Whatcom Middle School principal: 'We're still Wildcats'

Educators answer questions for displaced students, parents

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 9, 2009 

BELLINGHAM — Their school building is a charred skeleton of what it once was, but Whatcom Middle School students, staff and parents will survive as Wildcats thanks to support from all areas of the community.

About 800 people packed into the Bellingham High School auditorium Monday night, Nov. 9, to learn more about the next steps involved with transferring and dividing up 580 students and nearly 60 staff.

Whatcom Middle School was severely damaged in a fire Thursday, Nov. 5. Its students will return to class Thursday, Nov. 12, but at different schools.

In an emotional address to parents, Whatcom Principal Jeff Coulter reassured parents that “we’re going to be OK.”

“We’re grafting our grades into existing buildings, but we’re still Wildcats,” Coulter said. “God willing, we’ll be back there in a couple years.”

And while there are still many problems to be addressed, parents showed their support of what has already been done by applauding decisions and administrators as they spoke.

“I don’t know if it’s a perfect solution, but it is a solution and we’re happy to have one,” said Sherrie Brown, acting superintendent of the Bellingham School District. “If we need to adjust, we’ll adjust.”

Below are the school district’s answers to commonly asked questions.

Where will my student attend school?

Eighth-graders and their teachers will go to Bellingham High School, where the Wildcat Wing has already been created, complete with paper columns and a “Waste Not Thy Hour” sign over the entrance, just like at the middle school. The wing is the first-floor center and is closest to the Cornwall Avenue entrance.

Seventh-graders and their teachers will go to Fairhaven Middle School. Classrooms are spread out around the school, however students will get lockers and be greeted by student mentors when they arrive.

Sixth-graders and their teachers will go to Geneva Elementary School. Classrooms are grouped together as well as possible.

How will my child get to and from school?

Bellingham High School will serve as the central bus transfer point for all three schools.

Students will take the same mode of transportation to Bellingham High that they took to Whatcom. All students should be at the school no later than 7:55 a.m. Shortly after 8 a.m., seventh- and sixth- grade students will take school buses to Fairhaven Middle School and Geneva Elementary School respectively. All middle school students will start class at 8:30 a.m.

In the afternoon, departure times will vary from each school due to travel time. Sixth-graders will be dismissed at 2:30 p.m., seventh-graders at 2:45 p.m. and eighth-graders at 3 p.m. All school buses will return to Bellingham High, where students will transfer buses if needed. Buses will leave Bellingham High about 3:10 p.m.

Will items lost in the fire be paid for?

The district is asking people to fill out personal property loss forms, being sure to include contact information, a list of items lost, an estimate of the original cost and information about homeowner insurance and deductibles. Those forms will be forwarded to the district’s insurance company.

Will there be athletics or student clubs?

There will be a student athletics program for Whatcom students, outside of the school day, however those plans have not been created. District officials will start working on logistics after students have returned to school on Thursday.

Do students need to make up the school days?

No. Due to the emergency situation, students will not need to make up the four missed days of school. (Veterans Day is a school holiday.)

Will the school be rebuilt?

“As we look at this building, we are going to relentless pursue the restoration of Whatcom Middle School at 810 Halleck Street,” said Ron Cowan, assistant superintendent of business and operations for the school district. “It’s standing and we’re going to work hard to put it back together.”

During the fire, the roof partially collapsed into the second floor, making the building unstable. Severe water damage is also prevalent, with the new maple gym floor now bowed and the daylight basement flooded.

The music building and shop areas, however, appeared to survive intact.

District officials will start looking at options for rebuilding the school as soon as structural engineers and investigators can get inside. The Bellingham School Board went through the formality of declaring the fire an emergency Monday night, allowing the district to move forward in finding contractors to shore up the building for stability.

Reach KIRA MILLAGE COX at kira.cox@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2266. Visit her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools.

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