Happy Valley Elementary School students, teachers start new year in new school

Watch students return to the newly built Happy Valley Elementary School in Bellingham

Third graders dance in Katie Tully's music class and other scenes from the first day of school at Happy Valley Elementary on Wednesday, Aug. 24, in Bellingham.
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Third graders dance in Katie Tully's music class and other scenes from the first day of school at Happy Valley Elementary on Wednesday, Aug. 24, in Bellingham.

Summer vacation may be over, but it was hard to find a student at Happy Valley Elementary School Wednesday morning, Aug. 24, who wasn’t smiling.

By 8:15 a.m., the playground out front of the school at 1041 24th St. was abuzz with students clamoring across the brightly colored jungle gym or congregating on the adjacent four-square courts. Many parents passed their children off to their fellow students with a tight squeeze, a kiss and maybe a photo.

The scene played out in the shadow of a brand new school building with a burnt-orange facade that proudly displayed the school’s name in large, silver lettering. The new Happy Valley Elementary opened Wednesday for the 2016 fall quarter.

This is really cool. I like the architecture and I like how they divided it. It looks incredible.

Sylvia Quiros, Happy Valley Elementary School parent

“We have been planning for this day for two and a half years,” Karen Tolliver, the school’s principal going on 13 years, said Tuesday just before an open house and ribbon-cutting at the school. “This building is our dream – it’s our dream come true.”

The old Happy Valley, built in 1956, sat just to the west of where the new school now stands. The old school came down at the end of the last spring. By then, the new school was already a year under construction.

A bond issue approved by voters in 2013 provided the $19 million to fund the new building.

At 60 years old, the previous building was not only antiquated, but also lacked everyday necessities, like hot water and efficient heating and cooling.

“The biggest challenge in my last classroom was that it was either a really cold, like, 55 degrees, or it was like 75, 80,” Angie McElroy, a special education teacher starting her fourth year at the school, said Tuesday. “So I’m really excited for a comfortable 70.”

Teachers, students and administrators all had a hand in the new building’s design, Tolliver said. A committee made up of school faculty and staff collected those ideas and worked with NAC Architecture, a firm with offices in Seattle, Spokane and Los Angeles, on the school’s design.

Kevin Flanagan, a managing principal for the firm, said the transparency and close-knit feel that students, faculty and staff asked for came with the large windows from the hallways that give a view into nearly every room, and the shared spaces between pods of three or four classrooms.

Windows to the outside of the building also allow for an abundance of natural light – a personal favorite feature for first-grade teacher Jill DeJong, who began her 14th year at Happy Valley on Wednesday.

“I love all of the light,” she said Tuesday. “I have just a huge view of what’s going on across grade levels and across disciplines, so that’s really nice.”

Parents Adam Jensen and Sylvia Quiros, who dropped off their daughter Jaelyn Jensen to start third grade, also said they liked the design.

“This is really cool. I like the architecture and I like how they divided it,” Quiros said, looking at the building from the playground. “It looks incredible.”

Happy Valley Elementary School celebrated its 60th anniversary on Thursday, March 31, but the school will be demolished once the current school year ends because a $19 million replacement next door is nearing completion and will be ready for fall

Jaelyn said she was excited to start third grade.

“I’m most excited about the new library,” she said.

The rooms are outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, including the latest overhead projectors and microphones for teachers.

Those teaching aids are welcome additions for some parents, including Alicia Gabrielson and Travis Brown, who sent their daughter, Gwyneth Brown, off to first grade on Wednesday.

“Anything that can help the teachers facilitate student learning is money well spent,” Travis Brown said.

Gwyneth said she most liked the new library, and looked forward to learning math.

The school was also designed with the idea that the building itself could be a teacher, Tolliver said.

As their shoes squeaked across the shiny gray floors Wednesday morning, students saw hallways labeled after natural landmarks: On the ground floor, hallway namesakes included Bellingham Bay, the Chuckanut Mountains and Mount Baker. On the top level, those landmarks reached further to include Mount Rainier, the North Cascades and the San Juan Islands.

The hallways, Tolliver said, point in the direction of the landmarks they’re named after.

And rather than hiding the boiler room, a window shows students all its inner workings. Labels will be added later, Flanagan said, to explain the purpose behind every pipe, valve and vent.

But even with its shiny floors, state-of-the-art classrooms and naturally lit, open spaces, the new school, until this week, was just an empty building. As students filed through at Tuesday’s open house, they greeted teachers they hadn’t seen in months, and some of them exchanged hugs.

“That’s why we’re here,” McElroy said. “That’s why we’re excited about all of this.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan