Union Academy, at 1425 10th Ave. N., has sat abandoned since last year. Columbus Municipal School District officials plan to reopen the school by this fall. Union would house the district's alternative school, Columbus Success Academy, which was housed at the Hunt campus. CSA students were moved to Columbus High School after February's tornado partially destroyed the Hunt building. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
March 23, 2019 10:06:45 PM
Cindy Lawrence walked through the doors of Union Academy and for a moment, she was taken back to 1966.
That year, Lawrence started her education as a first grade student in the now closed down school.
"It brought back so many memories," Lawrence said. "I knew where all my classrooms were. Everything just about looked the exact same."
Lawrence, who is the director of Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency, visited the school with Columbus Municipal School District employees a few weeks ago to assess damages caused by an EF-3 tornado that touched down on Feb. 23. The school building, located on 10th Avenue North near where the tornado caused much of the most significant damage, suffered some roof and window damage during the storm, according to CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat.
While traipsing the hallways, vivid memories poured in as Lawrence walked through the classrooms she attended for six years.
"The thing I remember most is my first grade teacher Ms. Maxey Vaughn," Lawrence said. "I remember her so well and how she would tell me how important education was in our life. What kind of stuck with me was she said we had to move like a ladder. You keep stepping to the top. You don't stop. That's what I've been doing is climbing the ladder ever since."
The school, which hasn't housed CMSD students for more than 10 years, will have teachers and students in it again by next year. February's tornado caused extensive damage to the former Hunt High School, which housed the district's alternative school, Columbus Success Academy.
With the 25 CSA students temporarily moved from the Hunt campus to Columbus High School, district administrators have been working to find a more permanent location until the Hunt campus is restored. Labat added it could take up to three years for the Hunt building to be operational.
School Board President Jason Spears said the Union Academy building, which is more than 46,500 square feet, could be "cleaned up" and repaired by the beginning of next school year.
Spears and Labat both agreed, if the tornado had significantly damaged any other school campus, students would be displaced indefinitely.
"This kind of exposed a vulnerability to the district by not having additional sites we could work with," Spears said. "Had this hit Stokes Beard (Elementary) versus Hunt, it would be much more problematic. ... (Union) can be used as a contingency facility."
Labat, who previously served at the Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, said her school suffered after Hurricane Katrina. After seeing the Union campus, she said she knew she wanted to restore the building for the district.
"We still have a while with this inclement weather," Labat said. "We have to have a plan. It's making me think of the future. I will always have a space to put kids. It's a luxury that most school districts don't have, to have additional buildings to relocate kids in case of a disaster."
Other than CSA, Spears said Hunt housed programs that have been disbanded since the tornado. With Union Academy, those programs could continue.
"A lot of people don't realize there were after school programs, skill programs such as carpentry housed at Hunt," Spears said. "We just want to have a facility that would allow those programs to continue with very little downtime."
Financing the costs
Neither Spears nor Labat could list the financial costs of revitalizing the building. District officials are working with its insurance company to see how much of district funds could go toward Union Academy.
Since students were displaced, Spears said, the district's insurance policy should financially cover the costs of housing those students at Union, and Labat agreed it would be the cheapest and most logical choice for the district.
"Our insurance company is working well with us," Labat said. "That seems like this is going to be a viable option for us to be able to relocate the displaced students."
One major issue, Spears said, would be repairing a water pipe that burst last January. Other than minor cosmetic interior and exterior work, the building is in sound condition, he added.
Previously, the school housed the state program Recruitment and Training, which helped residents of Columbus finance home-ownership. The pipe burst in January 2018 causing RTP to sever its contract with CMSD later that year.
History and reopening
Lawrence said she was excited about the possibility of reopening the school she remembers so vividly.
"That is so awesome to me, to be able to see that the doors will be open again to students," Lawrence said. "When I walked the hallways, I still see the same classrooms. I think it would mean a lot to the community."
The current Union Academy building was built in 1962, on the same site as the former Union Academy, which was built in 1903. Chuck Yarborough, a history teacher with Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, said the original Union Academy opened in a different location in the 1860s and was the first public school for African-American children in Columbus, and the only one until Mitchell Elementary was build in the 1920s.
"(Union) was the primary school for African Americans in Columbus for sure," Yarborough said.
Union housed elementary students from first through sixth grade until its closure in 2008.
With its rich history in Columbus, Yarborough said he is excited about seeing the property utilized again by CMSD.
"Union Academy certainly has its place as one of the most historic institutions in our community, particularly in the African-American community," Yarbrough said. "To see it utilized again is pretty fabulous."
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