Summer break? Not for school builders

Construction projects now underway throughout Camas, Washougal districts

Under Construction
  • Columbia River Gorge Elementary — The first elementary school to be built in Washougal School District since the mid-1950s, it will have enough room to accommodate 550 students.
  • The new Jemtegaard Middle School, also in the Washougal School District, will have room for 600 students.
  • Also in Washougal, the new Excelsior High School will feature washers, dryers and showers and house the district’s new freshman academy.
  • In the Camas School District, there are two new buildings under construction right now: Lacamas Heights Elementary School and the project-based learning Discovery High.

The new Jemtegaard Middle School will include a state-of-the-art band and music room, complete with soundproof practice areas.

Flexible and adaptable are the themes for construction projects in the Camas and Washougal school districts.

Both districts have been a hotbed of activity this summer, with new school buildings now in various stages of completion.

Washougal will have its first new elementary school since the mid-1950s, when work on Columbia River Gorge Elementary wraps up this month. The school will be ready for occupancy on Aug. 24. Some eager staff members have already snapped photos of their rooms and started thinking about decorating ideas.

“For me, it’s exciting to see them excited about what we have been working on for two years now,” said Mike Stromme, Washougal School District superintendent.

To help ensure that the new buildings would be ready by the time school started up again, construction on the new Columbia River Gorge elementary, as well as the new Jemtegaard Middle School, started while classes were still in session at the old building, which has now been demolished.

“It worked out pretty well and we didn’t have any significant disruptions,” said Joe Steinbrenner, facilities director. “Staff were surprised and pleased with the minimal disruption.”

Columbia River Gorge will have a 550-student capacity, while Jemtegaard will have room for 600 students.

The projects are funded by capital bonds: Washougal voters approved a $57 million bond in 2015, and Camas voters approved a $119.7 million bond in 2016.

On a recent tour of the new schools, Stromme pointed out some of the buildings’ unique features: LED lights, heating and cooling in each individual area to accompany the buildings’ central air systems, and building placement to keep the often fierce winds at bay while children are at recess or learning outdoors.

The classrooms have minimal permanent furniture, a purposeful idea designed to make the space more adaptable for different projects. There also are large group-work areas that can be sectioned off if necessary.

The buildings also make use of large windows to capture natural lighting and sweeping views of the Columbia River Gorge,

“Natural lighting is huge in terms of the environment needed for teaching and learning,” Stromme said.

The new Washougal-area Excelsior High School also is nearing its completion date. The new building will feature washers and dryers for students to do laundry, as well as showers. Located next to Washougal High School, Excelsior will house the district’s new freshman academy, a project-based learning program.

“We’re revamping the academic program, as well as enrichment and support services for students,” Stromme said. “We are hoping this program will better meet their needs.”

In Camas, the two biggest projects are the new Lacamas Heights Elementary School and Discovery High, another project-based learning school.

Construction on both buildings began in June. After a wild winter, district officials were unsure of what the summer months would bring, but so far, said Heidi Rosenberg, capital programs director, they’ve had no complaints.

“We have been blessed with beautiful weather,” Rosenberg said. “It’s helped everything stay on time.”

The new 600-student elementary school will be situated on 40 acres, and feature a project lab and multi-functional rooms, as opposed to dedicated spaces.

“The building has also been designed to take advantage of views of Mount Hood, and we’ll use some of the oak trees we need to remove to build a natural playground,” said Kathy Carlson, project manager. “It will be a little different than a normal school yard experience.”

The new high school will include a 300-student seat “learning stair,” which faces a multipurpose area where P.E. and other classes can be held, with a total capacity of 600.

“The idea is that all students can meet there in the a.m. before school starts for the day,” said Chuck Stiller, project manager. “Flexible space is a focal point of this building.”

There are only four traditional-style classrooms throughout the school. It is designed around the idea of pods with common areas. Teachers won’t have a specific classroom. Instead, it will be similar to a community college, where several people may rotate through a room during the school day.

Each wing will have an outdoor learning area as well, designed for messy or odiferous projects.

“We’re really trying to integrate learning all throughout the building,” Stiller said.

The Camas School District building projects should be finished next summer.

Folks living near Camas High may have noticed another school-related construction project happening this summer. Crews are building a north-access road behind the high school to help relieve congestion on nearby 15th Avenue. That project should be complete before school begins in September.