Issuing a challenge to philanthropic organizations and businesses throughout the region, the Ben May Charitable Trust has made a $1.25 million donation to the Barton Academy Foundation in support of its efforts to restore the state’s first public school.

Located on Government Street in Downtown Mobile, Barton Academy was the first structure built by the Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, the state’s first public school system. It housed the state’s first public school students when its doors opened in 1839 and continued to serve as a public school until the 1960s.

Now, more than 170 years later, a public-private partnership is moving ahead with plans to renovate the building and reopen it as a magnet program focusing on international studies.

“One of the strengths of the Mobile County Public School System is our diversity,” MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek said. “On any given day, we have 72 languages and dialects spoken in our schools, and this will be another avenue for students to learn about culture, business and educational opportunities throughout the world. Because it is a very small world for our students today.”

School Board President Donald Stringfellow was also on hand for the grant announcement, which he said was “another confirmation” of the school system’s support for the project. The MCPSS has already invested $4.2 million into exterior renovations to the property that have taken place over the past two years.

Though the exterior renovations were costly, their funding was only a fraction of the $12 million needed to repair and update the interior of the building to a level that’s conducive for a 21st Century education.

John D. Peebles is the chairman of the trust’s distribution committee and said the Barton project has a number of benefits for Mobilians of all ages. Not only would it save what Peebles called a “highly significant piece of mobile’s architectural heritage,” it will also serve as an important part of the downtown revitalization efforts.

In addition, Peebles said a restored and reopened Barton Academy would serve as a living testament of Mobile’s commitment to public education.

“In 1836, public education was not a given. People didn’t really understand the concept of the government educating children. Indeed, it was a highly progressive move, and at that point, had only been implemented in a small number of cities in the western world,” Peebles said. “That we did it here is worth noting, is worth celebrating and it is certainly worth renewing.”

Besides the renewal of the physical bricks and mortar, Peebles said the Ben May Trust strongly supports the establishment of an innovative school in the heart of the city.

With a focus on international business and culture, Peebles said the Barton magnet would reinforce Mobile’s ties with its international partners and expose students to a curriculum that provides a “head start in the new, highly-interconnected world” and the tools to succeed in it.

“With this gift, Mr. May herein issues a challenge to every other philanthropic foundation, charitable trust, corporation, government, business and to all of our fellow citizens as well: Join us,” Peebles said. “Help us restore this architecturally and culturally historic treasure.”

Jaime Betbeze, President of the Barton Academy Foundation, told Lagniappe other charitable organizations have donated to the initiative, but the $1.25 million contribution from the Ben May Trust is by far the largest — bringing the current total of funds raised close to $2 million.

According to Betbeze, the foundation plans to end its fundraising campaign by the end of 2017. If all goes according to plan the renovations would include 18-months of construction and design work, which would tentatively put students returning to Barton by the Fall of 2019.