Grounded in Tradition

Since 1838, the Jefferson City School District has evolved throughout its rich history to meet the growing needs of its students and teachers. Renovations to Jefferson City High School and the construction of Capital City High School have marked the beginning of yet another chapter that has been years in the making.

The district’s initial motivation for the projects was to alleviate overcrowding at JCHS, but the projects have accomplished that and so much more, seamlessly integrating technology and modern design into the buildings to enhance student learning. While each project is unique in its own way, expansion of the district’s footprint — expedited by increasing enrollment — has been a hallmark throughout the district’s history. 

Growing Gains

JC Schools started in a two-room schoolhouse, known as the House on Hobo Hill, after locals purchased some land near Miller Street for $5. Since then, the district’s growth over its 182-year history has been marked by changes made to accommodate an expanding student population. In the district’s early years, fewer than 30 students attended. Nearly 50 years after its opening, attendance was about 1,000 students. At that time, the school board put a $10,000 bond issue on the ballot to build two new school buildings.

In the early 1900s, the district used a mobile-framed building to alleviate overcrowding — similar to the way JCHS and several elementary schools used trailers in recent years to alleviate overcrowding in classrooms. 

About 2,500 students walked the halls of schools in the district by January 1924. Voters approved a $400,000 bond issue that May, about five years before the Great Depression, adding two classrooms to a couple of schools and a three-story high school on Miller Street. That building is now the home of the Miller Performing Arts Center, Jefferson City Academic Center, and offices for the JC Schools Foundation. Six years later, the district was educating another 500 students. 

The school board addressed overcrowding in the early 1960s by going back to voters and asking for a nearly $3 million bond issue to build what is now known as Jefferson City High School. 

Sophomores, juniors, and seniors attended the new Jefferson City High School while freshmen used the former high school building (now Miller Performing Arts Center). Seventh and eighth graders went to school at Simonsen.

Today, the school district has blossomed into JC Schools’ thriving network of 18 schools serving more than 9,000 students from preschool through senior year of high school.

JC Stronger Together

While the space challenge was no secret, the numbers help showcase what the district was facing. In 2016, the district had 743 sixth-grade students who would shortly be high schoolers, says Jason Hoffman, JC Schools COO and CFO. That same year, the district was educating more than 800 kindergarteners. Simonsen had been packed with 600 students in earlier years.

“JC Schools launched the J+C bond initiative based on the strong belief that students have more opportunities to reach their potential through smaller learning environments. The district set out to build a second high school that contributed toward raising the bar in JC Schools’ continued journey of ‘Pride through excellence.’”

The J+C bond initiative passed with 62 percent voter approval for Proposition J and 60 percent voter approval to Proposition C.

“At JC Schools, we believe we are stronger together, and that means partnering with our community,” says JC Schools Superintendent Larry Linthacum. “Renovations at JCHS and the construction of CCHS would not have been possible without the tremendous support of our community.

Today, we’re able to give students and teachers a better space to learn and teach.

With two high schools, students not only have more space and a better learning environment, but they also have more opportunities to participate in activities and athletics. During the 2019-2020 school year, JC Schools saw an impressive 40 percent increase in activities and athletics participation among high school students. 

“When students are more involved at their schools, they’re more likely to perform better academically,” Linthacum says. “I’m thrilled to see more and more students pursuing their interests through activities and athletics while taking pride in their schools.”

Capital City’s Foundation for the Future

When developing the design for CCHS, the district and architects wanted to design a building that was inviting and welcoming while prioritizing safety and enhancing the student learning experience. They’ve certainly accomplished it all using an open concept design.

For greater safety, CCHS uses state-of-the-art technology to maintain high-level security. The building design features long, wide hallways for free lines of sight. Classrooms have glass walls that allow teachers to see into hallways. Teachers can better see students walking in the hallways during passing time or working on projects in collaborative spaces. 

One of the finest features of Capital City is the lighting. A large skylight brings light into the building, illuminating the brightly colored walls, classrooms, and even the deepest hallway corners. Access to natural light was an important design feature, as research has shown it improves education, says Cary Gampher, architect at the Jefferson City-based Architects Alliance. Gampher, a JCHS graduate, was the lead architect on both high school projects. 

For Emma Sellers, a CCHS sophomore, the lighting has a way of improving her mood.

“Because of the windows and natural light, it makes me so much happier,” Sellers says. “Coming in every morning, the sun is coming up, and I’m coming into school, and it’s so warm.”

CCHS math teacher Lesley Dalan describes the high school as a “bright, cheerful place to be.” She says she loves all the building features that strengthen student learning: flat panels in the classroom that look like TVs and act like computers; dry erase walls for any student to use; and collaborative spaces, including free-use rooms called think tanks. Students use the think tanks and other collaborative spaces to work on group projects, read, take a test, or study.

CCHS Principal Ben Meldrum said the flexible classrooms are a big bonus. Classrooms have operable walls and easy-to-move furniture, allowing adjustment to fit the space to their needs.

“Teachers wanted to have open spaces and some flexible spaces that were needed,” Meldrum says. “I’m not a believer in that, when you walk into a space, it has to be subject-specific. We can use the classrooms for whatever we need them for.”

In the first year at the brand-new high school, CCHS has worked hard to build on the positive, collaborative culture teachers and administrators created at Simonsen. They’ve also teamed up with students to create the school’s own identity, which includes establishing its own traditions. 

