It’s been nearly a decade since footsteps frequented the rotunda under the historic dome of Barton Academy, and it’s been even longer since the laughter and chatter of children could be heard throughout the halls as their curious minds were filled with a public education.
Until the opening of Murphy High School in 1926, Barton Academy had served as Mobile County’s only public high school and continued in place as an elementary and middle school until the 1960s, when the building was then converted to the Mobile County Public School System’s central office.
Vacant since 2007, Barton Academy has twice found a spot on Alabama’s list of “Places in Peril,” but the Barton Academy Foundation, along with the MCPSS, are preparing the landmark for a bold new role in the 21st century as the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies.
According to MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek, exterior renovations to the building began about six weeks ago, and the activity now surrounding the once-lively schoolhouse has many Mobilians quite curious.
In fact, one former MCPSS employee parked his vehicle right in the middle of busy Government Street, just to inquire about what was taking place at the active construction site.
“I think when you look at Barton, it’s a symbol for the community of education … [and] what we stand for in the community with wanting our quality of life to being at the highest level,” Peek said. “And of course education is a foundation for that.”
Past: Alabama’s first public school
Led by Willoughby Barton, Mobile County established Alabama’s first public school system in 1826 and a decade later, began building Barton Academy as the state’s first public school. The school commissioned major figures in the Greek Revival movement, James Gallier Sr. and brothers James and Charles Dakin, to lead the development of the building’s unique architectural design.
According to the Barton Academy Foundation, Barton Academy and the nearby Government Street Presbyterian Church, also on the National Historic Landmark, are the last surviving works created by Gallier and Dakin in the city of Mobile.
While the school commission in 1830 purchased an entire block on Government for the development of a school, funding problems surfaced and construction was delayed. However, the state legislature eventually permitted the commission to raise funds through a lottery.
By 1836, the school system had raised $50,000 in lottery funds in addition to a $15,000 municipal loan and private donations, which included a large sum of money from local millionaire and major funder of Government Street Presbyterian, Henry Hitchcock.
Though students began attending the school in 1839, a tuition fee was required. The school system was hindered from offering free public education due to a large construction debt. It ended up renting classrooms to a number of private and denominational schools.
It wasn’t until 1952 that the school system reorganized and reopened Barton Academy as a true public school, becoming the model for Alabama’s public school system.
Present: Fundraising and restoration
When the MCPSS moved their central offices to West Mobile in 2007, the Mobile Historic Development Commission and the Historic Mobile Preservation Society joined forces to push the idea of restoring Barton Academy, recognizing that the school system’s move would leave the historic building vacant for a second time in its history.
“We wanted to work with the school system to be able to help them come up with a way to preserve the building and put it to good use,” Barton Academy Foundation President Jaime Betbeze said.
From there, the idea developed and garnered attention from the Downtown Mobile Alliance, which also became a partner in the project. The partnerships ultimately led to the 2012 founding of the Barton Academy Foundation, a private 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization geared toward funding the complete restoration of Barton Academy, Betbeze said.
“We recognized that there would have to be a fundraising component to be able to come up with the funds necessary to restore the building,” he said. “It’s a big project … there’s a lot that has to be done.”
On Dec. 15, the Mobile County school board approved an agreement for the restoration project at Barton Academy through a capital campaign undertaken by the Barton Academy Foundation.
“I think the most exciting thing will be to see it be back as an education institution … I think that preserves the very proud tradition of education in Mobile,” Peek said. “For the school system, [anytime] we can provide another pathway for student success, it’s always exciting. I think now that’s what we’re about, making sure that there are multiple pathways for families to choose for education in the Mobile County Public School System. So, this is another pathway for learning, for success in preparing for the future. I think this is also an exciting project because it’s a true collaboration between the school system and our partners.”
According to Peek, the board allocated $3.5 million as part of its construction program from the 2012 Capital Outlay Warrants for structural and exterior restoration of Barton Academy, “that will be to stabilize the exterior of the building.”
“The other funds that will be needed will be for the interior development of the school because at one time, it was a school with classrooms, but then it functioned for a long time as office space, so it’s got to be brought back to an actual interior of what would be needed for schools with classrooms, labs and facilities for the arts and things like that,” she said.
An additional $11 million to $15 million is needed to restore the interior of the 90,000-square-foot, 175-year-old Barton Academy in order to make it a functioning academic facility, Betbeze said.
According to Betbeze, the Barton Academy foundation has raised a “committed” $300,000 to $400,000 of the needed funds for the school’s complete restoration.
“That is firm commitments, but other indications that significant contributions will be made give us confidence that we will be able to meet the goal,” he said.
