Planning for 21st century schools now

They might seem fine from the outside, but Mercer Island’s public elementary schools are bursting with too many students.

But more pressing is the fact that school facilities here, in one of the finest school districts in the state, are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Many of the schools were built decades ago. There have been remodels and updating of the physical space and the installation of computers, but the design of the schools has not changed with the times. The type of space they include is no longer adequate.

The schools are overcrowded. More than 600 students district-wide are housed in portables, the most at West Mercer Elementary School. West Mercer was designed and built for 450 students. There are now well over 600 students at West Mercer, many in portables.

The need is acute.

School officials say district enrollment will exceed design capacity by 2015.

“We are planning for students in 2015 with the potential for serving 10 percent more than that,” said schools finance officer, Dean Mack. “We cannot ‘do nothing.’ We cannot put one more portable on school land.”

Officials estimate there could be 4,500 students enrolled in public schools here by 2015, and maybe even more.

But there is more lacking than classroom space.

The need for new buildings and attendant facilities is not driven by the age of the buildings, but the capacity and space and the flexibility that is needed in schools to accommodate what will become basic learning in the upcoming decades.

In the school district’s 2020 Vision, school officials have described an approach to personalized and individual learning that can be tailored to the needs and learning styles of each student.

Accordingly, the space and technology that is available to students and educators must be adaptive and changeable to meet the challenges of learning in a rapidly changing world.

A group of nearly 20 Islanders called ‘The 21st Century Facilities Planning Committee’ have come together over the past year to set out a plan to guide the district to a plan to shape the district’s facilities to meet the needs of students in the coming decades. It is an impressive group of volunteers; there are three civil engineers, a former school board president, PTA leaders, legal and public finance experts, arts and literary experts, a contractor, and perhaps even more importantly, a neighbor, Amanda Clark, who lives near the high school.

“It is truly a community group,” said facilitator Kris Kelsay. “And it is not quite as homogeneous as you might think.”

The group is tasked with taking the long-term view of educational needs and the land that is available, and produce a master plan to guide school officials and the community. Next, the plan must immediately address the capacity issues faced by elementary students. And, finally, make certain that incorporating best practices is not and will not be held back by building constraints.

The group has met several times primarily to collect information: they have taken school tours, met with principals and others, and have reviewed demographic forecasts.

It is a data-driven group, Kelsay said.

Also to be considered is the inclusion of preschools and day care within school district buildings.

Given these, the committee has been looking at everything from how many schools are needed — four elementary schools vs. three, which schools should be built first, how to time and finance the new facilities and how to keep existing schools functioning while construction is taking place.

The committee has determined a few key factors. First, a middle school will not be constructed at or near the high school. All of the new elementary schools will be two stories. Field space must be considered at each location. The leased buildings will also be considered part of the land available.

As the committee continues its work through the next several months, the community is encouraged to weigh in on the discussion. Go to:


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