A grassroots organization called the Friends of Phenix City Schools has launched a $1.1 million fundraising campaign to make a state-of-the-art STEM Center at Phenix City Intermediate School and an expansion facility on the campus of Central High School and the Central Freshman Academy even more state-of-the-art.
Those friends are off to a good start. More than 50 folks have made contributions totaling nearly $250,000 since the June 18 kickoff event, including $150,000 from Gil Dyer to name the center for science, technology, engineering and math in honor of his family. Dyer owns Gil's Auto Sales, with three locations in Phenix City, two in Columbus and one Opelika
Superintendent Randy Wilkes on Friday expressed his appreciation to those "first responders" and the Dyer family.
"It says that they understand that, if you want to grow a community, if you want to improve the quality of life, if you want to improve the economy, start with education," he said.
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And if you want a successful campaign, start with a hometown hero, such as Griff Gordy, who quarterbacked Central to the 1993 state football championship and is taking time from his optometry practice to lead a different team toward a different goal.
"I am born and raised in Phenix City, I'm a product of this school system, and I'm invested in this community with a small business, so I want to be a part of something that's going to be positive for our kids, and this is a great way to do that," Gordy said while answering why he agreed to chair the campaign. " I'm able to explain what Phenix City means to me and how important it is to provide our children the best education we can."
Noting nearly a quarter of the six-month campaign's goal has been reached in less than two weeks, Gordy praised the supporters.
"It speaks volumes about the people in this community," he said. " But it's important that more people are informed about what we're trying to do."
The Phenix City Board of Education approved last year a bond issue for more than $10 million that includes $3.1 million for the Central expansion and $1.7 million for the STEM Center, as well as the already completed additions to Sherwood Elementary ($1.8 million) and Lakewood Primary ($1.1 million), new school buses ($1.5 million) and Central High's new roof ($1.2 million).
So construction on the Central expansion facility and the STEM Center will start this fall and is expected to finish by August 2016, Wilkes said, regardless of how much private money is collected. But beyond the "brick and mortar," he said, the fundraising campaign will mean the difference between the buildings having satisfactory or excellent equipment and furnishings.
"If we're going to prepare students for tomorrow's jobs, if we're going to prepare them properly for college, all students -- really K-12, but we're starting this in grades 6, 7 and 8 - need to be exposed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum," Wilkes said of the STEM Center.
The center's plan shows the 9,500 square feet comprising labs for computer coding, engineering, digital media and virtual reality, plus display models for a river ecosystem, a saltwater aquarium and a "magic planet," which will be an interactive globe 4 feet in diameter.
South Girard School also will have STEM labs, but they will be constructed in existing space, Wilkes said.
As for the Central expansion facility, the square footage wasn't available, but the plan includes classrooms, an indoor artificial turf practice field, strength and conditioning stations, a softball batting cage, a training room, locker rooms and storage.
The building will meet a growing need. Since 1992, according to the school system's figures, the number of Phenix City teams has increased from 26 to 48 and the number of participants has increased from 560 to 1,030. But the system's budget hasn't kept up the pace, amounting to less than 1 percent of the $66 million in expenditures, Wilkes said.
"I don't think we're overspending when it comes to student athletes," he said.
The fundraising effort equates to a dropout prevention program, the superintendent contends.
"When you start to look at research, dropout is not something a 16-year-old actually contemplates," he said. "This is something that materializes well in advance, even as far down as the primary grades. So keeping students interested in class with hands-on, minds-on activity is probably the best dropout prevention program that you could possibly have."
Wilkes has been gratified to see enthusiasm and pride from the community since the Phenix City Board of Education hired him from Crenshaw County last summer.
"When we came to Phenix City, we did not sit down and say, 'Here's your vision. Now, let's go accomplish these things.' We brought all the stakeholders to the table," he said. "We've had numerous STEM meetings, leadership meetings, departmental meetings - and the stakeholders, they have been the ones, we have been the ones, to develop this vision."
Even after the $1.1 million goal is reached, Wilkes said, more reasons to donate to Phenix City's public education effort will be presented.
"This is perpetual," he said. "This is not going away. We will have other projects in the future."
HOW TO DONATE
To help the Friends of Phenix City Schools reach its $1.1 million goal, contact executive secretary Lara Beth Johns at 334-298-0534 or email@example.com.