Tour of Vashon High reveals sorry state of disrepair

A student in a freshman English course uses a chair for a desk in the band room, which has only chairs and music stands.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
A student in a freshman English course uses a chair for a desk in the band room, which has only chairs and music stands.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

It’s too early for The Beachcomber to weigh in on the merits of the three proposed renovations to the school district’s aging campus — different options that the district plans to take before voters over the next several months. It’s not too early, though, to take note of the sorry state of Vashon High School (VHS) and urge others to do so as well.

How can you do this? Take a tour. We did last week, and, as others who attended the three-hour gathering noted, it was an eye-opening experience. We saw locker rooms so dark and grim it felt as though we’d stepped into an Eastern European bathhouse; we saw a maintenance building with a ceiling in such disrepair that huge pieces of ceiling tile were missing; we saw a situation or two that we speculated wouldn’t pass current county fire codes; and most important, we saw classrooms that were crowded and substandard.

VHS Principal Susan Hanson, a passionate proponent of a major renovation of the sprawling campus, attended much of the tour; along the way, she spoke compellingly about why the current campus is flawed and difficult, noting that many of its students excel despite the sorry conditions. She said kids sit in class wet from the frequent winter downpours, since the school’s layout requires them to dart from one building to another. Some classes can’t accommodate the kids as well as their huge backpacks because they’re too crowded, so backpacks are piled outside of the room. And some teachers, she said, often have to come up with two different tests, since kids are taking them in such close proximity it would be hard to not take note of what your classmate is jotting down.

It’s certainly true that many students shine academically in substandard classrooms and that it’s the quality of the teachers, not the condition of the buildings, that really make a difference in a student’s life. The Harbor School, a private school for students in fourth- to eighth- grade, is a case in point: Its building north of town is tiny, crowded and lacking in a lot of amenities; yet students routinely excel there.

But as one of the attendees pointed out at last week’s tour, some kids can in fact be profoundly affected by a difficult physical environment. The way the campus is now designed, she said, her daughter, who has special needs, would find it hard to get from one class to another when she enters high school and would likely need a para-educator — paid for by the district — to help her navigate the campus.

School board members Monday night decided to take three different options before them — a bare bones scenario, a significant rebuild of the campus and a third that pulls in some additional desired amenities — out into the public arena in an effort to discern the will of the people. One part of this effort will include tours of the high school. (See page A3 for more information.)

For the most part, those leading the tour try to do so impartially and dispassionately, in an effort to let the campus speak for itself and to let participants come to their own conclusions. But it’s also clear that they think the current situation is intolerable. And when you spend some time making your way through the campus, walking, for a few hours, in their shoes, it’s easy to see why.

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