New Thomas Jefferson High School set for 2018 opening
West Jefferson Hills School District facilities Director Ryan Snodgrass stood under the open sky, surrounded by piles of concrete block and puddles of water.
In a little over a year, nearly 1,000 students will be walking through that exact site to start their first day of school inside the new 300,000 square foot Thomas Jefferson High School.
“This is a big piece,” Snodgrass said, as he turned around and walked through the entry way, into a focal point of the new school: a two story, state of the art media center, complete with new technology, surrounded by large glass windows that overlook the hillside on the 161 acre site off of Old Clairton Road.
The curricular area leading to the media center, which comes into view as you enter the school, will include a large staircase and a glass enclosure overlooking the first-floor cafeteria.
“You walk into the heart of the education piece first,” Snodgrass said. “That’s important, because that’s what this building is about, educating the kids.”
Construction of the new $95 million Thomas Jefferson High School, set to open in the summer of 2018 for the 2018-19 school year, is about 45 percent complete, said Betsy Kane of Turner Construction Company who is managing the project. The only delays in the project were caused by soil conditions, she said. Crews have worked to make up for lost time.
The site of the new school is a reclaimed strip mine and required engineered soil to be brought in and compacted prior to the start of construction, Snodgrass said. The rolling hills and trees were leveled to make way for the new school, which is being constructed with six buildings made into one.
The cost of the project is down from the original estimate which went as high as $101 million, Snodgrass said. The total cost of the project includes all aspect of the building including construction, furnishing and technology.
Nearly 100 crew members — from electricians to masons to steamfitters — work on site each day to construct the new school that is complete with an eight-lane pool, outdoor courtyard and rooftop terraces, and is patterned after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., with a red brick facade and white pillars at the entry.
The number of crew members on site each day will increase as construction moves forward, Snodgrass said.
The school will include amenities for students that current Thomas Jefferson High School, built in 1959, fails to offer. The school is built to hold 1,000 students. In 2016-17, Thomas Jefferson had an enrollment of 883 students.
For Superintendent Michael Ghilani, who started in the district in March, the focus for the new building will be on individualized student learning through technology.
“I really want the focus to be on student learning and student growth,” he said. That includes making sure each student is improving academically, socially and emotionally – something he wants to see done districtwide.
It’s not about having a grandiose building, Ghilani said. It’s about learning.
“You don’t need a Taj Mahal. It’s what’s going on inside that matters,” he said.
Learning should be fun and relevant, Ghilani said, and focusing on social and emotional aspects of the student culture also is vital.
In the new school, Ghilani said, he wants to create a new culture for students that’s welcoming. He talked about the 20 years that students, teachers and parents all heard that a new high school was coming. It didn’t for many years. That took a toll, he said.
“I want to remember, honor and respect the Thomas Jefferson High School that has been, but I want to redefine and create a new culture of the new Thomas Jefferson High School,” he said.
Ghilani met with parent, teacher, community and student groups to get feedback. He created themes from their conversations and launched a survey for key groups. The data he receives will be used to craft a three- to five-year plan for every school in the district.
Some of the goals include improving communication from the district to parents, focusing more on individualized learning and leveraging technology in the schools.
Safety, also, will be a top priority.
As Snodgrass walked through the concrete structure of the new school, he stopped at several entry points. Main areas of the school – like the pool or gymnasium – will have their own entry and can be locked off from the rest of the school, as a safety feature.
Concrete blocks now create an outline in the dirt for the auditorium stage, which will be three times the size of the stage at the current school, Snodgrass said. On the other end of the building, the natatorium, home of the district’s first pool, is further along, with a roof and lighting and seating already taking shape.
As construction moves forward, Snodgrass said, he’s starting to hear different questions from the community, which once focused on cost. They’re now asking if the pool, gymnasium and auditorium will be open for public use. People are ready for the new building, Snodgrass said.
“We’re super excited,” board President Brian Fernandes said. “This is the center piece of the school district. It’s been a long time coming. People are very excited about this new building. It represents a symbol of growth for our district.”
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.