Opinion: Move Wheeling Park High to the WJU Campus

Wheeling Jesuit University’s board of trustees has declared a ‘financial exigency’ at the school, officials confirmed Tuesday. Photo by Scott McCloskey

The possible closing of Wheeling Jesuit University is both a tragedy and an opportunity, and it hinges on the question: What will the Wheeling-Charlston Diocese do with the property if the institution shuts down? It is a beautiful campus and a prime central location, but how do you repurpose a defunct college campus whose physical plan has specific and not especially flexible applications?

Forthwith, if WJU closes, I offer a proposal that will logically repurpose the property, resurrect the education mission of the dying college, and enhance life in Ohio County. The Board of Education should purchase the campus from the diocese and move Wheeling Park High School to that location.

Now reader, before you get all huffy and dismissing, hear me out. First, let me say that the current high school has, since its inception, been a misbegotten boondoggle that never should have been built up there in the first place. Why that location, up steep hills, over dangerous roads, in the middle of cow country? Think how much petrol has been burned and continues to be burned just hauling students and staff uphill to that hinterland? In lumbering school buses, no less. In the middle of winter, no less.

Simply ask current students, their parents, and staff if they’d rather drive to the WJU campus instead of way up to that squat chancre on the hilltop? I have a history with WHPS, being among the first classes to attend the then-new facility in 1977. I hated it. What nitwit designed that building?

It doesn’t have the faintest vestige of decent architectural design, ergonomics, grace, or beauty. It’s just a hulking, utilitarian monstrosity. We derisively called it Fort Marockie, after the superintendent at the time. We thought the school blueprints got mixed up with the design for a prison.

I distinctly remember it as a claustrophobic cube of plastic and metal, with mostly windowless classrooms, and the windows it did have were so small you could barely see out of them. Of course, they wouldn’t open, so you were denied a breath of fresh air. Structurally, it resembled a toppled brick with some stair vestibules that protruded like amputated limbs. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

Contrarily, WJU’s campus is beautiful and gracefully laid out. The athletic facilities are first-rate, with a football field and track that could potentially be far superior to the periodically-flooded stadium on the Island. Obviously, the campus has ample classrooms, offices for administrators and teachers, a library (whose materials the diocese could gracefully throw in with the deal). The arcing main road through campus readily accesses Washington Avenue and thus National Road and Interstate 70 — a stark contrast to the winding cowpaths that coil dangerously up to Park High.

The dormitories could be repurposed for low-income housing, eliminating the need to transport any resident students. Honestly folks, the population dependent on government assistance doesn’t always have jobs, but they have lots of kids, who surely need education, since mom and dad often come up short in that regard. Even teachers could live there, since their huge student loan debt renders them unable to afford decent housing. even a refurbished dorm room would be preferable to mom’s basement.

Now, I know my proposal must address that other big shoe to drop: What would the Board do with the current high school if they abandoned it? I have a solution: convert it into a corrections facility. Currently, our Northern Panhandle criminal crop gets sent south (generally a bad direction). Northern Regional Jail is a pretty good haul, even from Wheeling. Folks who visit their criminal kin in the penitentiary in Mount Olive have an epic drive. The Park High location would be a welcome shortcut to tender conjugal relations with the orange jumpsuit population.

The high school is already a lockdown security building. The only difference would be that instead of locking potential shooters out, you would be locking convicted felons in. A security fence, replete with razor wire and roaming packs of frothing Dobermans along the inner perimeter, could easily be added. If they want to scrimp on guard towers, they could conceal camouflaged sharpshooters in tree stands as an ambush disincentive to potential escape attempts.

Unlike so many of our vengeful citizens who want our jails to be dungeons teeming with sodomites, I think I corrections institutions should be based on education and rehabilitation. A repurposed Park High would be ideally suited for that purpose. It already has the aforementioned windowless classrooms (a security advantage), a cafeteria, a gym, and a library — all necessary components of a progressive prison.

Thus, park High could be swiftly converted to a jail. It sure felt like a jail when I was there.

We are doing our youths no favors when we lock them up in windowless security cubes where they cower in fear. Admit Park High was a mistake, and take a bold step to open a better education future for our children. And students who attend high school on a former college campus may even get used to it and move on to a real college campus. The diocese would be able to rid itself of a potential white elephant of a property, and by continuing a dead college’s educational mission and helping our youth, they could acquire a balm for their Catholic consciences. They sure need one.

Rogerson is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling.


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