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July 22, 2010

Site headaches can be a gift for students

  • It’s getting tougher for districts to find suitable properties for development, but environmentally sensitive areas can provide powerful on-site learning opportunities.
    The Watershed Co.


    It was a spring field trip to remember for the third-graders at Little Cedars Elementary, off Cathcart Way in Snohomish.

    They got to take samples of murky pond water. They measured and identified plants. They tracked wildlife and learned about animal camouflage. They spent the whole day outside learning from the big kids from Glacier Peak High School, and to get there they didn’t even need a school bus.

    The students were using an outdoor classroom situated between the elementary and high school. The 1.1 acres of wetland restoration, built as mitigation for new school construction, has provided a powerful on-site learning opportunity for students in the Snohomish School District. Only five years ago these wetlands were considered a development headache as district facilities managers looked at environmental regulations and the limited building areas for their new schools.

    “No doubt what was a tremendous challenge for us at the Cathcart site has turned into an educational asset,” says Jim Dean, Glacier High principal.

    With increased urbanization, districts throughout the state are struggling to find suitable properties for new school development that are unencumbered by sensitive areas. A new high school needs 40 acres; a new elementary school needs 10 acres. School buildings are smaller than they have been historically but demands for athletic fields and parking are increasing.

    Photo courtesy of the Snohomish School District [enlarge]
    Third-graders from Little Cedars Elementary in Snohomish spent a day outdoors learning about wetlands that border their school.

    “Yes, the site challenges resulting from critical areas can be difficult but the beauty of it is that they give us as educators a chance to again show kids how the system works — in this case stormwater and the environment,” says Steve Cole, president-elect of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Council of Education and Facilities Planners International.

    CEFPI, which is very active in Washington state, is charged simply with improving the places where children learn.

    Outdoor education is not a new concept. Nor is the on-site, outdoor classroom. But the combination of water, sensitive areas and increased environmental regulations bring new elements to the mix for both school construction and modernization.

    Site assessment, permitting and landscape design become more critical for planning. The result is buildings and campuses more in tune with nature and rich with educational opportunities.

    ‘Our living laboratory’

    Eastside Catholic School faced challenges with 13 acres of wetlands and a stream that bisected the 50 acres they had chosen for a new facility in Sammamish. Now these sensitive areas have become the heart of the campus for the 850-student school that opened in 2008.

    Staff and students reach the building by crossing the bubbling restored stream, a calming transition into the learning environment.

    “It is something really unique about our campus,” says Patti Finley, director of communications at Eastside Catholic School.

    “It’s so peaceful. It’s also a site amenity that gives students a chance to do some real world science. We call it our living laboratory.”

    Science classes from sixth grade to Advanced Placement biology follow a customized curriculum that uses the stream and wetland area as a learning tool and case study. Youngsters investigate soils, water, microorganisms, wildlife and erosion. Advanced students write an environmental impact statement and explore the political ramifications of similar projects.

    The Lake Washington School District is also integrating new eco-friendly design concepts and an environmental stewardship philosophy into their site plans as aging schools are renovated. The district, which covers the suburbs east of Lake Washington, is in the midst of modernization and new school construction as it faces a growing population that will add the equivalent of one new elementary school, or 425 students, to its population every year for the next five years.

    The district has come up with creative ideas for a modernization of Finn Hill Junior High in Kirkland, which is adjacent to an expansive high-functioning wetland within Big Finn Hill Park. Their low-impact development approach both saves site development costs and embraces constraints as a learning opportunity. The district is demolishing the 43-year-old school and constructing a new building on its 19-acre campus.

    Stricter regulations for wetlands and stormwater management required more stormwater infrastructure than anticipated. By incorporating a large rain garden, which uses planted depressions to absorb rainwater runoff from impervious surfaces, the district was able to downsize its stormwater system for the new buildings and parking lots.

    A series of smaller rain gardens featuring different Pacific Northwest habitats is oriented to each grouping of classrooms, or educational pod. Paths will link an outdoor patio for each pod with its rain garden, incorporating interpretive signage.

    Rain gardens

    Rain gardens, which some studies show can cut down on the amount of pollution reaching creeks and streams by up to 30 percent, have become such popular Parent-Teacher-Student Association projects at Seattle Public Schools that the district is looking at setting design standards for them, according to Gretchen DeDecker, the district’s self-help projects coordinator.

    “All of a sudden we have had a flood of interest in rain gardens,” she says, noting that at least 10 school sites in the district have active parent-teacher-student rain garden projects that will absorb and filter water instead of discharging it directly into concrete stormwater systems.

    Some of these projects are funded by bake sales, others by grants. Children and parents do some of the excavating and all the native plantings. Wedgwood Elementary’s new rain garden will absorb all the runoff from a double portable classroom.

    “We have a lot of kids who are getting a good understanding and access to water issues in the Seattle area. And it is good because this is a critical issue for our region,” says DeDecker.

    The new Glacier Peak High School site in Snohomish also makes extensive use of rain gardens and bioswales throughout the site, and particularly for runoff from its 580-car and 25-bus parking lot. Principal Dean is particularly proud of how this system is teaching students about the impact all the asphalt is having on water quality and how vegetation controls impacts.

    For biology teacher Brian Hill at Glacier Peak, it’s all about getting students to look at the natural world around them.

    “There’s nothing like sending them out to get samples from our pond so that they can look at what’s in the water under a microscope. It’s just cool,” Hill says.

    Nancy Way is vice president of The Watershed Co., a Kirkland environmental consulting company with services in landscape architecture, stream, wetland, shoreline and wildlife assessment, planning and permitting.

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