David Lewis, starting his fifth year as superintendent of the Muscogee County School District, called the occasion a “long-awaited fulfillment of a vision conceptualized at least 17 years ago if not more, and I know it’s been a dream of others long before that.”
A standing-room-only crowd gathered Wednesday in the lobby of the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts for the ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the completion of the $36 million project.
The funding comes from the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax county voters renewed in 2003, 2009 and 2015. Combined with Columbus Consolidated Government projects, more than $100 million in public money has been invested on the former Columbus Square Mall property off Macon Road. Now, it contains the Columbus Public Library, the Muscogee County Public Education Center, the City Services Center and the Columbus Aquatic Center – and Rainey-McCullers has joined them.
The three-story, 118,500-square-foot facility at 1700 Midtown Drive is named after famous Columbus natives Ma Rainey, a blues singer, and Carson McCullers, a novelist. The school’s features include dedicated spaces for band, orchestra, chorus, piano lab, black box theater, two dance studios, 650-seat auditorium, art gallery, darkroom, practice room, digital editing room, film editing suite, film screening room and recording studio.
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“It truly is state-of-the-art in terms of technology and creativity,” said Lewis, a former band teacher. “… I’m so proud that Columbus has taken this step forward.” He called it a “testament to the community’s commitment to progress, the arts, public education and the legacy that is the children of Muscogee County for now and well into the future.”
Rainey-McCullers is designed to educate approximately 500 students (275-300 in middle school and about 200 in high school) but will open with grades 6-10 this year and add 11th grade next year and 12th grade the following year. Hecht Burdeshaw of Columbus is the architect, and Brasfield Gorrie of Columbus is the construction contractor.
MCSD took possession of the facility Monday, so Lewis called it a “Herculean effort” for the staff to be ready for the first day of classes this coming Monday.
MCSD board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 said, “Today is about gratitude because none of this would be possible without first saying again thank you to the citizens of Muscogee County for their continued support and renewal of the ESPLOST, the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. We have tremendous gratitude for that. This building, this facility, will unlock the doors and the future for so many students.”
In 2003, then-superintendent John Phillips appointed then-executive assistant Billy Kendall chairman of the arts school’s planning committee.
“Thank you so very much for all of your hard work and for continuing with the dream,” Green said. “It was a slow process, but you stayed faithful and you stayed committed to seeing this through.”
Phillips said he figured back then that it was time for Columbus to join Georgia’s other second-tier cities (Augusta, Macon and Savannah) and create an arts school for secondary education. The MCSD board agreed and set aside $1 million in the SPLOST to plan the arts school. Phillips also credited his successor, Susan Andrews, who “saw it through,” until Phillips returned as interim superintendent. During a budget crunch, he and the board reprioritized projects and put the arts school at the top of the list, funneling $20 million into the project in 2009.
Then, after the board hired Lewis from Polk County, Fla., in July 2013, another SPLOST vote in 2015 included additional funds for the arts school.
“People work together in this community to bring about the best,” Phillips said.
Rainey-McCullers principal Briant Williams said he saw this job as an opportunity to return to Georgia, where he’s been a choral teacher in Atlanta, DeKalb County and Chatham County. He also is familiar with Columbus, having earned his specialist’s degree in educational leadership and K-12 administration from Columbus State University in 2008. He was the principal of Broad Ripple School for the Arts and Humanities in Indianapolis the past two years.
“This is the right moment at the right time,” said Williams, on the job here for 4½ weeks. “… This is just a remarkable moment and place in history that we all stand in.”
Williams acknowledged, “The school is here because all of us, in some way, stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us.”
He emphasized the community nature of the school.
“In this house, there’s space for all,” Williams said. “In this house, we do touch on every aspect of the arts, but we also link that connection to mathematics, science, social studies, creative writing and English and the study of world languages.”
Williams doesn’t distinguish between academics and the arts. “All of it is equally important,” he said, “and all of it has to be taught with the same level of rigor and expectation. It is my honor to have the opportunity to serve, and I believe in the concept of servant leadership.”
“I am appreciative of the opportunity to lead a dynamic staff and to be the one who can kind of usher in a new era with everyone here,” Williams continued. “… I am pleased to be a part of the legacy. But, more importantly, I want the work that we do to speak for us – because if the work can’t speak for us, we’re all here in vain.”
Admission to Rainey-McCullers for middle school students was based on an application and recommendations. Admission for high school students also required an audition or portfolio assessment, depending on the discipline in which the student wants to focus.
Programs are expected to include music (band, chorus, guitar, orchestra and piano), dance (classical and modern), theater, technical theater, musical theater, visual art (2-D, 3-D, sculpture and photography), film and creative writing.
The Muscogee County School Board, in a controversial 5-4 vote in January, named the school in honor of Rainey and McCullers.
Rainey (1886-1939, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.
McCullers (1917-1967) wrote five novels, including her bestselling debut, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” as well as two plays and 20 short stories. Her work is considered classically Southern Gothic, and her writing continues to be taught in classrooms as one of America’s critically acclaimed authors.
Their former homes in Columbus have been turned into facilities honoring their legacies and attracting visitors: the Ma Rainey House and Blues Museum, 805 Fifth Ave., and the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, 1519 Stark Ave.
Lewis joked that he and MCSD construction director Bobby Hecht have had some “bumps and bruises” and “a few discussions along the way, and I certainly appreciate him acquiescing to me throughout the process in some respects, but he held his ground on some others.”
Lewis considers the school’s location in midtown appropriate, bridging disparate parts of the city, “because this is a school for all of our children, and I’m extremely excited about that.”