Costs and naming opportunities for physical modifications to support BAAWS are as follows:
• The dome: $500,000 to $1 million
• 20 classroom spaces: $50,000
• Four science labs: $250,000 each or $1 million for entire suite
• Language and communication lab wired for 30 computers:
• Research and business center wired for 30 computers:
• Three administrative offices: $100,000 each
• Four staff offices: $25,000 each
• Music room: $250,000
• Art room: $250,000 (taken by Hearin-Chandler Foundation)
• Dance studio: $250,000
• Small auditorium with stage/presentation area: $500,000
• Physical education and exercise space: $250,000
• Cafeteria: $300,000
• General office, front desk and reception area:
$25,000 (taken by Barton Foundation Board)
• Large conference and boardroom: $100,000
• Bulletin boards, student product display areas and historic display: $100,000
While the current funding appears minimal compared to the amount needed in order to get the school up and running, Peek and Betbeze are confident Barton Academy will come back to life, first with the expected completion of the exterior restoration in fall 2015.
However, the remaining timeline ultimately depends on the amount of money raised.
“At that point, we hope to have sufficient funds where they can go into doing design work for the interior and then start after 2015, if we have sufficient funds, to actually begin work … it sort of depends on how quickly we’re able to line up the money,” Betbeze said.
According to Peek, all necessary funds will need to be raised before moving forward.
“I think you’ll have [to have a] significant amount to know that the money is there to move forward because it’s a total package when you move forward with design for a school,” she said. “You go through the Alabama Building Commission and in working that, you pretty much have to have all of your funding in place to move forward,” she said.
However, Peek said she believes the initial phase of getting the outside of the building restored will demonstrate the commitment on the part of the school system to make sure Barton is being restored as a school. Further, she said the extensive efforts between all of the partners working with the Barton Academy Foundation, a group she called “very dedicated,” will also be a positive indication for those who may be wishing to contribute.
“It is a true landmark for our community that needs to be preserved,” Betbeze said. “It needs to be put back to good use, so from that perspective, I just feel a great commitment to see it through.”
Future: Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies
In order to help students succeed in today’s global economy, the MCPSS and the Barton Foundation ultimately decided on the idea of Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies, an innovative program aimed at providing a multicultural, specialty school with an emphasis on social diversity and international awareness.
According to Betbeze, the idea was actually a brainchild of Dr. Russ Lea, former vice president for research at the University of South Alabama, who envisioned a school that would really help the entire community develop its ability to interact on the international stage.
“Dr. Lea has indicated this would be something that would be very beneficial for this community, and not only for those international students, but for Mobile County students to have the opportunity to study in a truly international community and develop from a very young age … [and] that it would have a real firm foundation for roles in international business,” Betbeze said.
Further, BAAWS will play a critical role in helping students understand the importance of languages and world culture while recognizing that economic development in Mobile is largely dependent on international investment, he said.
As a “real learning center of global studies,” BAAWS will instill a “very advanced curriculum” in each study area and focus on “hands on, innovative projects” however, the academy will also have the basic curriculum required by the state of Alabama, Peek said.
“There’s a core curriculum that is required, but this will have more of a global studies feature, a more international foundation with languages, culture, economics, geography and exchange of ideas,” she said.
According to the Barton Foundation, the curriculum at BAAWS will include, but not be limited to, intense foreign language instruction at all grade levels (Spanish, French, German, Russian and Chinese will be offered), senior project and project-based cultural studies of individual countries or regions, international program opportunities beginning at sixth grade, opportunities to earn high school credits while in middle school and college credits while in high school, required Advanced Placement examinations in all AP classes, technology integration as a platform for instruction and learning, development of critical thinking and reasoning skills so students become life-long learners, instruction by highly qualified teachers with proven records of success, professional development training for teachers to strengthen course knowledge and instruction and participation in community international activities and programs.
“There will be an international flavor to the curriculum,” Peek said, citing a similar curriculum in place at Murphy High School known as the International Baccalaureate program.
While Peek said all students in the MCPSS are welcome and encouraged to apply for enrollment in BAAWS, there will be strict academic guidelines for admission. Because of its rigorous curriculum, a 3.4 GPA or 85 percent yearly average in all core classes will be required for admission and continuation in the program. Additionally, strict discipline requirements will include no suspension in the year prior to application, and suspension at BAAWS will call for immediate removal from the program.
“It’ll be open to anyone and everyone to apply,” Peek said. “The anticipated enrollment is about 400, but we’ll work up to that grade level by grade level. We wouldn’t discourage anyone from applying, but I think also people need to look at what the program is in itself and really decide, ‘is this the educational pathway [for me]?’ If not, we have other pathways that we’d encourage people to follow too, but it will be a very specialized [program] with that emphasis on global studies.”
It has long been said by educators, business leaders and economic strategists that it is vital for a city’s downtown to include an institution for learning and currently, Mobile is lacking that particular aspect.
“From a community perspective, it’ll be a tremendous asset to downtown Mobile in the sense of, once again, having teachers and students in the building and having life and activity down here,” Betbeze said.
Furthermore, both Peek and Betbeze noted that the school system would like to see Barton Academy collaborate with the downtown arts organizations for the school’s art component of its curriculum and for businesses to have the opportunity to interact with students and provide mentoring from leaders who work in the downtown area.
“Where you have school, you have life,” Peek said. “You have a focus for a community … [Barton] certainly has a proud history of being a school here in Mobile, and it would be really great to have students back in the building, to have it return to its original purpose of education.”
For more information about the effort to restore Barton Academy, visit www.bartonacademy.org.
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