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A groundbreaking Monday for a new school in the western part of Halifax County turned into a community event as former Eastman school alumni and members from the area came out for the celebration.

Many attending wore Eastman caps and some wore specially designed T-shirts proclaiming “Eastman School is Back.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” North Carolina state Representative Michael Wray said. “This is going to be a great thing for our future generations, our future children.”

Wray said nothing happens by itself. “It takes everybody working together — from the school board to the county commissioners to the state of North Carolina to the DPI (state Department of Public Instruction). This is what a success story is all about.”

Wray said the $31.27 million Needs-Based Public School Capital funding grant Halifax County Schools received for the kindergarten through eighth grade school brings back a “school that you can look at now that has a lot of history. You cannot forget the history. This is going to be a great facility for the community and a great facility for our children.”

State school Superintendent Catherine Truitt wore a Halifax County Schools T-shirt as she delivered her remarks to the audience.

Truitt said she was amazed by the turnout on the grounds of the former Eastman site off Highway 48.

“I am looking at this building and seeing that history,” she said, adding, “I’m looking out here and seeing so much more history.”

Truitt said, “All children deserve a highly qualified and excellent teacher in every classroom but both teachers and students need high quality learning spaces in order to achieve that and all students are deserving.”

She said the environment in which a student learns “truly has a lasting impact on that child’s ability to learn and grow.”

With the anticipation of a new school, Truitt told the audience, “I am thrilled today to play a small supporting role in this event. It’s an incredible feeling to be here with you all to witness the first step of this legacy. I’m here with you today thinking about all of the students for generations to come who are going to benefit from this new school construction.”

The state superintendent said she knows from her time in the classroom how high-quality facilities impact students’ and teachers’ enthusiasm for learning. “I’m thinking of all the educators who are going to benefit from having a new, beautiful school to make their own. I’m thinking of the impact this is going to have on this community and the potential impact on being able to recruit and retain great teachers.”

Truitt said “a brand new school building represents promise for the future and I hope you all take just incredible pride in what’s happening today.”

Directing her comments to school system Superintendent Eric Cunningham, Truitt said, “No one in this state cares more about their community than Dr. Eric Cunningham. No one in this state is giving more blood, sweat, and tears trying to create the best school system possible for students in this community. No one stays up late at night thinking about how he can make things better for all students. He is the real deal. It is an honor to know you, to work with you, to see you when I get to see you and I consider you my partner and my friend.”

Truitt wished the school system godspeed. “I cannot wait to see this thing completed. I cannot tell you how happy I am for this community.”

Halifax County Board of Commissioners Chairman Vernon Bryant thanked the Eastman alumni for being at the groundbreaking. “What a great day for this part of Halifax County. On behalf of the Halifax County Board of Commissioners we’re excited about being a part of this great groundbreaking ceremony.”

Bryant said a year ago an important change in state laws allowed the Needs-based Public Schools Capital Fund to become a vital part of public schools systems to pursue funds for critical capital needs.

But, Bryant said, Cunningham began the push three or four years ago. “As soon as the opportunity came available, Halifax County and Halifax County Schools worked together to successfully apply for (the grant) on the site of the Eastman school.”

Said Bryant: “Isn’t it amazing that we are breaking ground on this project in just one year’s time? This new school, which will consolidate two aging elementary schools and reduce lengthy bus rides for our students, will be a credit to the state of North Carolina and Halifax County and will serve as a beacon of light — a lighthouse district — for Halifax County Schools.”

Bryant said he and his fellow commissioners were happy to be “a part of this new beginning.”

Bryant said his mother, Neva, was a graduate of Eastman school. “It’s very personal here.”

Halifax County School Board Chairman Tyus Few said in scanning the audience he saw former principals, teachers, and students “who once walked these sacred grounds of Eastman school.”

Few said the event reminded him of people he knew who worked at the school. “I still have memories of walking the halls of this institution and it’s still such an honor at this time to still be affiliated with the Halifax County school district and to share in this sacred and historical moment that we all share. Just like the phoenix, this school will rise again.”

Few said a school is the heart of every community. “Just from the comments and things I hear, this school is so dear to this community. It means a lot. Even though it’s closed, it’s still here and when you ride past you think about all the times that you spent here.”

Said Few: “This is a great day for this community and a great day for the children of Halifax County Schools.”

Ashley Dennis, managing principal for Moseley Architects, said, “I design schools all over the state. I go to groundbreakings on a pretty regular basis but this is no normal groundbreaking. You guys do it a little bit differently in Halifax County.”

Dennis said she realized the day was just not for turning some dirt. “It’s for the children and what this school stands for and to be a little part of that is an unbelievable feeling. This is a momentous moment and this process did start years ago.”

Dennis said the school board and superintendent made a step to put all the pieces in place so when the funding was available they would be able to jump on it. “It is amazing that those steps happened and this step has happened today. As the dirt is turned it will not be the last step. There will be lots more moments for the people in the community to come together because this building is a part of the community and we know that this process is a community process. We hope to see everyone again and hear voices from the community as this project gets designed and begins to be built.”

After remarks from each of the board of education members, Cunningham said the next step in the process will be a design-build committee and that the school system will seek input from everyone. “Before we raise a wall you will have some input in it.”

He said it will take two years to build the school and it is expected to be opened in the fall of 2025. “It will be a grand celebration in which we’ll all come back out here one more time.”

The superintendent called on the community members to submit memorabilia from Eastman’s past. “We never want to forget how far we’ve come.”