Arbor Heights Elementary’s new building is energy- and cost-efficient, designed to be durable and sustainable. The old building was old and worn, with half its classrooms housed in 1950s-vintage portables and a play area that students called “the jail.”

Share story

Everything about the new building for Seattle’s Arbor Heights Elementary School — opening Wednesday for the first time — feels open, from the large windows that let in air and light to the learning areas placed in between classrooms where students can spread out to study art, science and technology.

It’s a vast improvement from the old Southwest Seattle school, which had yellowing plexiglass windows, mold growing in vintage portables and a heating system so bad that kids had to wear hats and gloves on cold days in some classrooms.

The difference “is like night and day,” Arbor Heights parent Dawn Pomeroy said. “It was so dark, and this is so light and airy.”

Four years ago, it looked like Arbor Heights wouldn’t be rebuilt until 2019 because the district had overcrowding issues that took precedence over fixing a rundown school.

But the new building is opening this fall — along with four other schools that are new or modernized — after the community pushed for a better environment for their kids.

Seattle School Board member Leslie Harris said the school, and the community that continually advocated for the school, is an example of “something we have done exceptionally right.”

The other four new or remodeled Seattle schools opening Wednesday are Thornton Creek K-5, Hazel Wolf K-8, Seattle World School and Genesee Hill. All five have been funded by the Building Excellence IV capital levy that voters approved in 2013 and will help ease overcrowding, district officials said.

Hundreds of parents and students toured the new Arbor Heights on Tuesday, which was billed as particularly noteworthy because of its eco-friendly features, significant expansion and dramatic improvement from the old building.

 

The new Arbor Heights is 89,000 square feet and can accommodate up to 660 students from kindergarten through fifth-grade. It will have a new program focused on environmental science, technology, engineering and math. The school also will have a preschool that’s part of the city’s new preschool program.

The building has LED lighting, automatic sensors that control when lights and power are turned off, and large metal ceiling fans that spin slowly for natural cooling. There are exposed beams and seismic bracing in some areas, like the gym, which teach students about building structures and systems, said Charlie Bucheit of Bassetti Architects, which designed the building.

Outside, there’s a grass playfield, a large patch named the “dinosaur garden” that has fossil replicas and a covered play area. At the old school, students called the fenced area of asphalt where they played “the jail.”

Several people compared the old school, built in the 1940s, to a detention center that had little light, undrinkable water and bad heating and cooling. School Board President Betty Patu talked about visiting the school when the boiler room flooded and water seeped into a kindergarten classroom.

“I had to step back and think, ‘This is a school? It looked like a prison,’ ” Patu said at Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

After the ceremony, workers in hard hats walked around the clusters of students, parents and teachers, trying to get everything finished by the first day of school. Principal Christy Collins greeted the families, making headway on her goal to know every student’s name within a few weeks.

The building “still is not complete, it’s an ongoing process,” she said. “But that’s part of learning and growth.”