Photo: The old high school on 12th Street is mostly unused. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The Old Gadsden High School located on 12th Street has laid largely in disrepair for years since the merger of the city’s three high schools into Gadsden City High School in 2006.
But that is about to change, said Gadsden City Schools Superintendent Tony Reddick.
According to Reddick, the building will be the site of multiple developments in the coming years. The first phase of its revitalization begins with Gadsden Readiness And Career Education Academy, or GRACE Academy.
The new program will be funded by a grant from The Alabama Construction Industry Craft Training Board. GRACE Academy will offer on-the-job construction training to local students and adults.
Reddick credited grant writer Dr. Lana Bellew with securing the funding.
“Dr. Bellew discovered this grant where we can help with workforce development,” Reddick said. “That’s been an issue in our city, community and in our county for many, many years. And so we saw an opportunity to take advantage of this by offering training programs in commercial construction, plumbing and electrical technology, all hands-on simulators.”
Reddick said the program will be open to a wide range of participants.
“The program is intended to serve adults as well as students,” he said. “It does not conflict with our career tech program because we’re not offering a credit for it, and we’re not really offering a certification for it. We will guide these participants to an opportunity for certification, but it’s mostly on-the-job training. We have commitments from a number of local businesses; I think we received about 19 letters of support for it.”
Local businesses will “lend” instructors to lead trainings, and several have also agreed to hiring program participants after their training is complete.
“It’s just an opportunity for our participants to just learn a work-ready trade,” Reddick said. “The commitment that they have from some of our local businesses [means] they can just about put them to work immediately.”
The program has long been conceptualized as GRACE Academy, but it once had a much different focus.
“Some time ago, I came up with the idea of what I call GRACE Academy, which at the time was Gadsden Rehabilitative Alternative Center for Education, where we were primarily concerned about our students who were struggling with maybe mental health issues and other issues where we thought counseling was necessary,” Reddick said.
The construction industry grant, however, proved a more beneficial opportunity. The grant caused the Gadsden City Schools Board to “change direction for the better,” Reddick said, especially considering work will begin on GRACE Academy’s first three classrooms as soon as October.
Social and emotional education tools remain a focus for Reddick, but he said that technical training lends itself to “addressing a more permanent need in terms of providing work skills for the community.”
Reddick said he has dreamed of many uses for the building in the years since its closing. While a portion of the old high school currently houses the alternative school, this only accounts for a fraction of the available space.
“We’ve always had a passion for the old Gadsden High School,” Reddick said. “[It is a] beautiful facility, but very limited in its use.”
The three classrooms to be converted to labs for GRACE Academy are located on the opposite side of the building from the current alternative school.
“I felt as superintendent that while we still use the facility somewhat, there could be additional purposes assigned to it,” Reddick said. “Obviously, there are some areas that are in disrepair. There are some roofing needs that limit us to what we can do in certain parts of the building, but in this particular area we’re in pretty good shape.”
The beauty of housing a construction industry training program in an old building is that the location itself serves as a learning opportunity. Reddick said students of GRACE Academy will practice construction, plumbing and electrical skills on parts of the old high school building, perhaps even restoring some of its classrooms.
Reddick said the board aims to train 250 participants in the program’s first year.
GRACE Academy students will train for 16 weeks, allowing for three cohorts to pass through the program each year, around what would be fall, spring and summer semesters.
“These will be individuals who, once they’re done with their 16-week cohort, will have learned enough of a skill to actually go to work, so that’s what we’re most excited about,” Reddick said.
Reddick claimed the program is attractive for local students and workers preparing to enter or reenter the workforce.
“I think in a situation where you’ve got a training opportunity where there’s a job basically just waiting for you, that should invite more people to consider taking advantage of it,” he said.