Schools Boon to Recovery

A newly repaired elementary school in downtown Seattle.

A newly repaired elementary school in downtown Seattle.

A decade after the “big one” devastated the Greater Seattle Area, King County schools are among the safest earthquake resistant schools in the world. Every school facility has incorporated green building standards into their design. Their students are some of the best educated in the U.S. with many high schools integrating new technology driven courses into their curriculums.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

Out of all the critical facilities in King County, schools were by far hit the hardest in the 7.2- magnitude Seattle Fault earthquake that rocked the area exactly 10 years ago today. Of the 696 schools that educated nearly 300,000 students, about half were completely destroyed that day. Many more sustained some degree of damage. In the immediate aftermath, only around one percent of schools were fully functional in all of King County. This was the lowest percentage of any other critical facility in the county.

Three months after the earthquake, schools still had the lowest number of functioning facilities compared to other critical facilities in the county. Just under half were functioning. Fast-forward 10 years and King County schools have been built back better and safer. They are now considered to be some of the safest in the world when it comes to protecting students from earthquakes.

If you ask any resident of King County about their own recovery and the recovery of their community they would tell you it was difficult and overwhelming at times, but better and much quicker than they expected. Today they can check one more aspect of recovery off their list as students move into the last of the repaired schools. The number of pre-existing schools that have now received seismic retrofitting and upgrades totals just over 300.

Before the earthquake hit, the school districts in King County were preparing plans to retrofit every vulnerable school. So after the earthquake it was easy to implement these plans for the buildings that were left standing, as well as rebuild demolished schools with design ideas from the plan.

For both the retrofits and new buildings, school districts were closely following criteria outlined in the new Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol that requires state assisted major school construction projects to use green building standards. This is very similar to Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools silver standard, which many schools took part in as well. So far, nearly 300 pre-existing schools have been seismically retrofitted and around 200 have been newly built. Every functional school in the county now has resilient and sustainable design features.

Plans for a LEED Silver certified school facility.

Plans for a LEED Silver certified school facility.

LEED are design standards developed by the US Green Building Council to will the goal of “transforming the way we think about how buildings and communities are designed constructed, maintained and operated.” LEED certified has been achieved in other schools rebuilt after a disaster. Greensburg, KS achieved LEED Platinum after the city’s devastating 2007 tornado. Completed in 2010, it has the capability to hold 375 Kiowa County students. The new sustainability built schools within King County have the capacity integrate sustainable learning into its curriculum, using the construction of the school as conversation starters and educational tools.

The task of retrofitting and rebuilding schools was not an easy one for school districts and communities. There were hurdles they had to overcome. The biggest hurdle was getting funding for all of the construction projects. Local school districts proposed levies that would retrofit and rebuild damaged schools. Voters were reluctant to pass the new revenue sources at first because of their own financial situations after the earthquake.

After a successful campaign that stressed the importance of student education in sustainable, resilient schools, the levies eventually passed and construction was soon underway. To further help fund construction costs, the state contributed money as well.

Prior to the earthquake, there was an increasing need for an elementary school in downtown Seattle. At the time the Seattle School Board could not afford one. The earthquake resulted in several cheap lot openings where a school could be built. Now two new public schools exist downtown that better accommodate the downtown community. One school is an elementary school and the other is a high school.

The funding that school districts received to make schools better and safer served a second purpose. Schools are seen as community hubs and used as gathering places for local neighborhoods events more so than before the quake. Over the years King County community members have become more involved in school functions like sporting events and after school educational programs. Many local business and companies have partnered with local high schools to offer training, financial assistance, cultural programs, research projects, and many other programs to help foster well educated students.

Local major companies have teamed up with some high schools to work with students and demonstrate “state of the art” technology and it’s applications. Microsoft Corporation donated 20,000 of their latest tablets to high schools across King County because the earthquake destroyed a large majority of the high school’s computers.

These small, portable tablets were perfect when classroom space was limited after the earthquake due to unoccupiable schools. Microsoft representatives came in to high schools and had training sessions that taught students how to use the brand new Windows operating system. Students also had a chance to play with Microsoft’s latest smart glasses.

Many high schools have incorporated more technology and engineering electives into their curriculums. New computer sciences, computer engineering, and business classes are now offered, which are geared towards the new tech industries that emerged in the aftermath of the earthquake. The University of Washington (UW) now has the number one ranked computer science and engineering undergraduate and graduate programs in the U.S.

Dr. Herbert Wilson, the UW professor of computer sciences and engineering said, “Before the earthquake the CSE department usually got around 500 applicants a year where we would only accept 40 percent, about 200 students. In 10 years the number of applicants has more than doubled and we have expanded our department to accommodate an additional 150 students a year and we are still growing.”

In the years after the disaster, education about earthquakes and disasters became a popular subject among elementary school children. Young students are making better connections to seismic safety now that they have learned about the processes of earthquakes and some of the eventful earthquakes throughout history.

Many school districts have adopted a curriculum for their elementary schools called Earthquake: A Teacher’s Package for K-6, which includes hands-on classroom activities to support all elementary subject areas: creative writing, art, mathematics, social studies, and science. This publication contains matrices that link the classroom activities to the National Science Education Standards.

Studies have shown that people equipped with more basic knowledge about earthquakes leads to better preparedness and a decrease in damages associated with earthquakes. Increased education can change attitudes and furthermore behavior toward the hazard before they happen. The integration of this education program has the possibility of saving more lives and buildings in the future. By starting the curriculum at a younger age, the earthquake education can become a lifelong learning process.

At the same time school districts were working on retrofitting and rebuilding the schools, they were also finding ways to continue educating students. This was difficult because the earthquake left King County residents with a widespread shortage of school facilities. A quick, and not so easy, solution to this problem was to put into action plans for double shifting. This made two school sessions starting and ending at 7:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. and 12:40 p.m. – 6:10 p.m.

This allowed for a deliberate approach to rebuilding. Schools districts were able to take more time using this strategy. Although not meant to be a long-term solution, this proved useful during the reconstruction phase of schools.

Washington State Board of Education board member Sheri Tuttle strongly expressed she “would not let the students of King County fall behind.”

At first there were many challenges to the new schedules. Double shifts complicated many family’s transportation plans because of the unusual extracurricular schedules. Late schedules impacted some high school students’ after-school jobs. Parents were worried about the shorter class times weakening their child’s education. And some teachers who taught both shifts felt exhausted, which hurt faculty morale. Students, parents, and teachers certainly had to overcome a lot.

However, because of planning before the earthquake, communities adapted quite well to the the temporary measure for dealing with fewer classrooms. For example, test averages have shown that King County students are have done quite well since the earthquake.

Susan Beckwith, a parent of a fourth grade student said, “I’m glad the school district had a plan for continuing education after the quake. We didn’t have to move and my daughter could stay with what she knew.”

This short term solution has saved many teacher’s jobs, kept many parents from moving to find better education for their children, and has allowed students to continue their education in an area they are familiar with and where they have many friends.