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High school deficiences highlighted

Oak Harbor High School principal Dick Devlin surveys a missing ceiling tile in the foyer of the old gym, and the mass of wiring revealed. Maintenance crews work diligently to keep the aging school going. - Marcie Miller
Oak Harbor High School principal Dick Devlin surveys a missing ceiling tile in the foyer of the old gym, and the mass of wiring revealed. Maintenance crews work diligently to keep the aging school going.
— image credit: Marcie Miller

It doesn’t look too bad from the outside; your basic, circa 1970 beige brick school building. But a tour of Oak Harbor High School reveals serious infrastructure problems and a floor plan that doesn’t fit modern teaching methods.

The school board hopes to remedy those problems by remodeling the facility with $57 million, $45 million of which would come from a bond levy facing voters March 11.

A look at the school’s A wing reveals janitors’ closets with asbestos-wrapped pipes, hallways so narrow students can’t pass when doors are open on both sides and a cramped computer lab that has to turn students away.

On a recent tour of the school, Principal Dick Devlin was surprised to find a large section of acoustic ceiling tile missing from the foyer of the old gym, with electrical wires clearly visible through the gaping hole.

“Hmmm, that must be new,” he mused, although the state of the school is something he is very much aware of.

Flexible design, flexible teaching

In addition to the physical decay, Devlin said the layout of the school inhibits exploring new teaching styles.

“We want to find a way to enhance educational functionability and get the school under one roof,” he said. With the current “wing” layout, Devlin said long periods of time can pass without teachers from different areas seeing each other.

“You don’t get the cross-pollination across discipline lines,” Devlin said.

The proposed remodel plan designed by Bellevue architect Carlos Sierra creates an openness throughout the school which Devlin believes would increase the flow of ideas between classes, while allowing for future changes as well.

“The beauty of Carlos’ design is its flexibility,” he said. “It doesn’t lock into today’s design, it allows for future use.”

The school would like to move toward smaller learning communities in a “school within a school” format. They are having success with this model in the “Island” format for ninth grade students, Devlin said. The freshmen take all their core classes in the B wing, allowing them to adjust to high school life gradually rather than being thrown into it. Discipline problems are down and grades are up among these students, he said.

The proposed design calls for widening the corridors for easier student traffic, tearing out some parts to allow more natural light — many inside classrooms have no windows — and bringing the vocational and technical classes into the main structure. Essentially, all classrooms would be housed under one roof.

Architect Sierra has said that from conversations with school project planners, two needs kept surfacing: making changes to accommodate the concept of learning communities, and eliminating the demoralizing effect of the lack of natural lighting.

Sierra’s design calls for 90 percent of the interior spaces to have natural light, either from windows, skylights or by raising a portion of the roof into a clerestory.

“Natural light, to me, is one of the essential elements of architecture,” he said.

Coming in from the cold

Nowhere is this lack of light more dramatic than in the isolated C and D wings — pod-like octagonal structures located behind the school, across a barren gravel yard.

The buildings house a variety of vocational, technical and art classes, with special needs classrooms scattered throughout.

Art teacher Frank Jacques teaches art classes in a cramped, wedge-shaped room. His creative teaching ideas are limited by the space, but even more frustrating is teaching art in a room with no windows. The only light from the outside world filters in through a tiny, narrow window in the door.

“My friends can’t believe I’m teaching art in a room with no windows,” he said.

With these classes integrated into the main building, teachers can envision a more interconnected curriculum.

Vocational-technical teacher Jerry Mumper said it would be very helpful to have access to teachers from other disciplines.

“I would like to see math teachers in here to teach fractions,” he said. “This is real math.”

His students design and build projects ranging from sheet metal boxes to creepers used by car mechanics.

Disabled students have a hard time

Life skills teacher Valerie Hooten said the school, which was built before the Americans with Disabilities Act, can be hard for disabled students to navigate.

“The district has tried really hard to make the school accessible for all kids, but it isn’t,” she said.

The added-on wheelchair ramps are not up to current code, and the narrow hallways can be hard to get through.

Sophomore Andy Cowan navigates the halls in his wheelchair, but he had a solution: “The teachers let me leave early, so it’s all good,” His main request for the remodel was for tile floors, as the polished aggregate floor throughout the school makes for a bumpy ride.

Bridging the technology gap

One of the main problems that the remodel would remedy is the overloaded and inadequate computer technology system at the school.

“We want to raise the level so the system is integrated, not a bunch of add-ons,” Bruce Roberts, information services director, said.

Students coming from other schools in the district that have already been remodeled have been using state-of-the-art equipment, but when they arrive at the high school they find computers in short supply and lacking the capacity they are used to.

History teacher Sally Jacobs calls it “going back to the horse and buggy stage.”

Roberts said there are 500 computers in the school (although only 60 are in student computer labs), with just one network portal for accessing the Internet. The remodel calls for upgrading that to eight, which would solve the serious slow-down that occurs when too many people try to use the Internet at the same time.

Since classrooms are not equipped with enough computers for every student, classes book time in one of two computer labs to work on projects.

Language Arts teacher Denise Snow brought her fifth period English class to the A wing computer lab recently to work on a journaling project.

She is used to moving around anyway, since she is one of a dozen teachers who don’t have a classroom of their own. They’re known as “pushcart teachers,” literally moving their supplies from one available classroom to another on carts.

Tenth grade student Diamond Santana thought the computer lab was “pretty good,” but teacher’s aid senior Bryan Griffith had stronger words: “I think the system we have is a joke.”

Griffith, who plans on studying Web page design after graduation, said the school needs more computers, and a bigger computer lab.

Computer lab instructional assistant Joan Klope said the long narrow room was not originally meant to be a computer lab. With no exterior windows or air conditioning the 32-seat room gets too warm for the computers and the students.

The brain of the computer lab, the internal distribution frame, juts out into the room, with wires running everywhere. Normally the delicate unit would be housed in a cooler, separate room, away from curious fingers and jostling students. Klope’s job includes guarding it from harm.

“It takes a lot of individual attention,” Klope said.

Triage maintenance

Outside, behind the A wing, school project manager Gary Goltz points out a hulking diesel generator that is supposed to handle loss of power at the school.

In reality, “The generator couldn’t power 10 percent of the school,” Goltz said. This means the school could not be used as a public assembly point in case of emergency.

Last year the school’s electrical transformers were replaced, at a cost of $350,000, because the old ones were in danger of exploding.

“You could actually see an ‘aurora’ of leaking electricity’ Goltz said, when they removed the cover. “It was literally a dangerous situation.”

In pointing out the many physical defects in the aging school, Goltz stressed they are not just letting it fall apart.

“We haven’t abandoned the building,” he said. “We are keeping this thing alive.”

The cost of keeping the building ‘alive’ is rising as the building ages, Goltz said. Even with constant attention there are water marks running down the walls inside classrooms from roof leaks, outside eaves with water running in from leaking gutters, electrical conduit punched through ceiling tiles, and a cranky ventilation system that has some classes freezing while others bake.

A practical wish list

The plan also calls for renovating Parker Hall and the old gymnasium, adding a performing arts center and a sports facilities complex. The list seems long, but Devlin is optimistic.

Devlin said he has experienced four school remodeling projects in his 36 years in education, and that this one is the best he’s seen in terms of preparation and planning.

“You never get everything you want,” he said, “but what’s going before the pubic right now is doing an outstanding job of addressing what’s necessary for the next 25 to 30 years. It’s a good design concept; it addresses the right issues, (such as) a classroom for every teacher, open spaces and added flexibility.

We need this to be a place where teachers are happy to come to school, and students are proud to be here.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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