Sunnyland opens doors to a new school

Bellingham students are back in the classroom
August 30, 2022 at 4:44 p.m.
Satinder Kaur, center, takes a photo with her kids Ajai, left, and Ganeev, right, on their first day during drop-off at Sunnyland Elementary on Aug. 30.
Satinder Kaur, center, takes a photo with her kids Ajai, left, and Ganeev, right, on their first day during drop-off at Sunnyland Elementary on Aug. 30. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

This morning, the earliest arrivals of Sunnyland Elementary School students waited outside the brand new building with first-day-of-school anxious energy abuzz. The kids looked at the new school building in excitement and surveyed the grounds, trying to figure out where the old school building once lay.

When the bell rang at 7:55 a.m., the students rushed in through the front doors, squealing and laughing with delight. They were met with colorful rays of light from the paned windows, dancing on the fresh wooden walls and the mural saved from the 1950s-era building. New tables, fun chairs and the same teachers and staff welcomed the students into a new school year.

photo  Dawson Construction workers install colorful panels on the window to bring rays of blue and green light into the school on Aug. 25. Dykeman Architects designed the new school building to include a cascade of rainbow touches through the school. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

The theme of the new elementary school is "the neighborhood," principal Amy Berreth said. Berreth and other community members worked with Dykeman Architects to carry that theme through the design of the new building.

In the Sunnyland neighborhood, the school is an institution and has been for decades. Due to the density of single-family homes, a majority of the school's students walk or ride bikes to the hub, with only a few dozen living more than a mile from the school, earning a bus ride.

"Sunnyland is a place where people are coming from all directions in the neighborhood," Berreth said. "It's served from north, south, east, west — so this new building, from every direction, welcomes families."

photo  Each hub of classrooms for each grade features overhanging eaves – like a roof – to resemble the surrounding neighborhood. A collaborative, open space with whiteboards and more chairs lies to the left. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

The school is laid out with the goal of encouraging community with the space. The three classrooms for each grade are ground together around a collaborative learning space. No one is sequestered off in a portable in the school's back parking lot now. They've created additional spaces for students with special needs to receive appropriate care and education, like a motor room where kids can work with the school's occupational therapist.

"It used to be that not everyone could go to school. If you had disabilities or if you were too young, you just didn't go," Berreth said. "There was no need to build space for lots of learners because they didn't go to school. That's very different now; you want everyone to be included at their neighborhood school."

photo  Occupational therapist Megan Moreno hangs a swing in her room on the first floor of the new elementary. The school has designated movement spaces to provide additional support to students with special needs, or simply for students who need to calm down. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Simply put, the new building is nearly twice the size of the old one, featuring 24 classrooms (as opposed to 14 classrooms and four portables) and collaborative spaces for more learning. The music room, cafeteria and full-size gym lay in line and open up into one large space with a stage for events and school assemblies. It provides more than enough space for the roughly 450 students who attend. With all the space, they hope to bring the community, beyond just the students, into the facility their tax dollars paid for.

"The nice thing about the new designs of buildings is there's a way to kind of allow community without them being in the teaching spaces," dean of students Dustin Heaton said. "You can use this community hub of the music room, the cafeteria, the full-size gym and the library upstairs so people can rent those facilities out."

The new building is the result of a 2018 bond, which put $89 million in taxpayer dollars toward rebuilding three elementary schools — Alderwood, Parkview and Sunnyland. Dawson Construction began building the new Sunnyland last summer, rising on the grounds behind the old school. This past June, students walked through the doors one last time before it was torn down. Many staff and community members retrieved bricks from the old building to make fire pits and for other projects. Some were kept to pave the back patio of the new school.

photo  The new Sunnyland began construction last year while students continued attending school in the old building. (Photo courtesy Bellingham Public Schools)  

photo  Former Sunnyland Elementary students Run Clark and Lolo Goodenough sit on a bench below a lion, the school's mascot, during an open house tour before the school's demolition on June 9. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)  

With other big projects from the 2018 and 2022 bonds, the Bellingham High School tennis courts will be updated this fall and the new district office broke ground in June 2022 and will finish in fall 2023. The Gordon Carter Environmental Learning Center will also be done by fall 2023, according to Bellingham Public Schools.

Sunnyland isn't quite finished yet. The inclusive playground — a space for kids of all abilities to play — is still locked behind a fence while under construction. The parking lot needs paving and additional decorations are planned for the hallways to carry the rainbow theme throughout the entire building, Dykeman architect Zach Ham said.

photo  Owen Osbourn gets a high-five while racing on the pavement outside of Sunnyland Elementary. The school's playground is still under construction but will open soon with spaces for all students. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

For some staff, the rainbows in the school carry special memories and remind them of their last principal, Lynn Heimsoth, who was killed by her husband, the Bellingham Herald reported.  

"Lynn was the principal when the design process began for the new school, and her legacy continues to inspire those who knew her in the Sunnyland community," Dana Smith, Bellingham Public Schools assistant director of communications, said in an email. "She was passionate about inclusive schools, and staff have reflected that she would have been excited and proud of all the inclusive features that are incorporated into the new building."

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