New year, new school: Ben Rush comes back after break with new building

First-grade teacher Michelle Briggs briefly speaks to her students before they enter their new classroom at Ben Rush Elementary. - Samantha Pak, Redmond Reporter
First-grade teacher Michelle Briggs briefly speaks to her students before they enter their new classroom at Ben Rush Elementary.
— image credit: Samantha Pak, Redmond Reporter

The first day of school back from a long break is always a bit chaotic, but things were especially hectic at Benjamin Rush Elementary School in Redmond as the students were entering their new school building for the first time Wednesday morning.

The day began with everyone meeting in the school’s old gym, which is still open for use. Excited whispers and murmurs filled the room as students eagerly awaited the moment they would be allowed into the new building. Ben Rush Principal Brad Stolz spoke briefly, welcoming the youngsters to the new year and the new building and making sure to thank those involved in making their new school a reality.

“I greatly appreciated the patience of our parents, staff and community members through the building process and I know the final results will be well worth the inconveniences,” he said. “Also, Mortenson Construction and Integrus Architects have been great to work with.”

And then it was time to get to class. Teachers collected their students and led them to their new classrooms. As they made their way toward the new building and through the halls, students stared in wonder at everything from the large windows letting in plenty of natural light to the staircase that would take them to the building’s second floor — something they didn’t have in their old building.

While those arriving on campus Wednesday morning were all smiles about entering the new building, it wasn’t easy to let go of the old Ben Rush.

School counselor Jayme Zahn, who is in her 12th year at Ben Rush, said even though the old building is more than 40 years old (it opened in April 1970), it was a well-loved building.

“(People) were kind of scared of having a new building,” she said.

This was because the community wanted to maintain the same look and feel of the old building and were worried about having a school that just looked like a large concrete building with no personality in their neighborhood, Zahn said.

To help avoid this, the school formed a modernization committee in May 2010. Stolz, who is in his fourth year at Ben Rush, said staff and parents were on this team.

“We held several community meetings throughout the design process,” he said about including the public on a wider scale.

Zahn is a member of the modernization committee and said to help the new building blend with the surrounding forest and natural environment, they used reclaimed wood from trees in the area. She said they also built the new school into the hill onsite so it wouldn’t look as big, even though the new building has a capacity to accommodate 550 students.

According to district documents, the cost of the new, 65,306-square-foot Ben Rush is about $16.3 million and is paid for by a Lake Washington School District bond measure approved by voters in 2006.

A ground-breaking ceremony was held in June 2011 and currently, only the first phase of construction is complete. This phase includes all classrooms and small offices throughout the building, but Stolz said once the next phase is done, they will have a preschool room, art and science room, a new gym and music room. The school’s main office will also be part of this phase. Right now, the school office is located in an empty classroom on the second floor.

Throughout construction, students and staff occupied the existing Ben Rush building and will continue to utilize just the gym and music room until the second phase of construction is complete. This is set to be in the fall of this year.

The new classrooms at Ben Rush are grouped into pods of four and each pod has a shared learning space, which Zahn said could serve various purposes including hosting speakers who can now speak to multiple classrooms at one time rather than go from classroom to classroom. Classrooms also have large walls of windows so people can see in and out.

Zahn said this will help accommodate the fact that the building is much larger than their old one and teachers may not see each other or be as close to each other as before.

Stolz said this was one of the things he really liked about the new building.

“I love the openness, natural lighting and the flexibility of the building,” he said.

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