When Central Nine Career Center first welcomed students on Aug. 29, 1972, it didn’t include some of today’s most popular offerings, such as its dental and health science programs, information technology and criminal justice.

The school, then known as Central Nine Vocational Technical School, offered 15 programs compared to today’s 27. Those classes included: accounting, clerical-secretarial laboratory, data processing, distributive education, ornamental horticulture, diversified health aide, automotive body repair, automobile mechanics, building trades, food service, electronics, mechanical drafting, printing, machine shop and welding.

Central Nine still included nine high schools sending students, but since it opened 50 years ago, Edinburgh Community High School has joined the C4 Columbus Area Career Connection and was replaced by Perry Meridian High School.

In the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary, school officials are preparing to break ground on a $4 million renovation project to double the amount of space for its welding program, which is the most popular program at Central Nine, said Bill Kovach, the school’s director.

“One of the biggest things we’ve noticed is more and more families and students realize the benefits of career and technical education,” Kovach said. “They have seen they can gain higher levels of achievement while in high school by attending the career center.”

As the demand has risen, long-time employees have seen the evolution of the career center, especially those who have been at Central Nine for more than half its existence. Enrollment is nearing 1,300 students, compared to about 900 pupils three decades ago, said Laura Showalter, the school’s benefits coordinator, who has been at Central Nine for 29 years.

“We’ve just grown so much. We used to have the director, assistant director, me and one counselor running the office,” Showalter said. “I was also here when the academy came in, around the 2002-03 school year, we started the academy when kids from all the sending schools came here for a full day and got their academics here. We were like a high school, we had to provide lunch, nursing for kids, counseling and a lot of things their schools do now. It was too demanding and the funding, it just ended up phasing out, but it was a great program.”

Darryl Willoughby, who just started his 32nd year at the school as a precision machining technology teacher, has been present for two-thirds of the school’s history. In his class, students use machines to create dice and shave aluminum.

“What’s changed the most is technology,” Willoughby said. “We used to take attendance by cards, not on a computer. In the past we did everything by pen and pencil, then came the onset of computers and we’ve grown from there. It’s a big change, being an old-timer. I think we’ve got record enrollment now and it’s a big part of graduation pathways, it takes a big role in high school graduation and sending kids to post-secondary (education) in career areas and jobs.”

The building itself and what’s inside the building has also changed during his time at the school.

“Over the years, we’ve had three other building projects where we’ve added on or changed the configuration of the building. We’ve grown quite a bit in the last 32 years. We’ve had several building projects, we auctioned off old equipment to pay for state-of-the-art equipment. We started with machines from World War II and now we have some of the latest programming. We’ve moved from yesterday’s equipment to today’s machinery.”

Central Nine Career Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1, with a daytime festival including food, bounce houses, mini golf, an inflatable obstacle course, and music by cover band Jam Box, as well as an ensemble of Central Nine instructors. The festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with food trucks serving from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The staff band will perform at 4 p.m., followed by Jam Box at 5 p.m., said Tiffany Bickerstaff, Central Nine’s spokesperson.

School leaders hope to have a more formal ceremony later on in the school year, she said.

Along with the ceremony, Kovach is working on collecting stories of people who attended the career and technical education school.

“If we’ve had around 1,000 high school students a year for 50 years, that’s 50,000 people we’ve helped educate for the future,” Kovach said. “I’d like to do something to celebrate the history of C9 in a more formal ceremony for people who have been involved with C9 the last 50 years.”