Local has plans for Bertie Rouse

Published 7:00 am Friday, March 6, 2020

One Picayune business owner wants to put the historic former East Side Elementary School building back in use as a community center, but faces many hurdles including getting permission from the Picayune School District to use the building and finding funding to conduct repairs the building needs before it can be utilized.

On North Haugh Avenue the former East Side Elementary School, also known as Bertie Rouse Elementary, sits idle. The historic building is used by the Picayune School District for storage, because the building is in poor condition and the School District does not have any other use for it, said Superintendent Dean Shaw.

The building serves as a historic landmark and is listed on the historic register. According to Mississippi Department of Archives and History records, the Colonial Revival style school was built in 1928 and designed by Jackson architect N.H. Overstreet. There are five examples of Overstreet’s work in Pearl River County, and the school building on North Haugh is the only one built prior to WWII. According to previous coverage, the building includes eight classrooms and an auditorium and has been damaged by age and natural disasters.

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First Step Learning Lab owner Wanda Worley has a personal history with the building.

“It saved my life when I slept in the back area part, connected to the kitchen. When I slept in other buildings, I ended up getting hurt, but no one saw me there,” said Worley.

The Picayune native spent part of her adolescence homeless and the historic building was one refuge she was able to find. Now the owner of a local tutoring business, Worley wants to provide a safe haven to others.

“I want to be that person that could have helped me when I was a kid,” said Worley.

Worley’s vision is to transform the vacant school building into a community center that offers childcare services, summer camp and afterschool programs. She also wants it to serve as a shelter for people with nowhere to go at night, complete with a kitchen to feed anyone who is struggling.

Worley started a change.org petition to gather signatures in support of the proposal, and has gathered letters of support from community members. As of Thursday, 142 people have signed her online petition, but Worley’s goal is to reach at least half of the community. She also carries paper petitions in her car wherever she goes.

Worley has spoken with administrators within the Picayune School District, who are looking into what permissions and requirements would have to be fulfilled before they could rent or lease the building, she said.

Assistant Superintendent Walt Esslinger said the cost to repair the building would be considerable. District staff members recall an estimate from years ago to repairing the building being roughly $600,000, which Esslinger guesses would cost closer to $1 million today.

The building also has no available parking, said Esslinger, which would make it difficult to use for anything aside from storage.

Worley is working on grant applications and trying to find businesses to sponsor the proposed community center. If the building is available for rent and she is able to locate funding, Worley intends to put the vacant school back in use.

However, even if acquiring rights to use the building proves impossible, she still wants to bring more childcare services and programs to the community.

“Even if I’m unable to get the building itself, I will look elsewhere for a building, or build from the ground up,” she said.