New year, new buildings, new programs

Washougal administrators, students embrace new spaces

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Jemtegaard Middle School teacher Scott Rainey chats with students on the first day of school last week. JMS is one of three, state-of-the-art, new buildings in the Washougal School District. (Contributed photo)

Some students in Washougal were welcomed back to brand new buildings when the school year began last week.

Students at Excelsior High School, Jemtegaard Middle School and Columbia River Gorge Elementary finally got to attend classes at their new sites after months of planning and construction.

Tracey MacLachlan, principal at Columbia River Gorge Elementary, called it an “amazing few days.”

“It is so exhilarating to welcome students into their new school,” she said. “It seems like we’ve waited and prepared for so long, and finally they are here. The positive energy and excitement is overwhelming and I’ve heard comments from students such as, ‘It’s so beautiful and fancy,’ ‘I love the square lights,’ (and) ‘The library is full of so many new books.'”

She notes that staff members seem very happy to be in their new classrooms.

“It’s heartwarming to see lessons built around expectations for how our new spaces will be used,” MacLachlan said. “For example, the safest way to exit the building … and travel through hallways while not disturbing the learning of others. (It’s) the very beginning of the Columbia River Gorge Elementary story and we all get to be here to write it: students, staff and parents, along with the entire Washougal community.”

For years, students and staff at Jemtegaard Middle School, which is located next to the new elementary school, braved wicked Gorge winds and driving rain to make their way to class in the open-air structure of the former building. Finally, they are securely indoors, with a building designed to block the wind.

“It feels great to be in the new building,” said David Cooke, principal. “I feel blessed that our kids and staff get to come here every day. There are definitely some ‘learning opportunities’ as we learn the new building.”

The recent open house drew more than 1,000 people, he added.

“There are some things that we could not foresee until you get 500 kids in here, but we are working them out,” Cooke said.

Excelsior High School is perhaps the most dramatically different. Before, the school was comprised of two old, leaky portables that had once been used by the former Rajneeshee cult in central Oregon, which was most famous for purposefully putting salmonella into the salad bars of several restaurants in The Dalles, sending several people to the hospital in the mid-1980s.

Students at the new building last week seemed fascinated to learn about the historical details associated with their old building and very pleased to have a new, much larger and more modern space.

Skylar Kotkoski described it as very “clean” feeling.

“It’s just better overall, and has … nice, clean air,” he said.

Isaac James described it as “spacious and a lot more modern.”

Walker O’Brien had an opportunity to visit the new school in various stages of construction as a part of his WHS woodshop class.

“It’s kind of amazing to see how it has gone from nothing to this whole new building,” O’Brien said.

Mark Castle, Excelsior’s principal, said the new building helps the students take pride in where they go to school.

“I have heard more than one say they feel like they’re walking onto a college campus,” Castle said.

The space also is home to nearby Washougal High School’s new Freshman Academy and Excelsior’s On Track programs.

The programs are designed to offer personalized support for students at different stages of their high school careers, according to a press release from the district, and were developed by a group of teachers, counselors, community members, career specialists and administrators.

Freshman Academy will offer more of a project-based learning experience, and include field trips and guest speakers.

On Track will be a non-traditional learning setting for students who have struggled in a traditional setting, focusing primarily on juniors and seniors who are behind on the credits they need to graduate.

On Track also will focus on project-based learning and personalized education.

“We’re really excited about these state-of-the-art buildings and the new programs to support our students,” said Aaron Hansen, WHS principal. “We’ve very appreciate of our community for approving the bond and the having the chance to reshape the programs offered.”

More information about Freshman Academy and On Track can be found under academic programs on the WHS website at

The schools’ construction projects were part of the $57 million capital improvement bond voters approved in February 2015, which addressed safety, student capacity and facilities needs for WSD students.

Students gather outside of the new building with principal David Cooke (background).
Students gather outside of the new building with principal David Cooke (background). Photo