Exploring the new digs

Washougal families visit a new, state-of-the-art school building

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Washougal Schools Superintendent Mark Stromme (far right) greets students and parents in the commons room shared by Columbia River Gorge Elementary and Jemtegaard Middle School. Other Open House guest converse in the background.

Washougal families walked the halls, explored the classrooms and traversed the stairs of the new Columbia River Elementary and Jemtegaard Middle School building beaming with pride during an open house event on Thursday, Oct. 5.

“The amazing part is everybody is so excited. The community is so excited, just to see kids and places,” said Columbia River Elementary Principal Tracey MacLachlan. “Just people in the community that have supported the schools and their kids have grown up here. For them to come back and see that schools and education in Washougal are important. They’re good facilities. They’re state-of-the-art. There’s pictures and there’s technology all around. But there’s also just good people. People that are dedicated to the work with kids. And that’s my most favorite part.”

Emerson Fletcher, 9, was one of the students chosen by teachers to be an ambassador. She greeted guests at the door and led them on a tour throughout the campus. She loves her new home away from home, and looks forward to taking advantage of all the technology and wide open spaces offered around every corner for the next five years.

“I liked taking people around and showing them everything,” Fletcher said. “It’s big. It’s odd having stairs … It’s nice, all-around — having the elevator, too.”

According to the Washougal School District “Realizing a dream …” article handed out at the open house, planning for this new 122,000-square-foot campus began in 2013 with the work of the Long Range Facility Planning Committee. This group evaluated the needs and conditions of WSD facilities to ensure they supported a safe, positive environment for student learning and success.

“We worked hard this summer to build a culture of how important kids were going to be,” MacLachlan said. “I’ve talked to the kids. ‘What’s your favorite part?’ ‘Oh my gosh, Mrs. MacLachlan, there’s an elevator. There’s a courtyard. When do we get to eat lunch in the courtyard?’ Just that kind of stuff.”

Based on this foundation of work, the school board asked that a $57 million capital improvement bond be brought before voters. The bond passed in February of 2015.

“We’re thanking people for their support, and we’re showing off a great piece of Washougal,” MacLachlan said.

“Washougal has got some really great people who are willing to go way above and beyond,” she added. “It’s a small town. It’s possibly where they grew up. And a lot of people, I think, today (with) the culture of what’s happening in the world, they want to be in a place that feels safe and welcoming and valued.”

The district and the construction staff worked with the Columbia River Gorge Commission to assure plans met specific standards. Special design elements to meet those standards include tall trees to provide visual screening from Oregon viewpoints, a berm at the southern end of the property, a lower profile of the schools, and muted colors and natural materials.

“First of all, it’s a beautiful place. It’s green. It’s in the Gorge. It’s a beautiful space,” MacLachlan said. “It’s very calm, even in the midst of the day.”

The students learned on the first day of school to “go to the right” when they walk on the stairs. There’s also a “no talking zone” in the halls.

“We’re teaching students that we all share this space,” MacLachlan said. “It belongs to all of us.”

The $50 million project was completed ahead of schedule, in approximately 14 months. The building can hold 520 elementary and 600 middle school students.

Columbia River Gorge Elementary currently has 406 students and Jemtegaard Middle School has 520 students.

“We’re writing the first chapter of the first story,” MacLachlan said. “This building will outlive us all, and be here for many generations to come. We get to take away a little piece of it.”

Visitors test out the instruments in the music room at Jemegaard Middle School during the Open House.
Visitors test out the instruments in the music room at Jemegaard Middle School during the Open House. Photo