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Charterhouse School -- Edinburg officially opens

Reese, a therapy dog owned by Vicki Lutz, rests outside the entrance to Charterhouse School in Edinburg during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday. Lutz, a physical education teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, will be bringing Reese to volunteer with special needs students at the school when it opens this fall. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Charterhouse staff members from left, social worker Rachel Reesor, instructional assistant Emily Coates, instructional assistant Courtney Greis, and culinary arts teacher Jillian Harper, walk through one of the classrooms of the special education school in Edinburg during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Keith Rowland, retired superintendent of Shenandoah County Public Schools, speaks to the crowd during the ribbon cutting ceremony Friday for Charterhouse School in Edinburg. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

The old Edinburg school has been converted into Charterhouse School serving special needs students. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors member David Ferguson looks out to the crowd as dignitaries and volunteers were recognized during the ribbon cutting ceremony Friday for Charterhouse School in Edinburg. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Kim Walter

EDINBURG - The ribbon has been cut, the sign is up and classrooms are taking shape.

Although the project's beginning was surrounded by local debate and discussion, Friday afternoon's ribbon cutting ceremony for the Charterhouse School - Edinburg was filled with excitement, drawing school and county officials, as well as interested community members.

The new school, an affiliate of United Methodist Family Services, is the first of its kind outside of the original Charterhouse School in Richmond. Charterhouse School is a fully accredited school serving middle and high school students with emotional disturbance, autism and intellectual disabilities.

The program boasts a proven record in academic and social learning for students, and in successfully graduating and returning students to public schools.

Charterhouse School - Edinburg will serve students from Shenandoah County and surrounding school divisions. Course offerings include SOL-aligned classes, art, career and technical education and individual therapy as needed.

Dr. B. Keith Rowland, former superintendent of Shenandoah County Public Schools, is credited with bringing such a school to the area. During Friday's event, he explained how the idea came about.

"I was talking with the former director of special education, and we said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we no longer had to send our special needs students out of the area?'" he said. "'Wouldn't it be great if we could serve our students right here?'"

In order to make the dream a reality, Rowland proposed using the old Edinburg High School for such a facility. He said the building was a perfect choice, since it was sturdy and meant to much to the town and county.

For about $4.5 million, the building could be renovated to cater to the Charterhouse School requirements, and still serve several community organizations. For instance, the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging and Shenandoah Parks and Recreation will both be able to utilize various spaces in the facility.

"We had to save this building for the community's identity," Rowland said. "It is an honor for this community and this county to do something so unique and special for our students ... this is something I will always remember being a part of."

Shenandoah County's former county administrator, Doug Walker, also spoke before the ribbon cutting. He, too, emphasized the importance of the project.

Walker said he was happy to help move the process along, especially with the help of the School Board and Board of Supervisors. He added that it was the responsibility of the county to address the building and renovation in a cost effective way.

More than that, he said it was about the students.

"This is the best project I've been involved in during my 24 years in local government," he said. "There was coordination between so many moving parts, and I am so grateful to all of them."

Greg Peters, CEO of United Methodist Family Services, said he was confident in the faculty and staff selected to lead the program in Edinburg. Peters' career of working with at-risk youth started in the Shenandoah Valley, and he had always wanted to return.

The organization had hopes of expanding to other locations in the state by 2014, so Peters jumped at the opportunity of bringing a Charterhouse School to Edinburg a year earlier, he said.

Peters said the project was personally important to him, as it should be to each member of the surrounding communities.

"This is more than a school," he said. "Its impact is going to improve quality of life for all students. This facility is a beacon of hope and opportunity."

Tonya Salley-Goodwin, formally the assistant principal at the Richmond location, is now the principal at Charterhouse School - Edinburg. She introduced the audience to the current 13-person staff and faculty, a majority of them being from surrounding localities.

According to Salley-Goodwin, the school has already generated interest in the area, and enrollment is moving along nicely. She personally felt it was important to find "homegrown talent" to join the facility's team.

"We wanted folks who had an understanding of the dynamics and culture of the regions being served," she said. "So much of what we do at Charterhouse depends on the students feeling comfortable and familiar."

Her number one goal as principal is to give students the life and social skills necessary to return to their public schools and communities, she said.

"We have a great understanding of what works with students because of what we've accomplished in Richmond," she said. "I just can't wait to get started here."

Students will start at the school on September 3.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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