“We do have a sense of pride here, and we are working hard to develop those traditions. We want to push the status quo, and we’re not big proponents of ‘this is how we’ve always done it,’” Meldrum says. “We’re very driven to make sure that we are the best version of ourselves. We wanted the people around us to be more successful. I’m confident in the work we’re doing here — helping kids.”

Sellers said she’s seen her fellow students taking pride in their school by creating clubs that allow them to explore their interests on a variety of subjects — ACT prep, diversity, board games, drama, art, step dance, poetry, film, vocal arts, and more. 

“At the end of the day, it’s not the building that makes the school — it’s the people,” Sellers says. “We’re blessed with such amazing teachers and staff, and I’m very proud of our school. It’s incredible. It has come out to be such an amazing experience.”

Drone shot of Jefferson City High School

Jay Pride — Alive and Well

Giving tours of the newly renovated JCHS, Laurine Shoki, JCHS class of 2020 and former student council vice-president, said she loved seeing the looks on alumni’s faces as they walked past the changes that give the building a fresh look. They still feel nostalgia walking through their beloved alma mater while also taking in the remarkably sleek renovations for the first time.

Renovations at JCHS included connecting the main high school building with Nichols Career Center. The connector is now the main hub of the high school and serves to make spaces — main office, gymnasium, cafeteria, library, and counseling offices — easily accessible for all students from one central location. It also gives the high school a dedicated main entrance, which has changed locations over time.

Improved safety was a major benefit of the connector. Students no longer have to walk across a street — and possibly through inclement weather — to move between buildings. Glass walls also allow staff to much more easily see outside, which dramatically enhances security, Gampher says. 

When walking into the main entrance, it’s easy for students, staff, and visitors alike to feel a strong sense of Jay pride. Their eyes are instantly attracted to a two-story red tower that vertically displays the name “Jays.” Collages of photos from JCHS history are showcased near the main office and cafeteria. 

Jacob Adams was tasked as an assistant principal to lead the renovations and work closely with The Architects Alliance and Nabholz Construction. He says from infrastructure to building design to interior design, it was imperative to everyone working on the project that it blended the old with the new by recognizing the past while creating a school for the future.

“There are a lot of traditions and a lot of memories at JCHS, so there were certain things that we identified that we wanted to keep and were integral to the spirit of the high school,” Adams says.

Exposed brick and lockers add a touch of history to the interior design. Trophy cases outside the gymnasium pay homage to the school’s athletic excellence. The main gym’s ceiling was originally open to rafters and joists to expose the building structure. A drop ceiling was later installed with an air-conditioning unit. With the renovations, which included updates to electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems, JCHS went back to the original open-ceiling concept. 

“I like how they didn’t scrap a lot of foundations. They made sure the roots were there, and plaques and banners and traditions of the high school were put into the newly-renovated high school,” says Jonathan Scott, JCHS Class of 2020 and former student council president. “It looks different, but it still feels like Jefferson City High School.”

Other important renovations enhanced the JCHS student experience — a second gymnasium gives athletes more practice opportunities and students more gathering space for clubs, for example. Each level features a different color, so students have landmarks to navigate the building. Like CCHS, JCHS now has flexible, collaborative spaces that offer many learning benefits.

“It’s truly life-changing,” Scott says. “It’s so much easier to learn in that environment.”

The JCHS renovations have also improved classrooms for teachers. Kristen Thurman, JCHS physics teacher, says the months of teaching in a construction zone were “totally worth the wait.”

“The teaching and learning environments — it’s a thousand times better,” she says. “We have collaboration spaces right next to the classrooms, which allows students to spread out more. It lets them do what they want to do, and it definitely benefits how they learn. Students are coming to a school that’s really focused on them and how they learn.”

Like Thurman, science teacher Rhiannon McKee says construction could make teaching a challenge, but it was all worth it in the end.

“It is really beautiful, and it’s something our students can really be proud of,” she says. 

In addition to JCHS renovations, the construction also served another crucial purpose — giving much more space to the Nichols Career Center. NCC programs not only needed more physical space, but they also needed more functional space for students to complete their technical tasks — from nursing to auto repair. 

Previously, the NCC agriculture program didn’t have enough lab space. Students now have access to a lab room and a small kitchen, giving them more room to wash animals, arrange flowers, and participate in some light cooking, Adams says. 

But, that’s just one example of many changes for NCC. Another can be found in the welding shop, where sparks fly as students melt and fuse metals. Welding has expanded beyond the traditional welding booths and now involves more technology. Renovations gave NCC welding the room for a large welding machine. The machine is attached to a computer and allows students to cut out designs uploaded to the computer, giving them greater experience in modern welding.

“There’s one full room dedicated to that piece of equipment,” Adams says. 

No matter what changed about JCHS, Shoki says the high school still exudes the tradition, character, and spirit all Jaybirds know and love. 

“I just definitely think that the new Jefferson City High School, while it’s changed from what it was to begin with, it still holds that Jay pride tradition,” Shoki says. “It just shows that even though we’ve gone through all that change, we’re still Jaybirds, and it was just something that was a super exciting experience to be a part of.”

Brittany Ruess
Brittany Ruess

Brittany Ruess is the communications and marketing manager for the Jefferson City School District. She made Mid-Missouri her home in 2013 after graduating from Webster University in St. Louis with a journalism degree. Before joining the JC Schools team, Brittany was a newspaper reporter in Fulton, Jefferson City, and Columbia, and the communications director for the State of Missouri Office of Administration.