Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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New Vancouver schools take shape

VITA Elementary on track for fall 2022 opening, but pandemic-related issues delay Ruth Bader Ginsburg Elementary

By , Columbian staff writer
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A worker lends a hand to the construction of VITA Elementary School at 1111 Fort Vancouver Way. The school is set to open in fall 2022.
A worker lends a hand to the construction of VITA Elementary School at 1111 Fort Vancouver Way. The school is set to open in fall 2022. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

While still grappling with staffing and supply chain shortages, Vancouver Public Schools continues building new schools throughout the district.

Among the soon-to-open facilities is Vancouver Innovation, Technology and Arts Elementary School, or VITA — a magnet school that aims to explore new methods of collaborative learning with a focus on local culture and history.

Voters approved a $458 million bond measure in February 2017 to upgrade and repair school infrastructure throughout the district and construct VITA and another school, Ruth Bader Ginsburg Elementary School in Hazel Dell.

VITA’s construction will cost an estimated $46 million.

Though VITA is set to open to K-5 students in fall 2022, its first year of operation will serve as something of a taste test for students across the district.

The school’s design is intended to foster student-led learning through larger group projects while featuring open spaces, movable walls, mobile furnishings and looser scheduling throughout the day. Teachers will share groups of students and move from space to space, rather than adhering to more structured scheduling.

Designers and district officials say these physical elements encourage high engagement in learning.

“Because we’re designing this with the next 50 years in mind, we try to bring as much flexibility and adaptability as possible,” said Vancouver Public Schools chief communications and public engagement officer Tom Hagley. “It will build in elements that highlight technology throughout the building so that programs can change as they need over time without having a lot of rigid structure.”

In 2022-23, elementary students in Vancouver Public Schools will take turns spending one to two weeks at a time at VITA — somewhat of an extended field trip — highlighting the new style of education that the school will provide. At the end of the year, students will be given the opportunity to apply to attend VITA full time starting in fall 2023. Acceptances will be lottery-based.

“The beauties of the learning model will be that all students will get to experience it,” said Vancouver Public Schools chief operating officer Brett Blechschmidt. “We try to expose all of our students to those magnet-learning programs in the hope that it may excite a lot of kids that maybe wouldn’t typically apply.”

COVID-19 changes plans

Inspiration for the addition of magnet schools like VITA came long before the 2017 bond’s passing, according to district officials.

Strategic planning first done in the 1990s showed an interest for schools focused on new ways of learning or in specific fields at the elementary level in addition to an anticipated population boom.

That enrollment increase was again forecasted by demographers in 2019 as design and construction was already underway at the sites of both new elementary schools, which prompted a redesign to compensate for the estimated change in necessary capacity.

And then COVID-19 hit.

While VITA’s construction managed to stay on track, widespread pandemic-related shortages delayed Ruth Bader Ginsburg Elementary’s opening a year to fall 2023.

“Nothing was too significant at first, until Ruth Bader Ginsburg ES was delayed several months,” said AJ Panter, Vancouver Public Schools’ supervisor of facilities, maintenance and operations.

“At first, it was just dealing with contractors and employees getting COVID or being on and off the workplace. That then transitioned to supply chain issues and materials shortages. Global issues,” Panter said.

After some of the back-and-forth changes in anticipated enrollment, VITA is expected to serve around 300 students. That number is still unknown for Ruth Bader Ginsburg Elementary. Though Vancouver Public Schools saw signs of enrollment increases at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, figures still lag below those from 2019-20.

When VITA opens, planning officials hope the prioritization of social and collaborative learning will be a fresh rebound from the isolation of remote learning. If anything, a change in the understanding of different methods of education may serve as the perfect segue to the alternative programs VITA introduces, according to Jennifer Blechschmidt, the planning principal for both new elementary schools.

“The intent of VITA is to capitalize on flexible learning environments, it fosters collaboration,” said Blechschmidt. “Now that we’ve been through COVID, I think we’ve become more adaptable to different kinds of space and it’s not as much of a stretch.”

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