Rob Clark’s favorite room in Gib Olinger Elementary School is in the third grade section on the second floor.
Clark, the superintendent of the Milton-Freewater Unified School District, peered through the classroom’s window to the softball fields that now encompass the east end of campus.
“I told the teacher that she can’t sell tickets when the weather gets yucky in March,” the self-described “sports guy” said.
Clark led a tour through Friday afternoon, just hours before he would help cut the ribbon on the district’s first new school in nearly a century.
During the tour, Clark took a call from representatives from the Valley Foundation, the nonprofit that offered $20 million if the district passed a bond.
Voters complied, and combined with a grant from the state, the district raised $31.5 million to build Gib Olinger and renovate the rest of the district’s aging schools.
That eight figure sum allowed the district to not only build the school, but stock it with the latest technology.
Clark said Gib Olinger is the first school in the Pacific Northwest that has an large interactive touchscreen in each room.
Resembling a large flat screen TV, Clark said teachers can write out a problem on the touchscreen and then bring it to the students so they can solve it themselves. Clark compared it to a commentator using a telestrator on a football broadcast to map out a play.
During the design process, Clark said district staff traveled to Pendleton, Hermiston and the Tri-Cities, where they could take note of schools that were built in the past decade and get a sense of what they did right and wrong.
Some of the features incorporated into Gib Olinger resemble the hallmarks of other modern schools: common areas in the grade level “pods” where teachers can do small groups or meetings and an electronically controlled double set of doors that forces visitors to check in at the office before entering the building.
But Gib Olinger also has qualities that are hard to find elsewhere: a rock climbing wall in the gym, a gym/auditorium with a stage that can convert into a music classroom by activating an electronically controlled wall, a mini-amphitheater in the library where kids can sit for story time.
Clark admits that much of the technology that currently makes Gib Olinger “state-of-the-art” will eventually become obsolete, but the impact of the new school will be felt throughout the community.
In lieu of the Muddy Frogwater Festival, rebranded as Milton-Freewater Rocks! in recent years, the Milton-Freewater Chamber of Commerce organized Gib Olinger Week this year, which included a family movie night, a parade, and a salmon barbecue.
The Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance is holding its own honorary event called the Broadway Bash, a Saturday event on Broadway Avenue with food, music, and games meant to highlight the “Hyphen District” on Broadway Avenue.
Clark said he thinks Gib Olinger could have a positive impact on the surrounding area, envisioning a coffee shop in one of the empty storefronts on Main Street or improvements to the nearby “houses that have seen better days.”
In the longterm, Clark imagines a parent who’s been relocated to the Walla Walla Valley. They have options between school districts in Walla Walla, College Place, Milton-Freewater, and the Athena-Weston area.
With the addition of Gib Olinger, “their chances of moving to Milton-Freewater just improved.”
Clark acknowledges that parents will go through an adjustment period.
Instead of the usual neighborhood schools that have stood for a century, 540-560 children in grades K-3 will all go to the same school, a student population larger than McLoughlin High School.
There will also be some shuffling between schools as Milton-Freewater finishes its renovation and realignment.
Freewater Elementary School will serve all Milton-Freewater fourth and fifth graders until the 2019-2020 school year, when repairs at Ferndale Elementary School will be completed and it will take over those duties.
Freewater will eventually be vacated for a new community use, which Clark said he will spend the year trying to determine, while Grove Elementary School will be demolished within a few months.
Even with all the change that’s happening in Milton-Freewater, Clark said opening a new school in Milton-Freewater is an opportunity that only comes once every 100 years.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.