After almost a decade of preparation, the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies is only a few weeks away from reopening to its first class of students. The historic building has seen many uses in its almost two-century-long history, and this will be the first time in 50 years the building will be used as a public school.
On Aug. 11, students will reenter the building and the work of the Barton Academy Foundation, which has collected donor money to refurbish the school building, will essentially be complete. Roughly 250 students will attend the first year, in a school that plans to serve a maximum of 300 to 320 students at a time. The magnet school will have a global studies and entrepreneurship focus, with Spanish, German and French classes as well as a global studies and entrepreneurship elective.
The money collected has paid for many high-quality facilities for students to use: computer labs, collaborative spaces, science labs, music production areas, as well as a robotics lab with 3D printers.
“It’s definitely very exciting,” Barton Academy Principal Amanda Jones said. “I feel very honored. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity just being able to see a vision come to reality, knowing how much work did happen before I ever even became involved in the project.”
Since this is Barton’s first year, Jones was able to hire the teachers she believed would best fit into the vision created for the school. Everyone is starting from scratch together as a new staff, she said, so it’s important to organize around a specific vision.
One major component of that vision is project-based learning, an approach to education that focuses on students having a driving question that guides their learning in multiple subject areas, instead of their learning being segmented with little interaction between students’ classes. In this model, students ask more questions and have more agency over their learning, Jones said.
The teacher acts less as a lecturer giving students the information they need and more as a facilitator for students to ask questions and answer it themselves. Jones has seen this method benefit her students when she implemented it while principal at Mary B. Austin Elementary. When people would come in and talk with students, she noticed that “more than once, I had people who would compliment students on the types of questions they asked.”
“There’s just more connection,” she said. “I think the students are more engaged. You can see that growth and development of them thinking more critically and asking those more-probing questions.”
Over the summer, Barton’s incoming teachers have undergone various training programs that cultivate the skills for quality hands-on and project-based learning. Many of these teachers have been National Board certified, which Jones said is a rigorous program that is one of the highest-achieving programs in education.
They also have teachers who have received the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. David Dai, Alabama’s Alternate Teacher of the Year, will also teach at Barton.
“There’s just a really strong teaching staff,” Jones said.
While other middle schools in the Mobile County system typically go to 8th grade, Barton Academy will teach grades 6th through 9th. Jones said this is because the Signature Academies at the high schools across the county start in the 10th grade.
“This gives parents another option for students to give them as ninth graders that additional year on campus, on a smaller campus with a more close-knit community,” Jones said. “Those ninth graders have the opportunity to be the leaders of the school.”
Jones said she’s ready to have parents come in for tours once classes are in session, so they can see first-hand the culmination of the work of so many people.
Barton Academy functioned as a school from the mid-1800s to 1965, after which the building was converted to MCPSS’s central office. They System vacated the building in 2007. In 2014, renovation efforts started as a result of the work of the Barton Academy Foundation.
Donations to renovate the building, including the iconic rotunda, and build the various labs and classrooms continually came. Last year, the Foundation reached its $14 million goal to renovate the interior of the building.
Elizabeth Stevens, president of the Barton Academy Foundation and the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said in an interview with Lagniappe in 2019 that the impact of Barton Academy can extend beyond the families it serves, potentially having an “enormous” economic impact on the area.
She said there are empty buildings around Barton Academy that were not empty while it was still in use. Having an empty landmark can negatively impact the neighboring properties.
“Just going from empty to occupied is an economic boost,” she said. “But then add to that students and parents being there and interacting more with the downtown business community and the impact could be significant for development downtown.”
For many, especially donors and those involved in reviving the school over the past few years, the first day of classes will bring a sigh of relief, but for Barton’s staff, it’s teachers and Jones herself, “Our journey is just beginning at that point.”
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