Community Education

Peninsula middle schoolers start new year in like-new buildings

Posted on September 5th, 2023 By:

Tuesday was a first day of school pretty much like any other: students pouring off big yellow buses. A lot of excitement mixed with the usual first-day jitters. More than a few sleepy faces. Outfits carefully chosen. Backpacks filled with a fresh stash of supplies. The school year ahead a blank slate.

Families check out the new commons at Kopachuck Middle School during an open house Aug. 30, 2023, where students picked up their schedules and school supplies. Photo by Christina T. Henry

But for students at two Peninsula School District middle schools, something was notably missing: work crews in hard hats and the buzz of construction.

Kopachuck, Key Peninsula renovations

Since the summer of 2021, Kopachuck and Key Peninsula middle schools have been undergoing renovations that have transformed them into like-new facilities. Crews worked down to the wire to make sure both schools were ready by Tuesday. Sept. 5, when classes began anew.

Well, to be fair, Key Peninsula Middle School was getting a few finishing touches as students arrived. But the school was ready to open on schedule.

Both projects were made possible with money from a $198.55 million bond passed in 2019, along with state construction funds.

“I’m feeling ecstatic,” said Key Peninsula Middle School Principal Luke Grunberg. “I just feel blessed and grateful for so many people’s hard work in getting us to the point that we’re at right now. … We’re welcoming kids into not a completely finished building, but a great place where we can feel proud of the space that we’re in and the education to come.”

Students enter the newly renovated Key Peninsula Middle School on the first day of school, Sept. 5, 2023. Photo by Christina T. Henry

‘We did so much pivoting’

Kopachuck Principal Kelsey Parke is also grateful for the work that’s taken place, but learning in a construction zone has had its challenges, she said.

“It’s so starkly different from starting last year, when we were walking in through dirt and moving in and unpacking with headlamps on and all of that to this brand-new space that just feels like it has life ready to be in it,” said Parke last Wednesday, when sixth grade students came in to get their schedules and check out their new school.

Sam Grimmett, an incoming sixth grader, posed during the orientation day for his mom Jen Grimmett in front of the big Kopachuck sign at the school’s entrance. His smile looked forced at first. Then he stretched his arms out with a big grin, King-of-the-World-style like Jack in “Titanic.”

Sam Grimmett, an incoming sixth grader, celebrates the new school year during schedule pick-up at Kopachuck Middle School on Aug. 30, 2023. Photo by Christina T. Henry

“I feel excited and kind of anxious,” he said. “I’m mostly looking forward to maybe just seeing people that I know. And I’m looking forward to meeting new people.”

Grimmett and his fellow-sixth graders missed out on the construction, which took place in phases at both schools, with classes and other activities getting shuffled around.

“Yeah, last year was a lot of maze-runner style,” said Parke. “All of a sudden, there’s be a new wall up and we’d be, oh, like, man, I guess we have to change. Where’s the bathroom? We did so much pivoting and the kids and the staff were so flexible.”

Parke is proud that despite the disruption, her school’s overall scores remained high.

“I’m so excited to see, with those literal barriers gone, what can we do with students this year to see where we can grow and go.”

A welcoming environment

Before construction, when district officials asked families served by the two schools what they’d like to see, “they said their buildings looked a lot like prisons,” said Facilities Director Patrick Gillespie in 2022, when both projects were well underway.

TCF Architects developed a similar design for both schools that creates a welcoming environment. Each school has classy metal siding and “tilt “panels at the main entrance with accent painting to complement its interior: blue for Kopachuck, maroon for Key Peninsula Middle School.

Students gather in the commons of Key Peninsula Middle School on the first day of school, Sept. 5, 2023. Photo by Christina T. Henry

The main entrance opens out into a spacious commons/cafeteria. Each school has a new administrative wing and fully renovated classroom wings that are bright and colorful. Kopachuck added two new classrooms; KPMS added four.

Grace Westmoreland during Kopachuck’s schedule pick-up was excited to check out the new library. Looking forward to the year ahead, she said “I think that it’s going to be fun, and I’m going to make new friends and it’s going to be a little challenging but I’m going to get used to it.”

Athletes and fans will appreciate the fully renovated gyms at each school. KPMS, with a larger footprint, acquired a full two-court gym.

Parts of each building have opened as they were complete. In January the new main entrance and gym at KPMS were opened for student use. In March, Kopachuck students and staff celebrated the reopening of their newly renovated classroom wing. The new kitchen at KPMS opened in April. In May, KPMS teachers got to tour the new classroom wing.

The gym at Kopachuck Middle School got a complete upgrade as part of the whole-school renovation, a project that began the summer of 2021. Families check out the gym during an open house Aug. 30, 2023, where students picked up their schedules and school supplies. Photo by Christina T. Henry

Upgraded security and technology

The complete make-over of each school is what staff and students will notice, but the renovations behind the walls will also have a big impact.

All the plumbing, roofing, HVAC and electrical systems have been upgraded. The wireless network has been totally overhauled. That, along with the district’s upgrade to its fiber optic network, will result in more reliable Internet connectivity for both schools, which are in remote locations. Each classroom has interactive touchscreens.

Security at each school has been fully upgraded with new emergency communications systems and secure access at all exterior doorways. The main vestibule has a buzz-in system, and there are new security cameras strategically located around the school.

Cost of projects and other facility news

The 2019 bond measure prioritized four new elementary schools, but cost savings and an accelerated timeline for the elementary construction allowed the district to also complete work on its two oldest middle schools, where overcrowding was an issue.

Both middle schools qualified for construction assistance from the state, stretching bond dollars farther. The estimated cost for Kopachuck was $33 million; KPMS was projected to cost $35.1 million. Final cost figures aren’t available yet, but both projects are tracking on budget, according to district spokeswoman Danielle Chastaine.

In other district construction news, Discovery Elementary’s classroom door project was completed by the first day of school. The school, constructed in 1981 with an “open-concept” design, lacked interior classroom doors, which families and staff said created a safety hazard and made it hard for students to learn. Funding for the project — $332,303 plus tax — comes from the district’s capital budget with money from a past land sale.

The district also paved the track at Harbor Heights Elementary School after some families complained that the crushed gravel track was inadequate for access by students who use wheelchairs.

Peninsula School District this summer added interior classroom doors at Discovery Elementary School after families and staff complained about safety concerns. The cost of the project, totaling more than $300,000, was covered from the district’s capital project fund.

What about the high schools?

With elementary and middle schools updated, the district can now turn its attention to its two aging high schools. The school board has had preliminary discussions about the possibility of running another bond at some point in the future.

“Right now, our leaders are looking to engage the community in conversation about what is next for PSD schools regarding capital projects,” Chastaine said. “During the Aug. 24 School Board of Directors meeting, the board established the Finance and Audit Committee, which will include community members and focus on the district’s fiscal responsibilities. More conversations will be had.”

The district starts the year with a budget balanced by $12 million in cuts primarily through the elimination of or reduction in non-teaching positions. Projected enrollment, at just more than 9,000 students, remains essentially flat. The district’s total general fund expenditures will be $156 million.

The district continues providing all students with all school supplies they need, a practice that began during the pandemic and which the school board voted to maintain.

Kopachuck Middle School, along with Key Peninsula Middle School, starts the 2023-24 school year with a new lease on life. The two schools have been completely renovated during construction projects that began the summer of 2021. Photo by Christina T. Henry