VIRGINIA — The combined school districts of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert have been decades in the making. Many said the two rival schools could never come together, but on July 1 they consolidated to become Rock Ridge Public Schools and on Wednesday they broke ground on a new career academy high school.

“Two school districts, mortal enemies for hundreds of years, coming together, agreeing to build a high school and two new elementary schools; then choosing their mascot, school colors and a name; and then agreeing to consolidate. Who does this? Nobody. And I mean nobody,” Rock Ridge Superintendent Noel Schmidt said. “So congratulations Rangers, you have done something that almost nobody in the United States could do.”

Rock Ridge Public Schools Superintendent Noel Schmidt speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Rock Ridge Public Schools Superintendent Noel Schmidt speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The slogan for Rock Ridge is "Fiercely United," but many Iron Rangers who spoke at the groundbreaking celebration Wednesday said they never thought this day would come when two rival schools were one.

“We would have all these great big visions and great big dreams, but that conversation (of combining) always died when we said two rival schools could never make this work,” said Virginia High School Principal Lisa Perkovich. “I was one of those people for decades who said this will never, ever happen. But look at us now. We did it. I’m proud to say I stand corrected.”

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Virginia High School Principal Lisa Perkovich introduces a speaker while helping emcee a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Virginia High School Principal Lisa Perkovich introduces a speaker while helping emcee a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Eveleth-Gilbert High School math teacher Chris Chad was also one of those naysayers a while back.

“I graduated from Eveleth-Gilbert in ‘92 and I remember them talking about combining schools and as a student I was like, ‘No way in heck. I want nothing to do with this and I will avoid it like the plague,’” he said.

Chad said he was invited to attend a tour of Alexandria Public Schools, which has a career academy model, and when he saw the opportunities for students there that could be brought to the Iron Range, things started to change for him.

“The point when I thought this could actually work was when the discussion wasn’t just about consolidating for money reasons but we’re going to consolidate to bring a different educational programming to our kid,” Chad said. “When the focus was on bettering our kids' education, I knew we couldn’t lose in that argument.”

Eveleth-Gilbert High School math teacher Chris Chad listens to Virginia High School social studies teacher Steph Lutzka before his turn to speak at a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Eveleth-Gilbert High School math teacher Chris Chad listens to Virginia High School social studies teacher Steph Lutzka before his turn to speak at a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Chad said his hope once the new high school is open to students is that the district becomes a spotlight of what education can be.

“I grew up here, I graduated from here and I want nothing but for our area to prosper, and I think this is one step in having that happen,” he said.

In 2017, the two districts started talking about this collaboration. In 2018, a committee was formed to look over a career cluster chart from the Minnesota Department of Education and craft the academies for what was most relevant to the Iron Range.

In early 2019, the two districts secured $98 million over 20 years from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and the state added an additional $120 million over 20 years as well.

Then it came time for a referendum to secure enough funds to make the plan a reality and build a brand-new high school and two elementary schools. On May 14, 2019, voters from both districts approved a nearly $180 million referendum, and then it was off to the races.

The new Rock Ridge High School will open its doors to students in 2023. The new Eveleth elementary will open in 2022 and the new Virginia elementary school will open in 2025.