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French-American school to expand again

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter The French-American School of Puget Sound currently serves 274 students, from preschool to the fifth grade, and welcomes a growing number of children every year. In order to facilitate this growth, the school is hoping to construct a 13,886-square-foot second story in 2008. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter The French-American School of Puget Sound currently serves 274 students, from preschool to the fifth grade, and welcomes a growing number of children every year. In order to facilitate this growth, the school is hoping to construct a 13,886-square-foot second story in 2008.
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The French-American School of Puget Sound, the only K-5 international school on the Island, is planning to add an entire second story to its building next fall.

On July 11, the school submitted an application for expansion with the City of Mercer Island, hoping to add a 13,886-square-foot second story to its current building, which was constructed in 2004. The new space will accommodate the school’s steadily growing enrollment or an additional 150 students.

“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,” said Michelle Kline, chair of the school’s Board of Trustees.

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 Stroum Jewish Community Center (JCC).

Given the school’s quickly growing reputation, 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 plan on hold.

Today, the school cannot afford to wait any longer.

“As soon as we built the first floor, it was already too small,” said Andree McGiffin, head of the school. “We’ve even converted our computer lab into a classroom because we have so many students.”

The current single-level modular building, which has a terraced walkway and walls covered in green ivy, sits just meters away from the JCC with plenty of parking and outdoor play space for the children. However, indoors, nearly every square foot is filled with students.

“Based on state guidelines, we don’t have enough square feet to accommodate all of our students,” Kline added.

In addition to classrooms, the proposed second floor will include a science room, library and art room, as well as office space for faculty. An elevator and two sets of stairs will also be added.

“Right now we’re really short of administrative offices and meeting rooms,” Kline pointed out.

If the City approves the school’s Conditional Use Permit and SEPA review, construction will begin — and finish — in the summer of 2008.

Kirsten Wild of Weinstein A/U Architects, the firm behind the remodel, said that in order to finish the second story in time for the 2008 school year, the company will build the modular units off-site and erect them over the summer.

“The school can’t displace its students for renovation, so it’s critical that we get the work done by fall,” she said.

According to Kline, most of the proposed construction cost will be financed. The rest of the money will come from school reserves and contributions. The school is still paying off the cost of its 2004 construction.

Meanwhile, the City is currently looking over the school’s application for a Conditional Use Permit and has written up a number of mitigation measures, most dealing with parking issues.

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.

As for the actual building, the City maintains that the second story must be below 26 feet, the allowable height limit. If future expansion is desired, the school must submit a separate application.

“The JCC is fully aware and approving of our plans for development,” Wild said.

Over the past four years, the French-American School has grown by nearly 40 students. And McGiffin is certain that this trend will continue.

But because the private school follows a strict bilingual immersion system, it can only accept students at the preschool or kindergarten level. Therefore, the student body flourishes gradually, year by year.

Although McGiffin said the school hopes to eventually include sixth, seventh and eighth grade into its curriculum, such expansion will take time.

“We can’t add three grades to our school over night,” the school director said. “All expansion is gradual, especially in an immersion program like ours. We will start with sixth grade and grow from there.”

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