New buildings, technology among the big changes for South Sound schools

Staff writerSeptember 1, 2014 

The school bell rings this week for about 41,000 students in Thurston County’s public schools. Classes resume Wednesday for most districts.

School officials say it’s going to be a booming year for construction projects and technology.

More than a dozen schools have new principals, too, mostly due to a shuffle caused by retirements and other administrative changes. Tenino School District has a new superintendent: In July, Joe Belmonte, a longtime administrator and former principal with North Thurston Public Schools, replaced Russ Pickett, who left to lead a school district near Corvallis, Oregon.

In Olympia, Garfield Elementary School underwent the second phase of a major modernization and addition project during the summer, and the new facility for the Olympia Regional Learning Academy has taken shape off Boulevard Road Southeast.

ORLA’s new location isn’t slated to open until January, but Garfield is scheduled to open in time for students to start school Wednesday. Crews may need to do some minor punch list items after school hours, officials say.

The nearly $15 million project at Garfield was paid for with money from the 2012 construction bond.

“We’re right on schedule and under budget,” said Tim Byrne, supervisor of planning and construction for the district.

In addition to adding nearly 1,400 square feet to the school, the project replaced its gym and cafeteria. The school’s three existing gardens were incorporated into the design, and rainwater collected at the school will go into irrigation cisterns that will be used for the gardens.

In North Thurston, plans are underway for a new middle school at 8605 Campus Glenn Drive NE, off Marvin Road, and construction is set to begin early next year. The school, which will be the district’s fifth middle school, is scheduled to open in September 2016, according to district spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve.

Next spring, the district also will begin prep work for a modernization project at Evergreen Forest and construction of a new gym at North Thurston High School. Both projects are part of a $175 million bond package that voters approved in February.

Tumwater School District has several projects in the planning stage as well, although the one that is closest is a remodel of Peter G. Schmidt Elementary School, which will begin in the spring, according to spokeswoman Kim Howard.

During the summer, crews did $1.44 million in emergency repairs at Black Hills High School to remove black mold. The school’s air quality has been tested and deemed safe for students to return, officials say.

Technology — especially mobile devices such as iPads and Chromebooks — are being added to classrooms too. Rochester School District added more than 800 new Chromebooks to its classrooms, according to superintendent Kim Fry.

Numerous carts of Chromebooks were purchased by Yelm Community Schools, too, which also increased its bandwidth and upgraded its wireless system during the summer. The districtwide technology improvements were meant to prepare schools for online state testing, officials say.

The Griffin School District purchased iPads for all of its nearly 230 middle school students, thanks to money from a recent technology levy, said Greg Woods, who is a principal and superintendent. It’s part of what the district is calling its “1 to 1 Technology Initiative.”

The iPads will remain at the school, and will give students “anytime, anywhere” access to technology while in the building. Teachers will be able to use free curriculum and other tools on the iPads, too, he said.

“We’re really confident that it’s going to be a game changer in how teaching and learning looks in the classroom,” Woods said.

Meanwhile, North Thurston is launching a free mobile app that’s designed to increase parent engagement and communication, Schrieve said.

“(It) will include ‘one-stop’ access to school menus and calendars, sports scores, student grades and teacher contact information,” she said. The app will be available in multiple languages, she added.

In the Rainier School District, one of the biggest changes will definitely be noticed by kids: A new $30,000 playground was set up at Rainier Elementary School.

Student Faith Boesch and her mom, Ida, spent most of last school year leading a fundraising effort for the new toys. They wrote grant applications, held fundraisers, and tapped businesses and churches.

“It’s just a tremendous effort of the community,” Superintendent Tim Garchow told The Olympian when the playground was built in early August. “Everyone’s gotten behind it.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 @Lisa_Pemberton

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