New schools on JBLM and in Tacoma combine form and function to enhance learning

Clover Park School District administrator Deb Shanafelt calls them “smart schools.”

Modern campuses are being designed with an array of environmental and other practical factors in mind. Internal systems can control everything from the brightness of classroom lights to the security of classrooms and hallways.

Teachers can project content from their computers onto built-in classroom screens. Voice-saving wireless microphones work with classroom sound systems to ensure students can hear and teachers don’t go home hoarse at the end of the school day.

The goal, say architects and educators, is to create spaces that will improve learning.

Two of Clover Park’s newest examples — Rainier and Meriwether elementary schools — opened last week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

In Tacoma, students are to arrive Wednesday for the start of the school year in a building that will become, for now, the city’s newest and oldest school.

Washington Elementary, originally opened at the turn of the 20th century in the Proctor neighborhood, has undergone major remodeling designed to bring the landmark red-brick school house into the 21st century.

“We are rethinking what a learning environment is,” said Ron Bogle, president of the American Architectural Foundation, which recently launched its Design for Learning program aimed at studying ways to make schools more effective learning environments.

“We are looking at the intersection of technology, curriculum and design.”

Updates for two JBLM schools

The two new schools on JBLM are the latest phase of a building boom in the Lakewood-based Clover Park district.

Backed by voter-approved bond money and state construction assistance, the district opened Lakeview Hope Academy in 2008, several sections of a rebuilt Lakes High School in 2009 and 2010, and a new Hudtloff Middle School in 2013.

The new Harrison Preparatory School is to open in January, and Four Heroes Elementary — named to honor four slain Lakewood police officers — is slated to open in September 2015.

Also last year, two new elementary schools — Carter Lake and Hillside — opened on the military base. Construction of the schools, and of the new Rainier and Meriwether, was funded by the Department of Defense with help from the state assistance fund.

The price tag for Rainier came to $38 million; Meriwether cost $35 million.

The schools must follow rules set by the Defense Department and the Army. The standards can be higher than those applied to civilian school construction projects, said Rick Ring, Clover Park’s capital projects administrator.

The schools are built with ballistic-quality, bullet-proof glass to meet anti-terrorism standards. And Rainier, situated in an older part of JBLM, was designed using bricks that match the color of the historic buildings in the area.

A visit to Rainier reveals plenty of examples of how modern schools are being designed.

Security cameras are recessed in the hallway ceilings, and teachers use electronic key cards to enter their classrooms. One button can lock down the entire school, and a video system helps staff members in a reception lobby see who’s approaching the main entrance.

Inside Rainier classrooms, teachers control their amplified voices via remote control. LED lighting responds to the level of sunlight in the room, dimming on bright days and brightening when the sun goes behind the clouds.

Teacher Kellie Dysart, who will work with students in several grades as a reading interventionist, is excited about a classroom big enough to let kids spread their wings. Computers in the classroom will allow her to reach multiple students at the same time.

What’s outside the classroom is just as important as what’s inside, say Bogle and other experts.

Built into spaces between Rainier’s classrooms are hallway alcoves designed to allow teachers to work with small groups of students. The alcoves, like the classrooms, are wired for laptops and other technology.

The computer lab went through changes to accommodate technology updates even as it was being built, Shanafelt said. In the lab, 30 computers are connected to a central server. That translates to fewer wires and more desk space for busy kids.

Distinctive problems at Washington

The $30 million makeover at Washington Elementary in Tacoma presented planners and designers with unusual obstacles.

“It’s a historic school on a small urban site,” said project architect Jonah Jensen of BLRB Architects in Tacoma. “We needed to be creative.”

Designers needed to strike a balance between honoring history and creating a contemporary school.

They also were asked to squeeze additional classroom space onto the already crowded campus. At just under 2 acres, the site is the smallest in the school district.

The red-brick Washington, completed in 1906, sits in the heart of the Proctor District along busy North 26th Street.

For many years, Washington’s kindergartners and some first-grade students have been housed on a separate campus on Union Avenue, named for preschool and PTA pioneer Nell Hoyt.

For years, the combined schools have been called Washington-Hoyt.

The goal was to move all students into one school, now to be known as Washington.

The solution? The slope of the property allowed construction of a kindergarten wing beneath part of the new playground. While the youngest students learn their ABCs below, older students will be able to play on a giant chess board on the playground above.

The new wing, situated partially underground, feels anything but subterranean. Large windows facing North 27th Street give the three kindergarten classrooms and a shared activity space a light, airy feeling.

The orange and turquoise color scheme pays homage to the old Hoyt campus. (The school district has yet to announce its plans for Hoyt.) An internal stairway and elevator connect Washington’s kindergarten wing to the main building.

Over the years, various additions had been tacked on to the old Washington, including a 1948 addition that served as the school’s multipurpose room. It was built on a split level, making it inaccessible for students with limited mobility.

“The big challenge was: Do we go with history? Or do we tear it down to create a better learning environment that’s more accessible?” Jensen said.

In the end, the decision was to demolish the 1940s portion of the building.

Parts of it live on: its trusses were used for some inside decorative paneling and benches. And bricks from the demolished addition helped create the main entrance courtyard.

Plans call for planting a cherry tree — a nod to the school’s namesake — in the courtyard.

In place of the 1940s building is the new school library. It features a sliding glass wall that opens into a design lab and a fabrication area, where students can get their hands dirty building scale models or sculpting with clay. A garage-style door opens to an outdoor mini-amphitheater.

The connecting spaces will give students the ability to see a project through from start to finish, said Stephen Murakami, executive director of facilities for Tacoma Public Schools.

“Students could research a project, fabricate it, take it outside and test it,” he said.

Inside, wide hallways offer shared learning spaces similar to the ones at Rainier Elementary on JBLM. Even the building itself is a teaching tool. Two electronic screens will allow students to track their school’s energy consumption.

For the first time in its history, Washington will meet accessibility standards.

The old school was built on several levels, and the only way to navigate between them was through a series of steps. The restrooms were all in the school basement. The new school has an elevator that reaches each of its 31/2 floors — and there are restrooms on each floor.

Another notable change for Washington is its new address. The school’s main entrance used to be up a flight of stairs, off North 26th Street. Now it’s moved around the corner to Adams Street.

A striking feature of the new building is glass-walled areas in the library and the lunchroom.

“Anywhere you stand, you can see the historic building,” Jensen said. “Instead of burying it with an addition, there’s a large glass enclosure where kids will eat lunch.”

The glass is laminated for safety, and the space offers clear sight lines.

“Anybody inside can see who’s outside,” Jensen said.

On Friday, teachers were moving in, after spending the past year at the old Hunt Middle School.

“This is beautiful,” said kindergarten teacher Betty Hansen as she unpacked boxes of watercolors and other classroom supplies. “This is beyond my dreams.”

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