Prodigy Leadership Academy still working to save Cape's old Jefferson School

Sunday, February 19, 2012
The old Jefferson School building at 731 Jefferson Ave. in Cape Girardeau. (Kristin Eberts)

Leaders of a local Christian academy are still hoping -- and praying -- that they can save the old Jefferson School. But they acknowledged Friday that they have dreams for the south Cape Girardeau property whether or not the building can be salvaged.

Prodigy Leadership Academy, a faith-based school of about 40 students, has submitted a general plan to the city regarding what's next for the 107-year-old structure that served as the city's last segregated black schoolhouse.

The school has owned the building since December and has an eye toward rehabilitation into a new location for the growing academy. If not, they said they would consider tearing it down to make way for a new school.

"Our goal and our dream is to keep the building there," said Jimmy Wilferth, board president for the school. "But right now, we're in kind of an exploration phase to see whether the building will be suitable."

In the coming weeks, the roof of the building at 731 Jefferson Ave. will be removed to allow engineers to determine whether the walls are sound. The engineer will file a report to the school saying whether it is salvageable.

Old Jefferson, which holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, served as a school for whites before it became a school for blacks just a few years before desegregation.

The building is in the condemnation process with a list of problems that seemed to have it destined for the wrecking ball until the previous owners gave it to Prodigy, which for now operates on Broadway.

City reports show that old Jefferson is more than 60 percent damaged, with a roof with a large hole in it and substandard wiring, foundation, porches and plumbing. The city's Planning Services Division has issued an order to repair or demolish, which usually has a 30-day time frame.

But city planner Ryan Shrimplin said the city is going to be more flexible in this case.

"It's all really contingent on whether the building can be saved," Shrimplin said. "If the engineer's report says the building is not structurally sound, there's no way they want to go in there and operate a school with children in it."

The school has told the city it will tear down the building if it comes to that, though that is not the school's preference, Shrimplin said.

"This is a different animal because it's a historic building," Shrimplin said. "We'd like to see it saved if it could be. The new owners are basically a nonprofit, so they don't have the resources to come in and fix it right away."

If the structural assessment affirms the building's restoration, Wilferth said, a capital campaign would have to be undertaken to help pay for the work. But the school would likely look at using some of the old brick and other materials to maintain a connection to the old school.

"But there are so many questions that are unanswerable at this point, we don't know exactly what we're dealing with," he said.

Russell Grammer is director at the school, which has students that range from age 5 to 16. The former public schoolteacher founded the school with his wife three years ago to give an option for parents who had children who were struggling in a traditional setting.

That form of struggling could be because the student was so far ahead they were being restrained, Grammer said. Others could have been falling behind because some concepts weren't making sense. Whatever the struggles, the students are also encouraged to talk about their faith, Grammer said.

While he doesn't necessarily see a need for people to galvanize for the purpose of a building, he sees the old Jefferson School as more than a building, he said.

"I think this building represents people coming together," he said. "I think we have to be relentless and sacrificial when looking toward the next generation. We need to give them the platform they need. I think the building represents that on many levels."


Pertinent address:

731 Jefferson Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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