Sumter gets $3.11 million grant for new college and career academy

From left, One Sumter Executive Director Mary Beth Bass is pictured with Jason Dunn, executive director of Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority, and Melissa Dark, a business owner in Fitzgerald. Bass announced Thursday that the Technical College System of Georgia has awarded Sumter County a $3.11 million grant to be used as seed money for design of the new Ignite College and Career Academy in Americus. (Photo: UGA)

AMERICUS – The Technical College System of Georgia announced Thursday that Sumter County is one of four communities statewide to receive a competitive grant award.

One Sumter Economic Development Foundation officials said the $3.11 million grant will go to help fund the design and construction of Ignite College and Career Academy in Americus. Officials said the award is a culmination of multiple years of commitment by business and industry in the county, working with Sumter County Schools, South Georgia Technical College and Georgia Southwestern State University.

The grant application and planning were initiated by a financial partnership between the One Sumter, South Georgia Tech and Sumter County Schools in 2017. Officials said the success of being named one of this year’s Georgia College and Career Academy Project grant recipients lies in the grassroots effort of the entire community.

Officials said more than 150 community members from across Sumter attended 217 planning meetings, investing almost 200,000 volunteer hours and sparking a renewed synergy around education and hope for the county’s economic future.

Sumter County Schools Superintendent Torrance Choates gave credit to the “Dream Team” partnership that served as the foundation and driving force of this accomplishment.

“This is a very special day for Sumter County and the Sumter County School District,” Choates said. “I want to thank the Sumter County Board of Education for giving us 100 percent support and standing in complete solidarity throughout the entire process of applying for the College and Career Academy grant … a ‘Dream Team’ of almost 40 school board members, school administrators, business/community leaders and others journeyed to Atlanta to compete for the grant.

“We are very pleased with the opportunities this grant will provide for our students and community.”

Ignite College and Career Academy is meant to offer innovation in education and learning, and put business and industry in the driver’s seat of Sumter County’s educational outcomes — establishing a platform for K-12 education and higher education institutions to hear firsthand from companies about their growth needs and the workforce skills necessary to grow their companies, and in turn, Sumter’s economy.

Ignite’s Board of Directors is governed by business and industry leaders. Dwight Jones, plant manager of Eaton Corporation, serves the board’s chairman.

“Eaton came to the table with great interest for a college and career academy early on, hosting an education summit of statewide and Sumter County leaders around this issue in 2016” Jones said. “To have achieved this accomplishment today, knowing the amount of hard work that was put into this and its long-term benefits, will not only add value for Eaton but for all of Sumter County’s businesses, and our students. It is truly amazing.”

South Georgia Tech President John Watford echoed Jones’ enthusiasm.

“South Georgia Tech is so excited to be a part of the community-wide effort to see the Ignite College and Career Academy become a reality,” Watford said. “Local business and industry have spearheaded this initiative from the beginning to better prepare our young people for the workforce and to improve the economic outlook of Americus and Sumter County.

“As a college whose mission is centered on workforce education, we couldn’t be happier at the outcome. We look forward to working with the Ignite College and Career Academy.”

Ignite is also designed to link the needs of business and industry with the ready workforce Sumter County has on-hand in the community — its students. Trained by business and industry professionals, as well as college and university-level educators, Ignite’s students can enter the workforce pipeline directly upon graduation, or move onto a higher learning experience in college prepared to work towards a degree.

Neal Weaver, president of Georgia Southwestern, shared GSW’s enthusiasm for Ignite and the impact for both his institution and the community.

“All of us at Georgia Southwestern State University are excited to work with Ignite College and Career Academy as Americus and Sumter County continue to develop and expand the economic development infrastructure of the region,” Weaver said. “The opportunity to engage with students as they explore career options and develop the personal attributes that will make them excellent colleges students, employees and community leaders is embedded in our mission as a University, and we are looking forward to a great partnership.”

Officials said some 135 employers from across central and south Georgia responded to an online workforce needs assessment, and their feedback has helped with curriculum planning and design for Ignite. Among those employers, more than 100 business, industry, parents and individuals committed to giving an additional $8.4 million in cash and in-kind contributions, supporting Ignite with internships, apprenticeships, teacher externships, mentoring and other investments to support Ignite’s students.

Students will have elective pathway extensions available, enabling them to complete multiple pathways sooner, better preparing them for success in the workplace upon graduation. The establishment and funding of Ignite College and Career Academy represents a significant return on the investment of One Sumter’s 100 foundation donors.

“Having been involved in partnership efforts of all varieties in several different communities, what I have seen transpire in Sumter County over the last three years is nothing short of extraordinary,” One Sumter Executive Director Mary Beth Bass said. “Ignite represents a real partnership in the truest sense of the word — where all parties have had to give or concede in some areas to make the whole work. Choates, the Sumter County Board of Education, Watford, Weaver and the many, many business leaders and individuals who have made this process a success are to be commended for their vision and leadership.

“We are proud to be able to bring this $3.11 million home to more than match our donors’ contributions of $2 Million. Without their continued support, we would not be here today.”

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