October 31, 2011 — As Nisha Botchwey, associate professor of urban and environmental planning in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, sorted through community members' ideas for repurposing Charlottesville's historic Jefferson School, one stuck with her.
A young person submitted pictures of nearby parks at night where kids were doing things they shouldn't and suggested that what the youths in the community needed was "a space of our own."
This phrase has come to embody the goals of the Jefferson School City Center project, mirroring the spirit that "allows us to come together as a community to create a space that allows us to become better people," Botchwey said.
The school's roots date to 1865, when the New England Freedmen's Aid Society sent a teacher, Anna Gardner, to Charlottesville to open a school for former slaves after the Civil War. The first Jefferson School was a one-room school in the Delevan Hotel on West Main Street that had served as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers, according to the city center project's website.
The first school at the current Fourth Street site, the Jefferson Graded School, was built in 1894. In 1926, the first of four phases of what became the Jefferson High School – one of the first 10 schools available to African-Americans in Virginia – opened its doors, explained Andrea Douglas, program chair for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Advisory Committee.
Since 2005, when the school was rescued from a proposed chain development, local residents have been working to renovate and transform it into a community center and a living monument to the city's history.
Once renovated, the building is expected to include the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center; the Carver Recreation Center; spaces for educational programs and tenants such as YMCA child care and a Martha Jefferson Hospital clinic; and a café.
At one time, Douglas said, African-American students could receive education only up to the 11th grade, but the Jefferson School continued to provide extra education. She is working on a permanent exhibition, "Pride Overcomes Prejudice," which traces the history of the school from 1865 to the present.
During the summer and fall of 2010, Botchwey and several urban and environmental planning students utilized techniques like "Photovoice," in which youth and adults responded to a set of questions by taking photos, to identify issues in the community and develop recommendations for the Jefferson School City Center.
Botchwey then formulated recommendations on recreation, social education, volunteer and employment training activities and confirmed with stakeholders in the community that these recommendations reflected their needs.
The culmination of the research effort appeared in an exhibit at the Charlottesville Community Design Center's City Space in February. It helped the project leaders confirm that their prior work with focus groups and Jefferson School alumni was on track and gave them an opportunity to refine their plans.
Botchwey's work "helped solidify the idea that what we were presenting was what the community wanted," Douglas said.
Members of the Jefferson School Foundation's board of directors have high aspirations for the center. Douglas said in the long term, the board hopes to turn it into a visual and performing arts school in Charlottesville. "Charlottesville prides itself on its artists' community and different venues for arts, but in terms of providing a diploma in the arts, that doesn't exist here," she said.
Other resources will be made available to young people, such as a computer lab and "Space for Siblings," where kids can bring younger siblings to day care on a punch card system so they can spend their time working with friends on homework without having to worry about looking after their younger family members after school, Botchwey said.
Patrice Grimes, assistant professor in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education and associate dean for the Office of African-American Affairs, joined the project as an academic consultant seeking grant funding to provide historical references that were critical in framing the school's story. She is now involved in shaping a potential educational component to the center, hoping to hire an educational coordinator with whom she can develop a multi-disciplinary field-trip curriculum for K-12 schools that meets the Virginia Standards of Learning.
To complement the resources for young people, the board – which has a strong relationship to the Jefferson High School alumni, the last of whom graduated in 1951 – is seeking to cultivate an intergenerational and interdisciplinary program. "We feel strongly that our program has to remain meaningful to them. It is because of them that Jefferson City Center even exists," Douglas said.
She added that creative and performance arts and language classes will help develop global citizens, and a genealogy center will get people involved in understanding and writing their own histories as part of the urban story. "We see the arts and culture being integral to our community, and lifelong learning is important to us," she said.
Several people involved in the project expressed interest in future University engagement in the center.
"We see ourselves as integral to the student life at the University, providing another avenue for student activities," Douglas said. The board is looking to the University for student interns, for people who will help develop programs and for an audience for its developing lecture series.
Gordon Walker, executive director and chief operating officer of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, which recruited nonprofit tenants to the center, and a representative of the Blue Moon Fund, which helps support these nonprofits, said he believes in the potential for the University to work with the center.
"I am hopeful that the University realizes the value of the Jefferson School as a location for them to develop a meaningful relationship of community outreach and location for supporting activities there," he said. Working such a presence into the plans would represent a "great opportunity for University to lend its substantial resources in terms of making the Jefferson School a success."
The board is currently working on two projects: a documentary on the Jefferson School with Silverthorn Films, and – working with the city's Dialogue on Race – a national competition to attract a well-known sculptor to make a piece that reflects the Vinegar Hill area, the Jefferson School and the general community.
Plans call for the Jefferson School City Center to hold a soft opening in the fall of 2012. The Heritage Center exhibition is expected to open in January 2013.