Walls are up, cement floors have hardened and James Blair Middle School is taking shape at Ironbound and Longhill roads.
It's a place Ty Harris has only been once, but around which he will plan most of his days starting July 1.
More than a year before its scheduled open date in September 2018, the Williamsburg-James City County School Board hired 40-year-old Harris as the school's principal. He leads a similarly sized school in Falls Church.
Harris has been a principal at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School for two years, overseeing about 588 students in 2016-17. He was promoted from assistant principal at Henderson, which Superintendent Olwen Herron said was a selling point.
"He was the choice of the administration, parents and community (in Falls Church); he was a very strong choice to become the principal of his school and he came very highly recommended," Herron said. "It's opening a brand new school, so generally you want someone with experience.... He had some experience implementing programs."
Harris also spent four years building theme-based curriculums in schools while working for the U.S. Department of Education.
James Blair's theme — 21st-century learning — is something the school's new building is geared toward. Designed to cater to technology, flexibility and collaboration, it will feature mobile desks and movable glass walls.
"With this environment, the building and the layout, it will provide teachers and students the opportunity to work with each other in ways that previously were not possible and may have created barriers to learning," Harris said. "Curriculum-wise, I see opportunities for teachers to serve as facilitators more than managers. This will provide students with an opportunity to take control of their own learning."
The curriculum will be all about personalized and hands-on learning, where students collaborate with each other, sliding between independent work and group study, he said.
It will mean teachers collaborate and work together, too. He said the open collaboration space in the center of James Blair's academic wing will allow teachers to bring classes together for joint lessons.
Hiring instructors, organizing the teacher transition and building a curriculum are some of the tasks Harris has the next year to complete. Herron said it's standard practice to hire a principal the year before a school opened. The prinicpal who opened J. Blaine Blayton Elementary in 2010 was hired a year in advance, and the leader to open Hornsby Middle transfered from James Blair when it closed.
"There's curriculum development and the professional development of the teachers once they are selected — because they're going to have to change their view on certain things when they come on board to teach at a place like Blair," Harris said. "That not only takes planning but also is going to require the person leading them through that to ensure that they have everything in order."
According to his contract, which the Virginia Gazette obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Harris will receive $102,000 paid out in monthly installments. That contract ends June 30, 2018 with the opportunity to renew next spring.
First things first
But first, Harris plans to dive into the community.
He wants to meet teachers and families and spend time in W-JCC schools. Meeting his school's stakeholders — from teachers to families to potential future students — and keeping them involved in decisions is crucial, he said.
"I act more as a facilitator than a manager," Harris said. "That pays off because not only do (teachers) feel empowered, but they're also knowledgeable because they've been part of the process."
Earlier this year, Henderson Middle School's Middle Years Programme was authorized by the International Baccalaureate, after a three-year undertaking by Harris. It's one of the theme-based programs of study he became familiar with as part of his four years with the DOE.
W-JCC's James River Elementary is also an IB school. Harris doesn't see that as the future for James Blair but does want to incorporate its core tenants of a well-rounded, global student.
Harris said electives are as important an option for students as the STEAM classes — science, technology, engineering, art and math — that will be a staple of James Blair's curriculum.
Within a few years, the school will have a range of choices for students from robotics to literary magazine to graphic design to FIRST LEGO league — an educational science and technology program using the colorful plastic blocks parents hate to step on.
With a 5-year-old daughter about to start kindergarten, Harris is familiar with the pesky toys.
She lives in Hampton Roads with her mother, and Harris was set on moving closer long before the principal opening was posted.
Being four hours apart has taken a toll.
"The way he cares about his daughter and the education he wants her to have is the way he cares about his students and is the education he wants his students to have," said Jon Pepper, Harris' assistant principal in Falls Church.
Pepper has been Harris' second-in-command for two years, since Harris took over leadership at Henderson.
Harris focuses on students' social-emotional well-being as much as academic success, Pepper said. "Stress Less Days" were a highlight of Harris' tenure. Scheduled before each SOL testing day, the school brought in therapy dogs, did yoga and practiced meditation to calm students' nerves.
"The number one thing he's always focused is the students first, he's always made the students want to come to Henderson and I'm sure he'll do the same in Williamsburg," Pepper said.
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.
Coming from: Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church
Schooling: B.A. in Secondary Education from Clemson University, Master's in Educational Leadership from George Mason University.
Family: one five-year-old daughter
Hometown: Staunton, Virginia
Start date: July 1, 2017