In 2016, when a $456.1 million bond measure narrowly passed to improve buildings in the Auburn School District, Adam Couch simultaneously cheered and exhaled a loud sigh of relief. 

As principal of Dick Scobee Elementary School, he’d seen his staff and students struggle from day to day with the inadequacies of a school building constructed in 1954.

The heating, ventilation and cooling system was on the fritz. There weren’t enough parking spaces or bathrooms for the adults in the building. During heavy downpours, the sound of rain on the school’s metal roof was deafening. And the grass recreational field would practically turn into a pond due to poor drainage.

“The kids couldn’t use it,” said Couch of the playfield. “At one point we had 200 head of geese.” 

After the bond passed, a committee gathered school and community input. Architectural drafts were drawn to replace a total of six aging schools and construct two new elementary buildings. 

New building construction and modernization efforts can help boost morale, efficiency and even outcomes within a school community. After a June 2019 groundbreaking, Scobee Elementary reopened in September 2020. Couch said it immediately lifted people’s spirits. 

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It’s a proper tribute to its namesake and alumnus, Lt. Col. Francis Richard “Dick” Scobee, who was born in Washington in 1939 and attended Auburn schools. Formerly called North Auburn Elementary, the school was renamed after Scobee died in 1986 while commanding the catastrophic launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Space-themed murals and displays are showcased throughout the building. 

The new facility has an aerodynamic look with a mix of sloped roof lines and large, gleaming glass windows. Grated staircases and wide stairwells allow ample natural daylight. A mixture of tile and carpet and intentional design mitigate echoing sounds. 

“Acoustically,” said Couch, “you wouldn’t know we have 840 kids here.”

On a sunny, crisp mid-December day during recess, scores of kids scampered about on the outdoor artificial turf field. There was not a single goose in sight.

Coming to a fresh space “made me feel like I belong to the school,” said Jessica Williams, who was among a group of fifth graders on the playground. 

Creating character, community 

Southeast of the school, about 4 miles past the Muckleshoot Casino Resort, is Auburn’s Chinook Elementary School. Built in 1963, it was also razed and rebuilt on-site as part of the 2016 construction bond. It reopened this fall. 

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Jeff Grose, Auburn School District’s executive director of capital projects, said the district gathers input from the school and surrounding neighborhoods to ensure each new building serves and fits well within its community. 

Architect Steve Shiver believes school design has a lasting effect on the children who go there.

“Preparing for the future — that’s the whole goal of schools. A lot of inspiration for how to do that comes from the space that you’re in … I think the future of the workplace is much more based on collaboration,” said Shiver, principal for NAC Architecture, which worked on several Auburn schools. 

Chinook Elementary’s outdoor commons and interior gathering spaces uniquely honor the needs of the school’s tribal members and partnerships, allowing nature and privacy to be part of nurturing kids and families. Assistant Principal Treena Daniels said the previous campus layout included several detached buildings, forcing kids and staff to walk outside to get to different classrooms or meetings. Now, school foot traffic is under one roof. 

Technology continues to shift and transform new schools, from keyless building entry to automated temperature control to Wi-Fi. Inside the newest classrooms, many schools have incorporated interactive touch screens that function like a giant iPad on the wall. They allow any lesson or activity to reach any connected device. 

Corey Trejo, parent to a Chinook Elementary first grader and a third grader, said he’s noticed that teachers have more room and that his children enjoy the new outdoor play structures. “I think they’re better able to serve students with IEPs [individualized education programs] and there are better security systems which are important to me as a parent,” he said. 

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Safety and security have become top priorities in school building design in recent decades, to prevent school shootings and ensure seismic safety. New designs keep school traffic contained inside a building and make sure office and security staff can see who’s entering and exiting.

“Nobody in their right mind is building a school now that does not have at least a secure vestibule at the main entry,” Shiver said. 

Key cards, which are harder to copy and easier to update, are commonplace, as are security cameras throughout schools. 

