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Is it time to build a new Vashon High?

The building in purple represents the new structure the district would build under one of two scenarios it’s beginning to present to Islanders. -
The building in purple represents the new structure the district would build under one of two scenarios it’s beginning to present to Islanders.
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When Keith Putnam designed what is now the main building at Vashon High School some 35 years ago, he included in one of his mock-ups covered walkways connecting the school’s scattered buildings.

“And the school board said, ‘Why should we have covered walks? Let them walk in the rain; it’s good for them,’” he recalled.

Now, that architectural feature — a hodge-podge of buildings that makes the campus both wide open and, in the winter months, a source of colds and discomfort — is seen as one of its greatest liabilities.

Educators say that kids sit in classrooms wet and cold in the winter months, and attendance falls. They say the fact the campus is “porous,” as some have put it, makes it far less secure in this post-Columbine era, where student safety has become paramount.

They also say an ill-fated educational concept of the ’70s, when Putnam designed Building A, has resulted in a building that today is cramped and unworkable.

When Putnam came up with the design — three large octagons connected to a central area — open classrooms were vogue; no walls separated the classrooms, and the building, though not quite big enough even then, could accommodate all the students, he said.

But the open classroom concept did not last long; walls were soon built to give teachers the noise barriers they needed to teach effectively. And today, Building A — the main classroom building at the sprawling campus — is crowded, dark and difficult, teachers and administrators say.

Earlier this month, the school board agreed to offer up to Islanders a couple of different architectural scenarios for a potential bond levy next February. One of them — the option preferred by many teachers and administrators — includes a new 40,000-square-foot structure that would replace Building A as the main classroom facility: a square, two-story building that would have big windows, adequate classroom space and only a couple of entrances.

“I would like a building that’s not faddish but that works,” said Vashon High School Principal Susan Hanson.

“I have big concerns about how spread out our campus is,” she added. “We do our best. I don’t want people to think we’re an accident waiting to happen. ... But there is a safety concern with this campus.”

The school district and the five-member board that governs it have been grappling with just how to shore up the district’s decrepit high school campus for several years. Earlier this year, the board — buoyed by the experience of a new superintendent and the energy of three new members — resumed its efforts in earnest, working with an architectural firm that specializes in school construction to come up with a campus remake it hopes will garner enough support to prevail at the polls.

But the board, by its own admission, is moving cautiously — in part, because an earlier effort by a previous board was derailed before it even made it onto the ballot. So this time around, the board is offering up two options for public review and comment: Option A, a bare-bones, just-keep-the-rain-out approach that would call for the renovation of the seven buildings that currently comprise the campus but little more; and Option B, which would entail some building repair and renovation but would also call for the tear-down of four buildings and the construction of a new structure that would become the high school’s new hub.

Both carry substantial price tags: $43.5 million to $47.65 million for Option A; and $53.5 million to $58.65 million for Option B. The exact price will become clearer as the board and the architect hone in on just exactly what the two options will look like.

“It’s iterative,” School Board Chair Bob Hennessey said of the process. “The more work the architect puts into defining the facilities, the harder our cost numbers will be.”

Were Option B to prevail, it would result in a campus with some substantial differences. Building A, the current center of the campus, would be “repurposed,” as the architects put it, and would no longer provide the lion’s share of classroom space. The building’s lecture hall-turned-theater would remain and would be improved; voc-ed — woodworking, welding and jewelry-making — would likely move to Building A; other functions — the library and cafeteria — would likely remain there.

The new building would sit on what is now a grassy area just to the east of Building A and west of the gym, and walkways — possibly covered — would extend from Building A, past the new building and to the gym, connecting what would become the three main elements of the reconfigured campus. The new building would provide the main entrance to the campus; a long pedestrian walkway would likely lead up to it, and a plaza would stretch out before it.

Under both options, the gym would be renovated and improved. The girls locker room — currently downstairs and as a result not handicap-accessible — would be turned into the maintenance facility, and new, accessible locker rooms would be built.

The brick building next to the tennis courts — built, Putnam said, by the Work Projects Administration during the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s — would remain and would become the headquarters for the school district. A new greenhouse would be built on the north side of the campus.

“A lot of this is about reusing spaces to deliver the best value for taxpayers,” Hennessey said.

To many of the high school’s teachers, new and improved facilities could not come quickly enough. They offer up a litany of complaints and frustrations, from inadequate ventilation to cramped quarters to makeshift teaching arrangements that they say get in the way of quality instruction.

“I’ve been a proponent of blowing up this school for many years,” said Martha Woodard, an American Studies teacher who’s been at VHS since 1982.

Space constraints and poorly configured classrooms are one of their biggest frustrations, teachers said.

Because there aren’t enough classrooms, some teachers don’t have a homeroom and move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. That comes as a cost, said Stephen Floyd, an American Studies teacher, who remembers his first years there when, as a junior member of the staff, he was one of the teachers without a homeroom. It means there’s nowhere to hang samples of students’ work, no place to store files or other materials, he said.

It also means that the teacher arrives in the classroom just as the students do, and thus he or she doesn’t have those few minutes to get organized, write an agenda on the board or hand out materials.

“You lose some instructional time,” Floyd said.

Because of the many buildings that comprise the campus, teachers are often stuck in far-flung rooms by themselves or grouped nowhere near their colleagues in similar fields, Floyd added. As a result, math teachers are able to easily collaborate, making it particularly hard on new teachers who are still figuring out just how to teach.

“I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve had some difficulty holding on to a number of new teachers in math and science,” he said.

Woodard said she’s particularly discouraged by the condition of the buildings, particularly Building A. Circulation is poor; windows don’t open; and several years ago, when Building A developed a mold problem, she got quite sick, she said.

“After a group of students arrive in a classroom, it smells like a locker room,” she said. “You’re just hit by a wall of human sweat.”

Building A was remodeled in 1993, an effort that Woodard said was unsuccessful. As a result, she questions the board’s decision to remodel it a third time.

“In my opinion, they flushed the money down the toilet when they remodeled it the first time,” she said.

But the effort to put a bond measure before voters for a major rebuild of the campus was aborted a few years ago, when it became clear voters were in no mood to see their property taxes go up to finance the construction project. Some already think that this latest version could meet a similar fate, since Islanders — many of whom saw their assessed value jump dramatically last year — are again feeling the financial pinch of living on Vashon. Some are also frustrated that the district has taken such poor care of the buildings; their disrepair is due in part, many said, by a conscious decision over the years to invest far below the national average in school building maintenance.

Martin Koenig, who has three children, one of whom just graduated and two whom are entering high school, said he supports the board for what has already seemed like a thoughtful and transparent process. And he noted that he’s not gone on one of the tour’s that district officials are offering up, so his knowledge of the campus is based only on his involvement in his eldest daughter’s education.

Even so, he expressed concern about a costly building project at a time when some Islanders are struggling to make ends meet. He also questioned one of the premises behind Option B — that a new 40,000-square-foot building with larger classrooms and bigger windows will improve the quality of instruction at the school.

“I know my daughter had some spectacular teachers and some not so spectacular teachers, and it would have made no difference if the buildings were spiffier,” he said.

Putnam, who’s been involved with the school for years, said he’s heard all of these arguments before. He’s listened to school board members grapple with the costs of new construction, worry about safety and demand frugality. In fact, one of the reasons Building A is made of concrete is because of the biggest worry administrators faced at the time: Arson, not random shootings, was their fear, he said, and in a small district like Vashon, where there would be no place to put kids if a building burned down, it was imperative that he design a structure that could not go up in flames.

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