If ghosts exist in the old Russell School, they must be of the friendly variety.
The only things scary about the school are the technological advances that the children in Head Start have mastered as effortlessly as coloring within the lines.
In an innovative partnership between the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties and the Lexington-Fayette County Urban League, what was once Lexington's oldest historically black school is well on its way to becoming classrooms, apartments and a neighborhood services center.
Community Action Council has completed renovations to its half of the nearly $6 million project, which has Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms and space for CAC to provide social services in the community.
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The offices opened in July. The Head Start program started in August.
The other half of the building, which is being renovated by the Urban League, will have 26 subsidized apartments for senior citizens. That phase should be completed in March.
In the CAC portion, each classroom has natural light, either through windows or with multi-unit skylights in interior rooms that open and close remotely. Vaughn Nebbitt, children's services coordinator, said studies have shown that there is a correlation between natural daylight and achievement.
One room houses a row of monitors that are keyed to cameras in each classroom so staff and children can be observed.
In another, children touched a screen on a wall to reveal parts of an animal while a recording, or a teacher, talked about the animal's habitat and other characteristics.
Computers in another classroom allowed children to work independently on colors, shapes, vocabulary and math. They tapped the image that had been pre-set on the monitor, and the lessons they were working on appeared on the screen. Once a goal was reached, the child moved to the next level.
"I'm big on children's independence," Nebbitt said.
The Head Start and Early Head Start are federal half-day programs that are free. The programs at CAC, however, are full-day, all year long, for children 6 weeks to 5 years old. Parents might be charged a nominal fee for the extra hours, but no one is turned away for lack of money. There are 56 students enrolled, with a student-teacher ratio of 1 to 10, and there is a short waiting list.
Jack Burch, executive director of CAC, said he envisioned a state-of-the-art child development center that Bill Gates could proudly send his children to. A team of some of his best early child development professionals told him, starting in 2005, how they would design a classroom.
"I had a lot of people say, 'You are asking the impossible,'" Burch said of the advanced technology he aspired to. "I said, no, I'm not. Our kids need it more.
"We have 30 locations," he said. "This is the flagship. This is the one they all need to look like."
The Fayette County Board of Education closed Russell School in 2003 because of dwindling enrollment and the need for costly repairs. CAC and the Urban League bought it in 2005 for $350,000.
A burgoo of financial arrangements from local, state and federal agencies then fell into place for the project, said P.G. Peeples Sr., president and chief executive of the Urban League.
Foremost was a loan from Central Bank, devised by Luther Deaton Jr., the bank's chairman, president and CEO, that gave the agencies enough money to buy the building for $375,000. The loan allowed them to pay interest only until they could find the necessary financing to begin the project.
"You can't apply for this type of financing if you can't show that you have control of land," Peeples said.
Together, the men worked to make the project happen.
"P.G. talked about senior housing, and I talked about a neighborhood center and a state-of-the-art child development center," Burch said. "We said, 'We need money from you and we'll pay you back some day.'"
Deaton told the men, "I like to be a part of big dreams," Burch said.
"Luther took a risk on a dream in a neighborhood that a lot of people had overlooked," he said.
The Urban League's part of the project will feature one-bedroom apartments that could rent for $540, utilities included. But with low income-tax credits from Kentucky Housing Corp. and funds from HUD, seniors will pay rent at only 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, Peeples said. Four of the units will be designed for Section 8.
Throughout the renovated hallways are glimpses of the old Russell School, including a mural in the services office that was a familiar touchstone. The school was a center of life for the neighborhood in years past and remains an important piece of history, Burch said.
It was rebuilt in the 1950s and named for G.P. Russell, a prominent black educator who supervised Lexington's black schools in the late 1890s.
When the final phase of the renovation is completed in the spring, the two agencies will honor Deaton and the funding agencies at the grand opening.
"This is going to be a very unique project when it is finished," Peeples said.
From what I saw in those classrooms last week, it already is.