When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee returns to Cleveland on Tuesday he will be transitioning — within a five-day span — from helping to build an American dream to building opportunity through the American mind.
On Friday, the first-term governor and Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee worked alongside volunteers in Cleveland to help build a house with local and state leaders for Habitat for Humanity.
Just a few days later — on Tuesday — Lee will return to the community to break ground on a historic project … the innovative Partnerships in Industry and Education Center, which is the repurposing of a former factory by Bradley County Schools into a modern-day career and technical education training facility.
A time-tested but sturdy structure that once housed the American Uniform manufacturer at the corner of Parker and 23rd streets, the reimagined structure has been a work in progress since 2017 when the local school system announced the ambitious multimillion dollar project.
So impactful has the initiative been on the community’s education landscape that it was voted No. 10 among the 2019 Top 10 Newsmakers by editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.
With all the fundraising, planning, designing and public discourse over the past couple of years that has occupied the attention of the Bradley County Board of Education and Bradley County Commission, some might describe Tuesday’s groundbreaking as being a long time in coming.
Two of those are Dr. Linda Cash, director of Bradley County Schools, and Kyle Page, PIE Center project director.
“We are beyond excited to finally break ground on the PIE Innovation Center,” Cash told the Cleveland Daily Banner. “To see a dream of five years become a reality is truly something I cannot put into words.”
The veteran educator and school system administrator added, “The center will change the way we educate [in] our future, and [how we shape] the face of workforce development in our region. Bradley County Schools is thankful for a community that supports education and industry collaboration. The future is bright for Bradley County Schools.”
Lee agrees. During his campaign to become Tennessee’s next governor succeeding Bill Haslam, candidate Lee visited Cleveland to tour the shell of the American Uniform building that school system officials dreamed of converting into an education hotspot for nontraditional learning.
In visits to Cleveland, Lee even suggested the Bradley County Schools vision could serve as a model for other school systems across Tennessee.
Page, who has served as a familiar face through the course of the PIE Center’s development, concurred with Cash. Like the school system director, he pointed to the importance of the public-private partnerships that have made the PIE Center possible.
“These are exciting times for the citizens and students in Bradley County,” Page said. “With the support of our political figures at the state and local level, we will be looking forward to the groundbreaking and to the occupancy of PIE in the very near future.”
Page added, “It is exciting to see the private sector willing to join hands in collaboration with the public education system as we develop this one-of-a-kind workforce development site.”
Multiple companies have signed on to operate training and education spaces out of the PIE Center, and several have even participated in previous open houses at the facility to help explain how they fit in, and the educational and workforce benefits that await participating students.
In June 2019, when funding sources for the PIE Center were still being debated, Cleveland Associated Industries threw its support behind Bradley County Schools for the career and technical-training center.
In a letter to Bradley County Commission Chairman Johnny Mull, CAI wrote, “Bradley County has seen incredible growth in a variety of advanced manufacturing and STEM-related industries over the last decade and this growth is expected to continue at a rapid pace in the future. It is vital that Bradley County students graduate with foundational skills and a postsecondary pathway for successful careers in these businesses and industries across our region.”
The CAI letter added, “This center will create an innovative student experience through collaboration with businesses, changing learning pathways, providing experiential learning in STEM, embedded work-based learning experiences and promotion of design thinking. Bradley County can be a model for the region, if not the country, in rethinking our approach to technical education.”
The letter was signed by some 30 local businesses, companies and industries.
In a statement to the Cleveland Daily Banner, Brittany Cannon, community and communications coordinator for Bradley County Schools, said Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony will be attended by no more than 50 people because of state guidelines governing the size of crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of the crowd-size limits, the event will be livestreamed from Mix 104.1 (Mix Facebook and WCLE Mix 104.1), along with Bradley County Schools Facebook Live.
“This unprecedented center will be the first of its kind in Tennessee,” Cannon said. “The PIE Innovation Center will incorporate alternative education programming and provide an original and creative approach to advanced manufacturing, engineering technologies and technical skill classes through STEM, and Career and Technical Education.”
She said the PIE Innovation Center will provide these types of high school education programs, while also engaging business and industry in collaborative training partnerships and retail space with work-based learning opportunities for students, virtual educational coursework and service-learning.
Also expected to attend Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony alongside the Tennessee governor will be Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis and members of the Bradley County Commission and Bradley County Board of Education.
Also planning to be there will be the members of Bradley County’s legislative delegation: state Reps. Dan Howell and Mark Hall, and state Sens. Mike Bell and Todd Gardenhire.