Eric McDowell, principal of the nearly completed North Creek High in Bothell, is working to fill positions and meeting with future students and parents. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Bothell’s new high school is modeled on the best in the world

BOTHELL — Eric McDowell is a high school principal without students. For a few more months, at least.

McDowell arrived at the new North Creek High School in September as construction workers buzzed around the site. A half-dozen administrators have toiled since then to turn the otherwise unoccupied campus into a learning environment to match its state-of-the art design. That is to say, high-tech and ultra efficient, with sparks of Scandinavian inspiration.

“It’s a big, glorious building that’s entirely empty,” McDowell said. “Imagine everything you’ve ever expected in a school. We have to order all of that, from desks and textbooks to beakers and football helmets.”

On a frosty morning, McDowell led a tour of the still-unfinished school. The former high school math teacher and head tennis coach highlighted some of the ways the building differs from the traditional model.

There are no lockers at North Creek, fewer library books than in days past and glass cubes in the hallways designed as meet-up spots for students to collaborate in small groups.

Classrooms have interior glass walls that look out onto extra-wide hallways. Most of those wall panels fold open. That’s intended to allow classes to split in to smaller study or project groups.

Other areas have dual purposes. Boardwalks through a restored wetland could serve up lessons on ecology. What looks like an overly broad main stairway also works as a lecture hall seating two or three classes worth of students. It’s dubbed the forum.

The library spans two floors. Shelves extend outside the library and into the hallways.

“We want every space on this campus to be a learning environment,” McDowell said.

For now, they’re still looking for staff. They’ve hired about 50 teachers, with about 10 more to go. They’re recruiting about 50 coaches for 22 sports.

The new school along 35th Avenue SE in Snohomish County north of Bothell is part of a plan to manage booming student enrollment on the upper end of the Northshore School District. It’s in the middle of the hottest new home market in all of Washington. For every 100 new homes, administrators say they can expect to take in 53 new students. District wide, they’ve been seeing an annual 600 new home sales for several years running.

For the 2017-2018 school year, North Creek will serve grades 9, 10 and 11. The initial projected enrollment of 1,275 is expected to rise to 1,700 the following year, when the student body adds its first senior class.

A committee of 60 students picked the jaguar as North Creek’s mascot and purple and silver as the school colors.

Also starting next school year, the district plans to rejigger attendance zones and shift grades among schools. Ninth graders will move to high schools from junior high, and sixth graders to middle schools from elementary.

North Creek is helping to pull that off. The school board set the school in motion by buying 61 acres of pasture and farmland in 2011 and 2012. The two separate parcels cost a combined $10 million.

A successful bond measure in 2014 covered the school’s $130 million construction tab. Deputy superintendent Carolyn O’Keeffe helped see through the vision from brainstorming to reality.

“What we really wanted to have was a school where there was a lot more collaboration, where the classrooms spilled out into the hallways,” O’Keeffe said.

Administrators did their homework. When the bond measure passed, “We were shovel-ready, as they say.”

Stakeholders convened to figure out what they wanted at the new school. One idea was reusing timber cut down at the site. Some of the felled trees now figure into wood paneling and benches. They wanted to make sure everyone on campus would have wireless access.

They set out to push the envelope on energy efficiency. North-facing windows keep rooms bright during the day, without flipping on a light. Geothermal wells warm rooms in winter and cool them in summer. There are solar panels and energy-saving electrical outlets. A landscape of native plants should require little to no maintenance after taking root.

For ideas, O’Keeffe studied up on North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library and looked into projects from Danish architecture firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen.

Everett-based Dykeman architects built the school, which includes three main buildings. With its scheduled opening this fall, the school will become the Northshore’s fourth comprehensive high school. The district hasn’t built any new school for 20 years and opened its last high school, Woodinville High, in 1983.

McDowell is in the second year as the school’s planning principal. He used to work as principal of Odle Middle School in Bellevue. He was joined at North Creek last summer by assistant principal and athletic director, Joseph Robertson, formerly at Skyview Junior High, the main feeder school for North Creek.

“What’s great is that I know a lot of the students and families who are coming here,” Robertson said.

This past fall, the assistant principal went to Finland for a conference on student engagement. In Tampere, about two hours north of Helsinki, he got a first-hand look at schools that employ a similar design to North Creek, with movable glass walls that let teachers supervise students as the break into small groups.

“It was great to see the design in action. It absolutely works,” Robertson said.

At one point, the American asked a Finnish teacher if students got distracted seeing their peers in the hallway. The Finn responded: “‘Yes, it is distracting if what’s going on in the classroom is boring.’”

There might be something to it; Finland’s education system is widely regarded as the best in the world.

A few months from now, they’ll be putting some of the same concepts to the test at North Creek.

“We hope that every single kid finds their niche,” McDowell said. “I hope every kid finds a place where they fit in, where they’re passionate about what they’re doing.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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