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Designers think small for new alternative high school

The new Harry S Truman High School now under construction in Federal Way reflects a growing belief that students learn better in smaller environments. Its architects say it is among the first to be flexible enough to accommodate a new approach to education.

The alternative high schoolŽ’s approach to small-school learning was initiated this year in an existing building on the eastern side of the site that was formerly Steel Lake Elementary School. That structure will be razed when the $6 million project is completed in January.

U.S. Department of Education research shows small schools result in increased academic achievement, higher rates of graduation, improved behavior and fewer disciplinary problems.

Truman comprises two semi-independent schools, each with 102 students, housed in a single 23,000 square-foot building. There are no doors in small learning areas. The study rooms are enclosed, as is a large room for lab projects. A commons can be used for dining, casual study, presentations and community meetings.

Two other organizations are planning new buildings on the same 8.8-acre campus ŽÐŽÐ the King County Boys and Girls Club youth development center, which will have a gymnasium, and a community Headstart daycare, where some Truman students will bring their children.

Mahlum Architects of Seattle developed the master plan for the site at the corner of South 317th Street and 28th Avenue South.

TrumanŽ’s design involved input from school principal Pam Morris-Stendal and her staff, Federal Way Public Schools and the Mahlum team led by design principal Anne Schopf. The team visited several alternative and small schools across the country to study possible elements for Truman.

Ž“ThereŽ’s a lot of research that shows most students learn better in small schools where there is a fabric of solid relationships involving the school, the family and the student,Ž” Morris-Stendal said. Ž“It becomes impossible for a student to slide through classes without being noticed. Schools need to be flexible and to get out of the boxes theyŽ’ve created for themselves if we are to improve the way we teach students.Ž”

Students will work in groups of 17 persons, led by the same faculty member who remains with them for all four years of their high school experience. Learning is project and presentation-based and includes internships and other uses of community resources, such as the public library. At least two days a week, students are away from the school, working as interns with businesses.

Ž“Community service projects and working internships offer the most learning and greatest challenges,Ž” Morris-Stendal said.

Truman operates year-round on a schedule of six weeks of classes followed by a two-week break.

The new school buildings will be joined by a common entry, administrative offices, meeting room, student store, kitchen, mechanical and electrical rooms. The two structures are mirror images, each having three sizes of rooms or areas in which to gather.

The partnership with the Boys and Girls Club youth development center negates the need for a separate gymnasium. The Federal Way library system and other community resources also remove the need for duplicative facilities in the school.

Simple design guidelines and partnering with the community enabled the school district to keep the construction cost Ž“significantly lower than traditional comprehensive high schools in this area,Ž” said David Mount, MahlumŽ’s project director.

Construction began in June and is funded through an $8.3 million bond measure approved by voters in September 1999. The contractor is Jones and Roberts, of Olympia.

Mahlum Architects, founded in 1938, has 100 employees and offices in Seattle and Portland.

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