An aquarium and a STEM center are part of one superintendent’s plan to empower a community through education

phenix-wilkesSeventy years ago, the Chattahoochee River was a beacon of opportunity, drawing men and their families to Phenix City, Alabama, to work on the mill. Seventy years later, many of those mill-workers’ descendants are living in projects, and their choices for employment and education seem slim.

When Randy Wilkes was appointed the superintendent of Phenix City Schools, located just across the river from Columbus, Georgia, in June 2014, he brought with him a mission for change. The small district had been hemorrhaging students after grade six, losing 120 kids out of a class of 600 to private and parochial schools and home schooling.

“There’s not a better way to change the economic climate of a city than through education,” Wilkes said. “The number one job in Phenix City is that of a meat cutter, or a meat trimmer, which earns $11.50 an hour. The number two job is that of a cashier, which makes $9.50 an hour. The jobs of tomorrow, the jobs that our students will see as opportunities for change, are all somewhat STEM related.”

Wilkes and his team visited the Savannah STEM Academy, and met with Carnegie Learning to see their magnet school. They also visited some forward-thinking school systems in Alabama, such as Piedmont City School District and Fort Payne City Schools. Wilkes had worked on a one-to-one iPad initiative at Crenshaw County, and wanted to revisit those ideas. Getting iPads in students’ hands became phase one of Wilkes’ new technology initiative at the district. Phase two is the creation of the STEM Center on the campus of Phenix City Intermediate School, a 9,500 square foot state-of-the-art building filled with technology labs, engineering labs, virtual learning labs, an aquarium, and more.

The district broke ground on the STEM Center in early October, and the building has been partially funded by businesses on both sides of the Chattahoochee River. “We asked local businesses to consider naming a room of the building for $25,000,” explained Wilkes. In addition to the eight naming opportunities within the building, the district put a price tag of $150,000 on naming the building itself, which was scooped up by a local businessman. “When we began this project back on June 18th, Mr. Gil Dyer and his family stepped up to make the first contribution—for $150,000,” recalls Wilkes. The building will be known as the Dyer Family STEM Center.

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