Drive by Whittier Elementary School, which sits on a large lot between North 29th Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard, and you’ll see a 1950s-era school building and a slew of portable classrooms behind a chain-link fence. Classes are proceeding as usual, even as the school site has been transformed into a construction site. Its entire back lawn is covered with building equipment and piles of earth and rocks.
The project has inspired a mix of reactions, from optimism among many in the school community who are tired of packed classrooms to disappointment that the project will mean less open space and the loss of an older school building in Boise’s North End.
Stephen Miller, spokesman for the North End Neighborhood Association, said many members remain “deeply concerned” about the project.
“Most of the open space will become a parking lot for teachers, which is very sad.” Other concerns included the loss of several mature trees on the property, he said.
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The Boise School District’s rebuild of overcrowded Whittier began in early October, said Dan Hollar, district spokesman. The project will be complete in December 2018. The $15.5 million project is one of 22 building projects that will be paid for by the $172.5 bond that voters approved in March 2017.
During construction, staff and students will remain in the existing school building while the new school is built behind it on the former playground. They will move into the new school when they return from winter break in January 2019.
Students and staffers have had to make adjustments, including using a small improvised playground in the front of the building since the former playground is filled with heavy equipment. Principal Fernanda Brendefur said she visited each classroom to explain the building project to students. Students and staffers are “resilient,” she said, and excited about the changes to come.
The district will preserve about one-third of the current school building and remodel it as a community center similar to the Grace Jordan and Morley Nelson Community Centers, both on the Boise Bench.
“We want the center to be a place where parents and community members can come and take classes or spend time,” Brendefur said. “We want to be the hub of the community.”
The remainder of the old school will be demolished and the 12 portable classrooms at the site will be removed. The staff frequently collaborates, Brendefur said, something made difficult when classes are spread among the main building and portable classrooms. The new building will bring all the classes under one roof.
The new design includes a horseshoe-shaped drive facing 29th Street (where the old school now stands), as well as a playground, parking lot, sports field and public art.
The school, built for 300 students in 1949, has 530 students enrolled. The school’s popular dual language immersion program has attracted students from across the district. Growth and gentrification in the area, including the Esther Simplot Park and the possible location of a new College of Western Idaho Boise campus nearby, have also been magnets. The new school will have a 600-student capacity.
The Whittier project raised concerns among groups such as Preservation Idaho. The group has worked to preserve historic school buildings in the city, often unsuccessfully, as in the case of Franklin and Cole elementaries on the Boise Bench. John Bertram, Preservation Idaho spokesman, wrote an editorial supporting the bond but urging the district to preserve historic structures when possible.
Other school building projects supported by the bond will continue through 2026 and will include replacing six elementary schools built from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, adding an elementary school at Harris Ranch in Southeast Boise, and doing several expansions, renovations and maintenance projects. The expansion of the 1930s-era gym at Boise High School, the rebuild of Amity Elementary on its same site, and the expansion of the Dennis Professional Technical Education Center are the other bond-supported projects currently underway.