New TJ High School building project under way
West Jefferson Hills School District Superintendent Michael Panza stood atop the open hillside off of Old Clairton Road — the site of the new Thomas Jefferson High School — and excitedly talked about the future.
In less than three years, the 161 acres of rolling hills and large trees will be the epicenter for education for ninth through 12th graders in the West Jefferson Hills School District.
The projected $100 million school, complete with a pool, outdoor courtyard and rooftop terraces, is patterned after Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. with a red brick facade and white pillars at the entry.
“This is pretty cool,” Panza said. “I can't wait until it's done and we're walking in for the first time and seeing the school.”
The school will include amenities for students that the current Thomas Jefferson High School, built in 1959, fails to offer.
The new building, while having more safety features and secured areas for athletics and the arts, also includes open spaces for students to explore, director of facilities Ryan Snodgrass said. That includes student lounges and a cafeteria that opens to the school's outside courtyard.
“I think it's a nice mix between a collegiate atmosphere and a high school campus,” Snodgrass said.
The school is built to hold 1,000 students. The enrollment in 2015-16 is 924, the largest projected enrollment at the school in the next decade, Panza said. The school is planned to open in the summer of 2018.
“This whole building almost makes you feel like it's a college campus,” said Thomas Jefferson High School junior Mark McCullough, 17. “You have all the opportunities to learn here. Overall you're going to feel like a better student going here.”
McCullough, a member of the district's community construction committee, said his favorite part of the school — designed by Pittsburgh-based WTW Architects and Baltimore-based Grimm & Parker — are the courtyard and rooftop terraces, that will be used by the school's astronomy club to star gaze.
Principal Chris Sefcheck said he's excited for the collaborative classroom spaces being added to the three-story building, where teachers can work together on interdisciplinary lessons.
“The opportunities for new things with curriculum are going to be incredible,” Sefcheck said.
District leaders have discussed building a new high school for nearly a decade, with the project going full-speed ahead nearly three years ago. A construction committee, comprised of residents, administrators, board members and students, has met since 2014. The group toured several area schools, including Baldwin, South Fayette, Bethel Park and South Park high schools, to see trends in new building projects.
An open house also was held at the current high school where community members were invited to offer opinions on the new school.
Residents said they want a building that is sustainable, incorporates technology and the arts and includes a pool, Panza said.
Teachers have been tapped for ideas, and even tested out furniture — some of which didn't last a period in their rooms — to determine what will create the best learning environment at the new Thomas Jefferson High School.
“You can't do this in a vacuum. You have to do this getting as much input from the stakeholders as you can,” Panza said.
Phase one of the project, awarded to R&B Contracting and Excavation in September, includes site stabilization, the construction of two driveways and deep dynamic compaction of the property, which sits about coal mines. This part of the project should be complete by May.
Board members plan to vote on Nov. 17 to seek construction bids. Six contracts will be awarded for the project: a general contractor, plumber, electrician, heating and ventilation, fire suppression and cafeteria equipment company.
Bids will be opened in a public meeting on Jan. 12, with contractors likely mobilizing as early as February.
Once the new school is complete, plans are to demolish the current high school and create added parking spaces for the stadium — which will stay at the site of the current building — in the spring of 2019. The new school will have a soccer field, varsity softball field and five tennis courts that can be used for physical education classes, Snodgrass said.
“It's much more than building a new high school. A high school is really the center of the community,” Sefcheck said.
District leaders said the new school is designed to honor Thomas Jefferson and his love of architecture.
Quotes from Jefferson will line the library walls and intricate details of the school are patterned after Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., which Panza went to visit to gather ideas during a recent vacation. The walkway in front of the building will include the footprint of the Monticello.
“It's just a little piece of history, in a way, being brought back to life,” McCullough said. “Thomas Jefferson would be proud.”
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.