To understand the value of the remodeling across White River School District schools the last few years, consider the “cafeterianasium.”
That’s the tongue-in-cheek word assistant superintendent Scott Harrison used to describe the gym at Foothills Elementary, which for years has also pulled shifts as the event stage, gathering space and cafeteria.
It wasn’t ideal. Schedules revolved around access to the precious space, where basketball games, assemblies and lunch time were all held.
That pressure is letting up a little, as students this year get to use a brand-new cafeteria, along with eight new classrooms, a new kitchen and cafeteria, and a totally refreshed playground, all part of a brand-new wing that launched this school year.
The new wing of the school bookends a brief but intense construction and remodeling cycle for the WSRD that began with White River High School’s major stadium upgrades and new roofing in 2017.
In the years between, the District has almost entirely rebuilt Glacier Middle School, finished major upgrades at Foothills, Elk Ridge and Wilkeson elementary schools, and finished remodeling and renovations at Mountain Meadow Elementary and the district’s Early Learning Center.
Aging facilities and growing demand for new students meant it was time, Harrison said: “The vast majority of our buildings were beginning to show their age.”
Student needs have changed since those schools were built, Harrison said, and simply “slapping down” a few portable classrooms isn’t a long-term solution.
“All of those students still go to P.E, lunch, music, the library,” Harrison said. “(With) additional portables … you’ve housed them for their instruction blocks, but you haven’t addressed the broader needs.”
Voters in 2016 approved a $98.8 million bond paying for the major projects at White River High, Elk Ridge, Glacier, Wilkeson and the district’s Early Learning Center, along with tech and safety improvements across the entire district. More than half that money — $54.6 million — went to the Glacier Middle School project alone.
Those projects are now all done. And this fall, Foothills Elementary and Glacier Middle School celebrated their first full-time cohorts of students back to class.
Both have reached “substantial completion,” meaning the buildings are fit for use even though all the bells and whistles aren’t necessarily finished.
Lakewood-based Pease Construction took on the Foothills project, beginning construction in October 2020 and getting the school ready for students 12 months later later.
Along with a completely upgraded kitchen and improved flooring throughout the school, Foothills Elementary now features a brand new cafeteria, eight new classrooms on top the 23 it already had, and a completely remodeled playground.
That last item might be of particular interest to the students, who prior had been playing on a small, nearly four-decade-old playground.
“It was tired,” Harrison said. “Like anything that is almost 40 years old, it’s served us well but it also has run its course.”
They’re similar upgrades made to all the district playgrounds since the bond approval in 2016, he said, including the early learning center, Mountain Meadow, Wilkeson and Elk Ridge.
The gym also received extensive remodeling, including a new floor and backboards.
An orange color scheme adorns the classroom area of the new wing, which has been in use by students since the beginning of the school year.
The classrooms feature 21st-century conveniences like ‘smart’ display screens and docking stations for student laptops, upgrades which were made standard across the district thanks to their 2014-2017 technology levy.
Leoni Peña, a CTE (Career and Technical Education) paraeducator at White River High School, has two kids currently attending Foothills Elementary. She said she liked how the new design blended in with the rest of the school, and the new equipment in the classrooms doesn’t hurt either.
“We’re lucky in our district that we do get smaller class sizes than our friends in the Sumner school district,” she said.
Peña’s daughter Adalynn, who is in fifth grade, gave her thoughts on the school’s new wing, where some of her classes are.
“Hmm,” she said, lost in deep thought for a few moments before concluding: “It’s orange.”
Starr Wahl, another parent of two students at the elementary, was thankful for the smaller classroom sizes facilitated by the new classes. The new playground is a big improvement too, she said, both more fun and more safe.
“The school definitely needed the update, and more room,” Wahl said.
Wahl’s daughter Charlie, another fifth grader, gave the new classroom wing a positive review.
“Most classrooms are square shaped, but ours is kind of like a rhombus shape,” she said, adding that the smaller class sizes are “a lot better, because instead of there being a bunch of talking, it’s actually quiet, and you can do stuff.”
“The only thing I don’t like is it’s a lot of orange,” she added.
Though the original bond paid for upgrades at Foothills, the elementary school’s big $9.1 million expansion was funded separately.
It was precipitated by a voter-approved class size reduction measure passed in 2014. That measure required K-3 classes to have no more than 15 to 17 students, and grades 4 through 12 to have no more than 22 to 25 students.
“While that was great, the reality was that the vast majority of school districts didn’t have the classroom space to reduce those sizes,” Harrison said.
White River did, however, successfully grab a slice of state grants baked up to help schools reduce class sizes. That paid for $3.4 million of the project, while a capital levy paid for most of the rest.
The building will be fully paid off by December 2022, according to WRSD superintendent Janel Keating Hambly.
Altogether, Foothills went from an average class size of 25 last year to 22 this year, Harrison said.
GLACIER MIDDLE SCHOOL
The music room and portions from the existing gym are all that remain of the old building. Everything else the light touches is new.
Construction began November 2018, and the school reached substantial completion at the end of May 2021.
The WRSD earned $8,675,000 in state funds and put another $1,300,000 in impact fees toward the Glacier Middle School project. The rest of the project — about $44.6 million — was paid from the bond.
There was a silver lining when the pandemic broke out Spring 2020: No students in classrooms meant construction could be sped up. The building opened last school year with mixed groups of students learning in person, but fall 2020 marked the first school year where all students came back to the new building full time.
The new hallways run from the music room all the way to where the school used to house portables and old vocational buildings.
“(The vocational buildings) were so old, the state actually paid us money to take them down,” Harrison said.
The gym floor backboards are new, and a new auxiliary gym now joins the locker rooms. The school’s new kitchen prepares food both for Glacier Middle School and for a few other elementary schools, as well as the Carbonado school district.
A recreation space outside provides something of a big kid’s playground, featuring tennis nets, basketball hoops and tetherball poles. Students can use the space during their lunch break.
“Middle school is tough for everybody,” Harrison said. “Oftentimes, it’s also a really important developmental period in their lives. … At a lot of middle schools, you don’t see this anymore.”