What's next? Future of the old Jefferson School in limbo

By Shannon Caine

The hallways are empty, and the children are gone. What will happen to the historic Jefferson Elementary School building?

As it stands, the school at 612 S. College Ave., is hardly being used to its full capacity. It was built in the 1930s and closed down in 2006, ending its long-running status as a neighborhood school. But for the price of a few million dollars, the building could be on its way to becoming an active community center, once again being used by the neighborhood it formerly served. The Fayetteville School District, which owns the building, is asking roughly $3.2 million for the property.
There was once two primary groups wanting to use the Jefferson building. One group wanted to use it as a base for non-profit organizations, and another had hopes of turning it into a center for the arts.
Then the two groups merged.
The result of this merger is known as the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education. The group is hoping to purchase the building outright from the school district, which controls ownership of the Jefferson building.
The group’s original idea was to rent or lease space at the school. However, due to high leasing rates, it was not economically feasible. The more the group studied the situation, the more they came to the conclusion that buying the building made more sense than leasing it.
The School Board has granted the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education a privilege known as “first right of refusal,” meaning that the group has one month to match any sum that might be offered for the school from a prospective purchaser.
One such prospective purchaser could be a group called Fit For Life, which wants to turn Jefferson into an athletic and community center. That organization’s nine-member board of directors has been considering a vote on buying the building. If they, or anybody else, actually makes an offer to purchase the old school and the four-acre grounds attached to it, then the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education will be left with 30 days in which to take action.
One of the many items of business discussed at a recent meeting of the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education was the development of a Web site for the group. But something more than plans for a Web site made it to the agenda. At that meeting, a representative from the Northwest Arkansas Sustainability Center expressed that group’s interest in the Jefferson building. Not wishing to compete for funding with other groups vying for the building, a proposal was made to unite the goals of the Sustainability Center with those of the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education.
According to Matthew Petty of the NWA Sustainability Center, the organization wants to have a “demo center” that showcases what the basic concept of sustainability is all about. They want to have office space in the Jefferson School building. Petty admits that this is all in a rather early planning stage, so the Jefferson Center group was asked to simply think about joining forces with the Sustainability Center. No immediate action was required or asked for.
The Northwest Arkansas Sustainability Center is looking for a building that meets the environmental standards of the Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). In the LEED ratings, buildings are ranked according to various levels of certification, with the highest three ratings being Silver, Gold and Platinum. The Sustainability Center wants to have a LEED Platinum building. To meet the requirements for a Platinum building, the structure must meet over 80 percent of LEED’s standards in a number of different areas, including water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design process. Could the old Jefferson Elementary School be that building?
Possibly. Petty says, “We think it could serve as a boost for the neighborhood, and could be a center for people to gather and learn about all aspects of sustainability.”
Ralph Nesson, of the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education, sees the Jefferson building as an “anchor for the community.”
To him, neighborhood schools are the glue that holds communities together. There are often many other activities aside from general education that take place at neighborhood schools. After classroom hours, meetings or performances for the public can be held inside the school building.
“Taking away the school is taking away the social fabric of the neighborhood,” Nesson said.
While there’s nothing that can be done at this point about the fact that Jefferson has been shut down as a school, Nesson and his group are striving to retain the building as a vibrant center for the community.
“The Jefferson building is worth fighting for,” he said.
Cindy Arsaga, another member of the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education, said, “Losing Jefferson as a school was a huge blow to the neighborhood. It had been a locus of activity, identity and stability for that neighborhood for many years.”
She and her group are hoping that, in the future, the Jefferson building will continue to be all those things and more. She envisions Jefferson becoming a place to “foster creativity and learning, as well as a place for people to avail themselves of the various social services they may need.”
“We want it to remain a hub for the benefit of the community,” Arsaga said. “Our goal is that the performances, classes, exhibits, studios and any other opportunities available at the Jefferson Center will be accessible to everyone in the community. We also hope to keep costs down by utilizing grants and other available funding to subsidize ticket costs for performances, rent space, art class prices and other services offered by the center.”
The Wal-Mart Foundation turned down a planning grant application that the Jefferson Center for Arts and Education had submitted, feeling that the group simply didn’t offer enough in terms of alternative financial backing for their project.
However, the group isn’t letting that setback stop them in their plans to acquire the building. The Jefferson Center for Arts and Education is holding meetings for the purpose of planning their long-term goals for the old school building, and is also considering getting some grant writing accomplished.
“We don’t yet know all the resources available to us for this type of grand idea, but there are funds out there,” Arsaga said. “This is a rather revolutionary idea for combining social services with the arts, but we are very excited about it, and continue to push forward to make it a reality.”
Wrangling over the Jefferson School is nothing new.
Arguments over the Jefferson building were erupting even before the structure was built. Some of today’s headlines might as well have been lifted from newspaper articles from 1930. Parents were growing increasingly upset over the issue of school consolidation. Small neighborhood schools were being shut down, and new, modern schools were being built.
But the stakes could be even higher back in those days. Students from outlying areas of Washington County, such as Winslow, were promised transportation to and from consolidated schools. However, at least one parent noted that four months later, despite paying taxes to support public education, no transportation had yet been seen. Some students stopped attending school altogether due to consolidation.
An article from April 17, 1930, in the Arkansas Countryman newspaper discusses neighborhood schools as community centers. Sound familiar? The fight against school consolidation, and the advocacy for existing schools as hubs of the community, is old news for Washington County. In the 1930s, advocates of modernization wanted to shut down old, outdated rural school buildings and bring the children of Washington County into state-of-the-art buildings, including the shiny new Jefferson Elementary School, also known as South School.
The current Jefferson building isn’t the first Jefferson School in Fayetteville. Its predecessor was built in 1891. Jefferson School was constructed to deal with a surge in population which rendered Fayetteville’s Washington School unable to handle the new influx of students. Jefferson’s first principal was Mary Shelton, a veteran educator with over 40 years of service in Washington County. She served from 1892 to 1899. Meanwhile, the population continued to expand. By the 1920s, there was a major push for school consolidation. In some cases, communities fought consolidation, but other schools actually requested it. Act 144 of 1927 stated that schools with under 15 students were to undergo dissolution. By 1929, even more small schools were being systematically phased out. The Arkansas General Assembly banned schools with under 30 pupils, which drove even more small neighborhood schools into consolidation, particularly the rural ones. As for the old Jefferson School, it was thought by many people to be inconveniently located, and in 1929, plans were well under way for Jefferson School to move to its present-day location.
Nesson said that the modern-day closing of Jefferson Elementary School is, once again, part of a trend within the educational community.
“Schools are being built where the growth is and the result is more economic gain for school systems.”
But if the school systems are gaining in this trend, who’s losing? According to frustrated parents and educators who were writing letters to regional newspapers in the 1930s, and according to many Fayetteville residents now, it’s the students themselves. The communities surrounding each closed school end up losing a primary center of neighborhood activity. But times change, old buildings wear out, and school districts are redrawn. The 1930s school boards, just like those of today, felt that change was necessary.
When asked where she envisioned the former Jefferson Elementary School building being in 10 years, Arsaga said, “I hope the Jefferson Center will be vibrant and alive with dance, theater, and music performances in beautiful performance spaces. I see artists in residence, living and working in the studio and apartment spaces, sharing their work with the community, and teaching classes to children. I see community gardens, a green building retrofitted with state-of-the-art planning, a café and gallery full of local art and music, and learning opportunities for community members interested in art, theater, dance and music. I see a place where medical care, adult education, youth social services, and the arts can all co-exist and provide a wonderful hub of opportunity and activity for South Fayetteville and the entire community.”

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