The Muscogee County School District is turning an old school into a site for a new kind of learning.
Renovations are transforming the former Muscogee Elementary School into a STEAM Center, which will provide a venue for activities in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, arts and math for students at all grade levels, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
No dollar figures were mentioned during the administration’s presentation to the Muscogee County School Board at its monthly work session Monday evening. District 7 representative Cathy Williams questioned the absence of that information, and superintendent David Lewis said it is too early to determine the cost.
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“It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said.
Nonetheless, Victoria Thomas, MCSD’s director of career, technical and agricultural education, showed the board the district’s plan to use all four buildings on the Muscogee Elementary campus for the STEAM Center.
▪ Four office spaces available for partner organizations through memorandums of understanding.
▪ An indoor/outdoor meeting room with roll-up door.
▪ Pre-K classrooms.
▪ Science labs.
▪ Math labs.
▪ Staff lounge/break room.
▪ Computer lab.
▪ Training room.
▪ FIRST LEGO League room.
▪ FIRST LEGO League Jr. room
▪ FIRST Tech Challenge room.
▪ Computer lab.
▪ Four classrooms for Columbus Space Program, available through memorandum ofunderstanding.
▪ MCSD robotics fields.
Thomas said the STEAM Center should help the district expand the number of schools offering robotics teams.
Locating the STEAM Center near the new Spencer High School, which has a computer science and electronic game design magnet, and the planned Benning Technology Park, one of the Columbus Consolidated Government’s projects funded by a Tax Allocation District, will create beneficial "synergies," Lewis noted.
The STEAM Center is aligned with the vision outlined by the Columbus 2025 strategic plan, created by local business and community leaders. One of the workforce development goals strives to boost the preparation of MCSD students for high-tech jobs and, as a result, hopefully attract more high-tech companies with high-paying jobs.
The STEAM Center is designed for all MCSD students throughout the district as a way to supplement what they are learning in school. When the center is fully operational, the center would accommodate students through field trips, after-school programs and summer programs through partnerships with other organizations. It also would provide professional development for teachers.
In addition to the two science labs, the center is expected to include a hydroponic greenhouse, an open-air garden and drone-assisted farming.
At least one of the three computer labs will be an Apple Mac lab to expose students to the programming language Swift, which is exclusive to the Mac operating system. Mac labs are the industry standard for graphic design, combining art and technology. And at least one of the three labs will include 3-D/virtual reality simulators.
The center will serve as a hub for the school-based robotics teams as students move through the three levels: FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge.
The math labs could be used for after-school tutoring.
During the 2018-19 school year, the MCSD administration intends to explore the creation of a STEAM-focused pre-K program to be housed in the center.
Because the former Muscogee Elementary School is in District 3, Vanessa Jackson, the board member representing District 3, has the right to recommend the STEAM Center’s name. She proposed naming it after Butler. Per board policy, the board must wait 30 days to allow for public comment before voting on the recommendation.
Columbus Councilor Bruce Huff of District 3 spoke to the school board to express his support for the STEAM Center. He noted the U.S. Army has directed Fort Benning to expand military robotics, so the STEAM Center could be a natural partner.
"I didn't have opportunities like this when I was coming up," Huff said. "... You're looking at changing the face of Columbus, Georgia."
In conversations with high-tech businesses considering Columbus, Huff said, officials want to know whether the local workforce has the ability to fill those jobs. Too often, the response is, "You are a manufacturing community," Huff said.
But with the STEAM Center, Huff said, "The pre-K coming up, when they come out in the 12th grade, they will probably be better trained than anyone we've ever seen, and we will be able to attract industry this way so they can find the workforce that they need. The possibilities are limitless."
Huff added, "This will be something that will give us a serious brand in the future, that will make other communities very, very jealous of us."
Susan Wiggins, vice president for stakeholder relations at W.C. Bradley, explained to the school board the company's and Butler's interest in the STEAM Center project.
"Following in the family tradition of servant leadership, Steve has been committed to the betterment of the community his entire career and making Columbus the best community in America in which to raise a family," Wiggins said. "He is a longtime supporter of education and wants to ensure that every child has the opportunity provided to them to learn and grow and to ultimately be successful in life. We commend the school system on designing this new STEAM Center, that our children can be competitive in today's marketplace, that is so driven by technology."
Retired MCSD teacher Mike Edmondson, a candidate in the July 24 runoff against Kar-Tunes owner Bart Steed, wanted to convert the former Bibb Elementary School into an “iSTEAM center” for science and arts education, but he couldn't raise enough money to buy the property from MCSD. The school board instead sold it in February for $15,000 to former Georgia state Rep. Earl Davis, who said then that he planned to convert the property into apartments or a group home.
In an emailed interview Tuesday, Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer why Edmondson's proposal didn't come to fruition.
"Despite his committed efforts, Mr. Edmondson was unable to secure the necessary funding for the purchase and renovation of the Bibb property, where he had hoped to house the program," Lewis said. "The concept of becoming a STEAM district was articulated as a long-term initiative within the Strategic Plan approved by the Board of Education in 2014."
Asked for the dollar amount of W.C. Bradley's donation, Lewis said, "W.C. Bradley has asked that the amount of the donation not be disclosed."
The L-E also asked how much money MCSD has spent and plans to spend on renovating Muscogee Elementary for the STEAM Center.
"Only the custodial hours to clean and prepare the area of the facility related to the robotics program to this point," Lewis said. "The approximate cost is $1,000, which would have otherwise been spent at Marshall (the former middle school that was housing the robotics program). . . . The other phases of the conceptual plan are being estimated and will be brought to the board along with funding sources for approval prior to proceeding."