In our view: Odd Name, Inspiring Story

New health sciences high school takes shape near PeaceHealth Southwest



HeLa High (that’s not a typo) is taking shape just north of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, and there are several things we like about this project.First, though, we’ll address any early ambivalence — perhaps open-mindedness that could evolve into ultimate support — about the name of the school. “HeLa High” will prompt questions from many people who hear the name for the first time: What does it mean? Or from many people who read it for the first time: Why the strange capitalization?

But that minor inconvenience will lead to a bit of enlightenment, a lesson that for more than six decades has been good for people to learn. The school is named for Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman from southern Virginia whose cancerous cells were instrumental in launching the biomedical research field in 1951. She is the namesake of the immortal HeLa cell line. Henrietta’s story gained popularity in 2010 with the award-winning nonfiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by author Rebecca Skloot.

That short history lesson should resolve anyone’s apprehension about HeLa High. It certainly impressed the Evergreen school board, which last September unanimously approved the name of the district’s new health and bioscience high school. As Cami Joner reported in Thursday’s Columbian, the three-story magnet school is nearing completion at 9105 N.E. Ninth St, off Northeast 92nd Avenue, with an opening scheduled for fall 2013. Here are a few reasons we like HeLa High:

It’s next to a hospital. By design, HeLa will put students within a stethoscope’s throw of the huge PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

It looks like a medical facility, not like a high school. Again by design, students will get the feeling of early entry into the medical sciences.

It targets an emerging, high-tech field. Students will explore biomedical engineering, nursing services, health informatics, pharmacology, biotech, microbiology, chemistry, advanced biology and physics. One warning to students: If your parents are journalists, please don’t ask them to help with your homework.

It’s big. HeLa is one of the largest construction sites in the county. More than 50 people typically work there daily. And about 58 subcontractor firms are delighted to have the business during these tough economic times.

It’s small. Unlike other high school campuses of 50 acres or more and thousands of students, HeLa is built on only 3 acres with a projected enrollment of about 500 students.

It costs less. HeLa is costing $23.7 million. By comparison, in 2007 Union High School cost $67 million, and upgrades at Evergreen High School cost $40 million. HeLa’s annual budget will be about $3 million, compared with $9 million or more for a typical high school.

It’s funded by multiple sources. The state Department of Commerce approved a $1 million grant. More funds came from the state ($10.5 million in matching funds), impact fees, school construction bonds and proceeds from other land sales.

It benefits other high schools. HeLa will start with freshman and sophomore students and ultimately grow to a four-year high school that helps ease any crowding problems at other high schools.

It strengthens PeaceHealth’s commitment to our community, especially through public education.

Although it’s still more than a year away from opening, HeLa High already convinces us: Henrietta Lacks would be proud.