Many schools also have bathrooms that look more like what you’d see at an airport: no doors to enter and exit the facility, just the stall doors, so as to reduce the likelihood of bullying and fights. Other schools are installing more individual restrooms in classrooms for younger students, and individual gender-inclusive restrooms to accommodate the privacy of transgender students and staff. 

A C+ for Washington’s schools

Research and studies show that modernizing and maintaining school buildings is integral to student safety and well-being.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure cites a lack of comprehensive data on the state of public K-12 school spaces, but gives the country a D+. Based on available data, more than half of the nation’s schools need critical upgrades to HVAC and other building systems. 

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Washington’s schools got a C+. While some communities have supported construction bonds, it will take years for all schools to get the necessary updates. Though the state increased funding to reduce class sizes, the report states that “local districts now face a shortage of physical classroom space.” 

New school buildings are constructed to last up to 100 years, but inflation rates and materials shortages are a real problem. 

Some districts “have had to make really hard choices about the projects they identified in the bond that they wanted to do,” said Daniel L. Miles, principal for Bassetti Architects. He’s worked on recent building projects for Highline Public Schools. 

Some schools come up short because it can take a year or longer for a project to get underway after a bond is approved and because construction bond votes don’t occur every year.

Advocates have been lobbying for years for state and federal funding to prioritize spending on school infrastructure.  

“No comparable federal program addresses the disparities in financing school construction and maintenance, leaving these significant costs to states and localities and tying schools’ condition directly to the wealth of the surrounding community,” reads a report from The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “While the federal government has provided significant support for schools’ increased operating costs during the pandemic — and to help children recover unfinished learning — support for school construction and other infrastructure needs is long overdue.” 

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The report also investigates how the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need to improve and maintain the nation’s school ventilation systems.

Grose, Auburn School District’s capital projects director, said the pandemic “did not affect our design but did affect how we operate our buildings.” When schools reopened after lockdown, having a modern building control system allowed the district to easily increase the amount of fresh, outside air brought into its buildings. 

The report and other research indicates that fixing school buildings can improve health and student learning, while also creating jobs. Some researchers have found that students have shown signs of improved test scores and attendance rates years after moving into new, modernized school buildings. 

Keeping the future student-centered

Highline High School alumnus Dado Cokic entered the old Highline building as a freshman in the fall of 2018. First constructed between 1923 and 1928, it was beloved for its stately brick and marble facade and historic character. 

But by the time Cokic arrived, the facility didn’t feel aspirational for the 21st century student.

He described its concrete interior as “very gray, like a prison mixed with some old basement” with some “funky smells” to match. 

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Cokic did grow to appreciate its charm. But after spending his sophomore year transitioning to portable classrooms during construction and then having a remote junior year due to the pandemic, he was eager to start his senior year in a fresh space. 

The old building was torn down by fall 2019, and the new Highline High School building opened September 2021. 

While the facade used salvaged materials to retain a familiar sense of welcome, the rest of the 230,000-square-foot space was completely updated and reoriented. “When I first walked into the building I was like, this is massive. It was overwhelming, but in a good way,” Cokic said. 

All the wings and rooms open toward a cavernous, glass-lined interior commons with warm, exposed wood framing. From the entrance, you can see almost all the way up to the third floor, where the library and the college and career center are at the top of this hub. 

Outside of classrooms, “genius bars” are set up with long counters and chairs near large touch screens for students to study, gather and work on projects together. These features go a long way in making teaching, learning and student activity more visible.  

“You kind of get the sense that you’re in a school, and that really helps to build a community,” Cokic said. 

To him, the best school designs of the future are ones that make the experience for students and staff simple and efficient and make people feel welcome and connected to one another. 

Cokic said that placing student services where kids regularly pass by makes them more likely to stop in and get the support they need. “If you want someone to use it, you have to show them that you have it,” he said.