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Aug. 10, 2020

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Vancouver’s new iTech Preparatory School ‘built around the curriculum’

Project-based learning central to design of Vancouver Public Schools' $40 million building on WSU Vancouver campus

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:
6 Photos
Students gather in a discussion circle, called a Socratic Seminar, during a sciences course at the new iTech Preparatory School on Friday morning. Students are encouraged to discuss the issues and ideas presented in a text in a Socratic Seminar setting.
Students gather in a discussion circle, called a Socratic Seminar, during a sciences course at the new iTech Preparatory School on Friday morning. Students are encouraged to discuss the issues and ideas presented in a text in a Socratic Seminar setting. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The newest building on Washington State University Vancouver’s campus may look at home in a college setting, but the students there are a bit younger.

On Monday, Vancouver Public Schools opened its new Vancouver iTech Preparatory School campus, located at 16100 N.E. 50th Ave., on the WSU Vancouver property. The STEM magnet campus, which serves middle- and high-school students, is the second school to open with funding from the district’s $458 million facilities bond.

The way Principal Darby Meade tells it, everything about the building was constructed with student learning in mind.

“It was built around the curriculum,” Meade said. “This building encompasses who we are.”

iTech Prep is a project-based learning school, which means students are given a series of challenges in their classes, then are tasked with figuring out solutions. It’s an increasingly popular approach in education that blends multiple subjects together while challenging students to control their own learning.

“In the past, the project is the dessert,” Meade said. “In project-based learning, the project becomes the meal.”

12 Photos
Students walk through the common area of the new 	iTech Preparatory School on Friday morning, Jan. 10, 2020. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
iTech Preparatory School Tour Photo Gallery

There are plenty of hands-on activities involved – spray-painting, 3-D printing and laser engraving, to name a few, all of which have designated spaces in the new campus. Sophomore Maddie Parks, 16, said the school’s approach helps her better stretch her imagination.

“You just have to work with the materials we have,” she said.

The 80,711-square-foot building, which cost about $40 million, unites middle and high school students for the first time since the STEM program started in 2012. Middle school students previously attended classes at the Jim Parsley Community Center, while high school students were housed at the Clark College building on the WSU Vancouver campus. Now, all 400 students are under the same roof, with space for another 300 students.

“We can get help from the high-schoolers, which is nice,” said eighth-grader Samantha Garcia, 14.

The three-story campus blends outdoor spaces with more industrial touches. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors in some classrooms can be opened to courtyards, allowing students to take their learning outdoors. Wiring from one part of the building to another is displayed in glass cages, showing students the functionality of the building. Each floor has a “collaboration space,” large, free-use rooms for students looking to finish projects together.

And, for the first time, the school has a cafeteria, which feels more like a posh cafe than a school lunchroom.

“I love the flow of the actual area,” said Anthony Lindberg, a 17-year-old senior. “You can just chill out.”

In the months leading up to construction, staff reviewed the nitty-gritty of their curriculum to make sure classrooms would work for students. In a robotics class, for example, sophomore Connor O’Keefe, 16, and senior Weston Goff, 18, were busy troubleshooting a robot designed to pick up blocks and neatly stack them. Previously, students had to set up the floor they tested their robots on, a 30-minute process that cut out of classroom time.

“Forty minutes kills you,” Goff said.

Now, the robotics classroom has a hip-level platform with storage underneath for testing robots, built so students can immediately get to work testing and reconfiguring their creations.

“We can accommodate the needs of our students,” Meade said.

There’s still some polishing that needs to be done in the new campus – a coat of paint here and there or some lights installed. There are also larger projects, like the completion of a “turfnasium,” a semi-outdoor gym that will have turf floor instead of a traditional wood court. But even with a bit of dust and unfinished spaces, Meade said this is an “amazing” step forward for the school.

“We’ve come together as a learning community,” Meade said.

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