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Bethel Starts The School Year With New Buildings

Rachael McDonald

As students at Oregon's K - 12 public schools head back to class Eugene's Bethel School District is celebrating. This year, kids at Malabon and Fairfield Elementary Schools are in new buildings, and Willamette High School has a new Science building. All funded by voter passed bonds.

The $49.5 million bond levy was approved in 2012. It also pays for new instructional materials, technology and safety improvements in the Bethel District.

Superintendent Colt Gill took me on a tour of the new science building at Willamette High.

Gill: "The key piece to this building for us is we wanted to make it super energy-efficient, super low-cost to maintain but really beautiful and effective for our students."

It houses the school's front office and science classrooms. Gill says it's a LEED certified energy efficient building."

Gill: "It will be the first one in the Willamette Valley for a K-12 public school. So we're really proud of that. The roof is covered with a solar array. The drilling sounds you hear might be from them installing things like that right now. And it has water features that come down the sides of the building and take care of the plantings around the outside so you reuse all the water runoff from the school as well."

There are lots of places for students to hang out, on the stairs and in the halls. And lots of outlets to plug in phones, tablets and laptops. Gill says the expectation is that technology is a tool for learning.

Credit Rachael McDonald
The stairs in the science building feature places to sit and plug in mobile devices.

Gill: "We provide some, sometimes students come with their own technology. Our schools in Oregon were mostly built after World War II, so 50s, 60s, sort of during that boom. And was not designed to have people plugging in things all over the place."

Gill says the building's design-team included teachers and administrators. Students and community members were also involved. We find biology teacher David Novak in his classroom which he says is almost 3 times as big as the old one. It features natural light and spaces for students to work on projects.

The new classroom wing opened in February, so Novak has already gotten to teach here.

Novak: "It's been a true joy to come back to school and it’s a pleasure to come to work every day. The kids also get a heightened sense of pride and also appreciation for such a great facility."

Credit Rachael McDonald
Willamette High School Biology teacher David Novak in his new classroom.

Mindy LeRoux is principal of Willamette High School.

Laroux: "The building is beautiful and amazing and the reaction from the students is really priceless when they walk into our classrooms now they are engaged, they're learning, they're excited and a whole world of possibilities is open to them just basically based on the beautiful space that we have."

Laroux and Superintendent Gill are delighted to have this new building and the other new materials the district was able to procure with the voter-passed bond. Still, Gill says there are lots of challenges for Oregon schools.

Gill: "The state of Oregon funds its schools at one of the lowest levels in the country. We have the second largest class sizes. We have one of the shortest school years in the country and other states are moving ahead."

Gill says the district tries to overcome the funding gaps.
The latest complication in Oregon's education funding equation is full-day kindergarten. The legislature now requires districts to provide it.

Gill says while the state has provided funding, there's not enough money left over for roll-up costs that allow the district to maintain its service level. Gill says he feels pretty confident about this year.

Gill: "We think our class sizes, we invested a little bit from an ending fund balance that we had to reduce class size, so we think our class sizes are going to drop pretty well across kindergarten through 12th grade. So we're excited about that. But we need to watch that spending in the future and see if the state catches up to where we need to be."

Last week, the district held ribbon cutting celebrations for Willamette High's new science building and for the new Malabon and Fairfield Elementary Schools. Classes start this week at Bethel.  

Credit Rachael McDonald
Bethel's new Malabon Elementary School

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