Mercer Island approves addition of floor No. Deux to French-American School

This artist’s rendering shows what the new French-American School will look like. - Contributed photo
This artist’s rendering shows what the new French-American School will look like.
— image credit: Contributed photo

The French-American School of Puget Sound, the only K-5 international school on the Island, is expanding its curriculum and school house to accommodate growing enrollment.

In March, the City of Mercer Island approved a Conditional Use Permit for the school to construct a second 13,886-square-foot story to its existing building. The summer project is set for completion before the 2008-2009 school year begins. In tandem with the remodel, the international school will introduce its first sixth-grade class, along with three additional kindergarten classes.

“In essence, we’re growing from top and bottom,” said Rob Harrahill, director of development and admissions at the school.

The private institution will continue its expansion in 2009 with a new seventh-grade class and an eighth-grade class in 2010.

“Our sixth-grade course will be a continuation of our program in French. Then we will introduce an international program with the seventh-grade class,” Harrahill said, adding that the seventh-grade curriculum will be adopted from other private international schools.

The idea to become an elementary and middle school has long been a topic of conversation among parents and administrators. However, the one-story building, located next to the Stroum Jewish Community Center, was not big enough to accommodate a jump in enrollment. Now that the city has approved the school’s expansion, administrators are eager to meet student demand.

Because the private school follows a strict bilingual immersion system, it can only accept students at the preschool or kindergarten level. According to Harrahill, the school has a population of 282 students covering 38 nationalities. Forty-five percent of the student body come from French-speaking households.

The second story is being built off site. In August, the modules will be disassembled and reconstructed on the existing school building in time for the school year. The new space will accommodate an additional 150 students and allow for a new library, computer room, science lab and art workshop. An elevator and two flights of stairs will also be added.

“When we built the original building in 2004, we always intended to build a second floor to bring our school to the fullest potential. If we had had the money, we would have expanded then,” Michelle Kline, chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, told the Reporter in 2007.

In total, the second story will cost $3.7 million. School fundraising and donations should meet about $1.25 million. Debt financing will cover the balance. The school is still paying off the cost of its 2004 construction.

In keeping with city code, the building will be less than 26 feet in height. What’s more, because the French-American School leases land from the JCC, the city has stipulated that the school must not schedule overlapping events that exceed on-site parking. A minimum of 66 parking spots must be available on site 24 hours a day, with an additional 43 open for use at the Herzl-Ner Tamid synagogue across East Mercer Way.

If parking problems do arise with the addition of more students, the city reserves the right to prohibit the overflow of parking onto city streets.

Out of respect for its JCC neighbor, school administrators chose to construct the second-story off site. This will keep summer disruption to the busy community center to a minimum, Harrahill said.

“It minimizes the impact on the community, not having 60-some builders on site,” the director said, adding that off-site construction was also better for the environment. “It creates only 2 to 3 percent waste, so the project is environmentally friendly.”

The French-American School was established in 1995 by a small group of educators and Francophones to “empower a diverse community of children to succeed in both the French and American educational systems.” It is currently the only bilingual school accredited by France in the Pacific Northwest and has grown from 13 students and two teachers to 274 students and 38 faculty members.

For the first nine years of its existence, the school operated out of two portables built on land leased from the JCC. Given the school’s quickly growing reputation — an increase in 40 students over the past four years — administrators began discussing the possibility of expansion and proposed a two-phase construction plan for a complete building.

Phase one of the plan was realized in 2004, when the school invested $3.1 million into constructing an 18,132-square-foot facility. Because the school did not have sufficient funds for the second phase — building an additional story — the Board of Trustees decided to put the project on hold.

This fall, administrators will celebrate the realization of their long-time plan. The complete, two-story school will be officially opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony and open house at the end of August. Students, their parents and community residents will be invited to join in the celebration.

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