For Penhale, high school is an ‘answered prayer’

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

A brick resting on the windowsill of Helena Mayor Sonny Penhale’s office reads “Helena High School, Established 2012.”

Sonny Penhale

“I gave the other one to (Shelby County Schools Superintendent) Randy (Fuller) to put in his office,” Penhale said. “Four years ago, I set my goal to have a Helena High School by 2012.”

“They’ll at least have it started this year,” said the mayor’s assistant, Joy Childers, noting the school is set to open by the fall of 2013.

On Jan. 31, the Shelby County School Board awarded a bid to grade the site for the new Helena High School, which will be constructed across Hillsboro Parkway from Helena Middle School. The bid marked the start of a project Penhale has been working to get for longer than the city’s students have been alive.

Currently, all of Helena’s high-school-aged students attend Pelham High School after they move on from Helena Middle School. Today, about half the students at PHS are from Helena.

“We deserve a high school, and we need one,” said Penhale, who has been the Helena mayor since 1968. “They are hanging out of the windows up there (at PHS).”

Recent population booms in Pelham and Helena have caused overcrowding problems at PHS. From 2000-2010, Helena grew from about 10,000 residents to just under 17,000, and Pelham grew from about 14,000 to 21,353 residents during the same period.

But Penhale said he has been pushing and praying for a Helena high school for decades.

“They originally told us we didn’t have the population for it,” Penhale said. “But it was in my prayers every day, and the good Lord has answered. It’s always been my goal to take care of our kids, because they are our future.

“Everything is coming together,” Penhale added. “This school is going to be something we can be proud of.”

Penhale said Helena residents have been active throughout the process of lobbying for the new school, and said they have been supportive of the idea. He said he received positive feedback from Helena residents after the school district publicized the school’s design.

“We have had a lot of input from the community. It’s been a Helena thing,” Penhale said. “I couldn’t imagine it looking any nicer.

“I don’t think anyone could be any happier than I am right now,” Penhale added.