its own traditions,” explains Melissa Richer, who has been a teacher on staff since 2007. “It took a while to work the kinks out of things like HOT Lunch and establish a healthy student activity calendar, but over time and with good leadership, those things have blossomed.” Homecoming dances in the early years struggled with poor attendance, but in comparison, the 2015 homecoming dance enjoyed over 600 students.
Current principal Brian Pittman credits the school’s first principal, Luther Johnson, with establishing the expectation that the school was a place for students to excel, and the school’s second principal, Tim Locklear, for continuing that tradition and building a “schoolhouse” in which students took ownership of activities, events, and service work. “We are now reaping the benefits of that extraordinary foundation,” he explains. “At Holly Springs High School, ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough. Our students strive for excellence and work hard to be leaders in their community, and it shows.”
When Mr. Pittman took over as HSHS principal last year, it completed a circle that began in 2008 when he became the principal at Holly Ridge Middle School. “Luther Johnson became somewhat of a mentor to me, so it was an honor for me to take over the helm at HSHS and continue the traditions that he established when the school opened.” For Pittman, the essence of the school’s culture is that it works to personalize every student’s experience and not assume that every student’s needs and goals are the same. “Tim Locklear added relationship-building to the school’s original motto through his Schoolhouse Chats and encouraging staff and faculty responsiveness to student needs,” Pittman adds. “All schools have a soul that you can feel when you first walk in the building. I believe that ours reflects student leadership and positive relationships between students, parents, and faculty.”
Pittman credits much of that school culture to the school’s continuity of leadership over the years, the care the faculty has taken with the students, and the number of key people who have been there for the duration. “Our school resource officer Sgt. Leach, for example, has been here since the day the doors opened, and all of our students have benefited from his commitment to them and the school,” says Pittman. “Former assistant superintendent Ramey Beavers has been our interim principal twice while we’ve picked new school leadership, and the faculty knows and trusts him.”
The school has seen a great deal of growth and change in the last 10 years. Steven Herrick, who has been a faculty member since the doors first opened, remembers how every tennis match the first year had to be an away game because the courts weren’t finished yet. “I also remember that at our first basketball games, the Middle Creek fans would hold up their driver’s licenses as a reminder of how young our student body was. Our only retaliation was when we had 6’7” C.J. Leslie on our team. When he dunked the ball we would all chant, ‘He’s a freshman!’.”
Since that time, the school’s athletic program has become one that the community can be proud of. With 15 conference championships, 1 team state championship, 3 runner up state champions, and 12 individual state champions over 10 years, it is clear that Holly Springs High School is a contender in the state’s athletic arena. The school’s baseball and softball programs have generated top-level athletes that have been signed by a number of A-list schools, including Carlos Rodon, who now pitches for the Chicago White Sox. The school’s wrestling program has grown into a state-level championship program over the last few years, just capturing the state’s Eastern Division Championship this year for the first time. The school has also fielded a number of state championship divers and golfers.
The arts program is another success story at Holly Springs High School. Award-winning theater, dance, visual arts, chorus, and band programs encourage artistic expression through high-quality, collaborative offerings across the arts disciplines. “The arts program has built a strong tradition in a short period of time with dozens of ratings of superior in band and chorus, and awards for theatre that often reflect the cumulative effort of the arts department staff,” shares Pittman. “Added to that are the school musical and Nutcracker dance performances that have become annual community events, and scholarships for students excelling in their chosen area of the arts, and you have a robust program that any student can take advantage of.” Dance program director Laura Stauderman has seen a dramatic increase in the talent of her students as the program has grown. “Collaboration between the departments is tighter and stronger than ever with heightened levels of artistry and skill, building a national reputation of excellence through festival participation and performances. The quality of the student body has been phenomenal all 10 years that I’ve been here, and the growth of the arts program is a direct result of that.”
The school has received much recognition for academic excellence over the years as well. The most notable of these were in the Washington Post and US News & World Report. “We are proud of our academic achievements, but we also recognize that our goal is to get as many students to graduation day on time and with as many positive experiences as possible to best prepare them for what comes next – whether that’s military service, college, or the workplace. That path looks different for every single student, and the more adaptive we can be as we help them along that path, the more engaged and successful they will be.”
There are too many milestones in the school’s short history to document in one story, but the one thing that stands out among all of the incredible accomplishments of the students and staff is the quality of student leadership exhibited over the last decade. “Our students are hyper-focused on service and initiate many projects designed to help the community,” Pittman explains. “Our Flight Academy is run by students and the brand new ‘After Prom Party’ is being initiated and planned by students with staff support.” This has been accomplished and fostered by the incredible community support shown the school over the years by the Town, Chamber of Commerce, and local companies like Novartis. The annual St. Baldrick’s event and annual student government-sponsored food drives are more examples of “students doing what it takes to make things happen.”
Mr. Pittman expects the tradition of excellence to continue at Holly Springs High School over its next 10 years. His vision for the school community is that education will become even more responsive to student needs in the future, even extending learning outside the traditional school day and building if necessary. Staff and faculty are spending time now asking who is attending clubs, participating in athletics, arts programs, and other activities in an effort to identify those who are NOT engaged. “We are working hard to see the individual and how we can make sure that all students have firm connections to the school. We know that every individual’s path through high school is unique and has both wonderful twists and unexpected bumps. As with life after high school, we cannot eliminate the unexpected bumps, but we can work hard as a staff to ensure that every student feels connected enough to their surroundings to find resiliency and success when they occur.”
The school is celebrating its tenth year through graduation activities and a new alumni night to engage graduates, but it is also kicking off a “Golden Sidewalk” project that will build a pathway using bricks purchased by parents, students, alumni, and residents. The plan is that this pathway will eventually run from the football field around the side of the school to the courtyard. Spearheaded by the PTSA, bricks are available by contacting PTSA President Emily Baratta at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the school and its programs, check out their website at hollyspringshs.wcpss.net.