A glorious day for a glorious reason. That’s how Muscogee County School Board chairman Rob Varner described it.
More than 150 folks gathered on a vacant field for Saturday’s groundbreaking ceremony, celebrating another milestone in the $36 million project that will produce a 118,500-square-foot arts academy, scheduled to open in time for the start of the 2017-18 school year.
Parts of the past three Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes, which Columbus voters approved in 2003, 2009 and 2015, are funding this project. More than $100 million in public money already has been invested on the former Columbus Square Mall property, noted city manager Isaiah Hugley. Now, it contains the Columbus Public Library, the Muscogee County Public Education Center, the City Services Center and the Columbus Aquatic Center -- and the arts academy will join them on 15 acres behind the library.
School board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green, the city manager’s sister, told the crowd, “We can’t say thank you enough to all of the fine citizens who have supported this effort, from the seed to the watering, and now we’re just waiting for the blossoms to come out of the ground.”
This is a school that, given the right opportunities, students can come into and grow, regardless of the economic circumstances from which they come.
Muscogee County School Board chairman Rob Varner
Varner recalled a conversation he had with a resident eight years ago, when he first ran for election. The resident labeled the arts academy an “elitist thought.”
“I knew that was wrong,” Varner said. “I knew it was just the opposite of that. This is a school that, given the right opportunities, students can come into and grow, regardless of the economic circumstances from which they come.”
The three-story design allows for a maximum of 500 students in grades 6-12, although it can accommodate an expansion. Middle school students will be enrolled in a process the administration will recommend to the school board, depending on the number of students who express interest. High school students will be admitted based on merit through an audition or portfolio review. The faculty will comprise certified educators and working professionals in their respective fields.
The programs will include, chorus, guitar, orchestra, dance, piano, film, creative writing, theater, musical theater, music business and visual arts (such as drawing, painting and photography).
The state-of-the-art facility will feature a 650-seat main theater with a balcony, a smaller theater, a black box theater, a recital hall and an outdoor studio.
But the academy’s mission won’t be training future stars, superintendent David Lewis emphasized.
“Students who attend this school may be coming to pursue a career in the fine arts or possibly not,” Lewis said. “It’s interesting that in fine arts schools throughout the country, less than 2 percent of the students who graduate from those schools actually go on to pursue careers in those areas. They may be doctors, lawyers, architects or accountants.
“The reality of it is, they are fostering and garnering that whole idea of creativity and innovation. They’re mining that for their futures. And that will make them better doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on.”
Their parents told us that some of these were very disengaged students they were in danger of losing from the regular curriculum, but they had found a purpose and they had come to pursue educational excellence through a passion for their art.
Former Muscogee County School Board chairwoman Mary Sue Polleys
Mary Sue Polleys chaired the school board in the 1990s, when Guy Sims was superintendent. During a visit to the arts academy in Augusta, students expressed “how their lives had been transformed by being able to have the opportunities to have the daily practice, the rigor and the discipline that was required and the focus on fundamentals,” Polleys said, “and how they could put up with algebra and history since they got to do their art for half the day.
“Their parents told us that some of these were very disengaged students they were in danger of losing from the regular curriculum, but they had found a purpose and they had come to pursue educational excellence through a passion for their art.”
All of which begged the question: “Why can’t we do this in Columbus?”
After voters approved the 2003 SPLOST, with $1 million in seed money for the arts academy project, then-superintendent John Phillips assigned his executive assistant, Billy Kendall, the task of traveling around the Southeast to take the best ideas from other arts academies. Thirteen years later, Kendall still chairs the academy’s planning committee.
Susan Andrews was superintendent when voters passed the 2009 SPLOST. Then the Great Recession prompted the board to approve the 2012 recommendation from Phillips, who returned as interim superintendent, to delay the arts academy project. No wonder he declared at Saturday’s ceremony, "Sustained effort over time, that’s the key to success, and this is a model of that theory."
So when the facility is finished, Columbus won’t be the largest city in Georgia without an arts academy for secondary education anymore. And the elementary school students from the Wynnton Arts Academy chorus, who entertained the crowd, will have a school where they can continue their specialized curriculum.