Robotics team seeks new practice location

Published 10:59 pm Tuesday, October 21, 2008

FRANKLIN—With state competition rapidly approaching, Franklin High School’s highly successful robotics team remains homeless.

The team was displaced last spring by the reinstitution of a building and trades program on the FHS campus.

“We have been diligently looking for a location since we moved out of Franklin High School in late May,” sponsor Liz Burgess told the city school board last week. “The program takes a great deal of preliminary preparations, especially when there are no resources in a building, such as tables and storage. We are now 78 days away from competition, and we are still in wait for a location in which to move.”

Burgess was joined at the meeting by several volunteer mentors who pleaded the students’ case.

The group wants to occupy the vacant Charles Street gym adjacent to J.P. King Middle School and promised to help defray the estimated $45,000 necessary to make the building functional.

Assistant Superintendent Walter “Ricky” Clemons said that the robotics team isn’t the only displaced organization and that others, including the FHS wrestling team, want use of the Charles Street facility.

“Whatever we end up doing, it needs to be a situation where we can serve all of our organizations,” he said. “I do understand the urgency to find a facility.”

The robotics team needs about 3,500 square feet of floor space – “about the size of a gym” — and a building with a high ceiling.

Supporters have scouted vacant commercial buildings as possible locations but come up empty. They worry about being displaced again if a commercial building is sold or leased.

Volunteer mentor Charles Vaughan said the Charles Street gym “would be perfect” for the team.

“It’s a central location. There’s no rent. This team has the ability to restore that building — to bring power in, and heating as well. It could be a learning experience for the kids. It’s a win-win-win situation.

“It’s the only historic building left in our school system. It deserves some honor and respect, and it hasn’t been given that.”

The gym’s location next to J.P. King Middle School would give the robotics program good exposure with the next generation of potential team members, Vaughn said.

School board member David Benton urged administrators to “do whatever we can to support robotics.”

“It is hurtful to hear Mrs. Burgess say that she doesn’t think the kids are going to be able to compete this year,” he said. “I was fortunate to attend a state robotics competition in Richmond. It is without a doubt the most exciting high school event I have ever been to. It was better than any football game I’ve ever been to, and I love my sports. Seeing these kids … doing things with these robots is just amazing. We need to do whatever we can to support these kids.”

Board member Robert Meredith noted declining interest among American high school students in math and science careers.

“We need to do anything we can to build excitement for kids to want to be in these fields,” he said. “This is one way we can do that. There are all kinds of reasons to want to keep this program going and going well.”

Also at its meeting last week, the school board heard from Eleanor Ashburn, who commended a resurgence of Franklin High School’s marching band.

Now known as the “Marching Stampede,” the band has 56 members this fall, up from 28 a year ago. Ashburn credited the efforts of new band director Justin Thomas, a Hampton University graduate and Atlanta native who moved to Franklin in August.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” said Ashburn, a former school board member.

She urged the board to consider funding increases for the band program in future budgets.