For more than 160 years, Mobile has been marked by the columned rotunda of Barton Academy, which housed public school students throughout the county from 1852 until the 1960s.
The building was the first structure built by the Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, the state’s first public school system. Though it housed the MCPSS central office for several decades, the building has been vacant since 2007.
“We recognized a vacant building runs the risk of deteriorating and potentially being lost, like we’ve seen with so many buildings in Mobile,” said Barton Academy Foundation President Jaime Betbeze.
Betbeze was the president of the Mobile Historic Development Commission when the building was first vacated by the MCPSS central office, which relocated to a campus in West Mobile. An effort by the MHDC to restore the building grew into something more when the school system got involved.
“We approached the school system to offer our assistance in helping to find an appropriate use for the building, and we decided it would be best put to use as a school,” Betbeze said. “To bring students back to downtown Mobile — in Alabama’s first public school building —would bring it back to life.”
The foundation is partnering with the school system to bring the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies to fruition. The specialty school would house approximately 400 students in grades six through 12, and would have more rigorous course work aligned to international standards —challenging Mobile students to achieve on the same level as top students throughout the world.
“There are a number of academies like this throughout the United States,” Superintendent Martha Peek said. “We’re very focused on academics here in Mobile County, and this school would be set up for a smaller group of students who really have an interest in foreign language and global economics. This would certainly provide another pathway to meet students interested in career perpetration in those areas.”
Peek said the timing for such an academy is perfect because of the emerging international business scene in Mobile. According to Betbeze, the academy could also benefit families temporarily relocating from overseas.
“People coming to Mobile with an international cooperation will have the option to bring their children. They’ll be able to keep up on their studies and not lose time,” Betbeze said. “It’s great opportunity to have another recruiting tool for international business.”
The exact requirements to attend the academy aren’t set in stone, but Peek said it would be dependent on a student’s academic standing and conduct, as well as teacher recommendations.
Peek said MCPSS would begin exterior renovations this summer, but opening the school for students would depend on when the foundation is able to raise the money it needs to renovate and retrofit the interior.
“It’s a very ambitious project, but from what I’ve observed, the group is very committed to this process,” Peek said. “It’s very important for the school system to support the city by making sure the building represents the school system and Mobile well.”
Betbeze said the foundation is hoping to wrap up its major fundraising by the end of 2015 and move forward with its portion of the renovation project.
“We’re approaching foundations on the local and national level to seek grants and donations,” Betbeze said. “We’ve gotten a great deal of interest from local foundations, and we’ve been talking with others that are extremely positive. We feel we’ll have other announcements to make soon.”
Local organizations have donated as much $250,000 in one check, but Betbeze said there’s still much more work to be done.
Because of the sheer magnitude of the project, no local fundraising efforts are planned at this time, but the foundation is hoping to raise awareness to its cause through the first Barton Academy Homecoming on Saturday, May 3, from 1-3 p.m.
“We wanted to give the alumni an opportunity to get back into the building and to see each other again,” he said. “The event is free, but donations to the restoration fund will be accepted.”
The homecoming will give the public and Barton alumni a chance to tour the school, including the iconic dome at the top of the structure.
One such alumnus is Mobile attorney Jerry Curran, who attended seventh and eighth grade at Barton in the mid-1930s. He said Barton was a great school in those days.
“I lived on the corner of Oakland Terrace and Caroline Avenue, and it was a good bike riding distance,” he said. “For whatever reason, for about two or three years they combined the seventh and eight grades at Barton. People from all parts of the county went there.”
In those days, there was no 12th grade, and students in Downtown Mobile typically started at Murphy High School in the eighth grade. Curran said just about everybody went to MHS in those days, which eventually led to the overcrowding and his extra year at Barton.
“The building is worth saving. We’ve let too much of our old stuff go around here,” he said. “If we can make it useful and save it at the same time, that’s just another plus.”
More information on the ongoing restoration efforts can be found at www.bartonacademy.org.