Approved by Bellingham voters as part of the 2018 school bond measure, the new auxiliary gym at Shuksan Middle School opened for use at the start of the 2021-2022 school year as a transformative addition to enrich student experience. 

The 2017 Facilities Planning Task Force heard from Shuksan staff that more gym space was needed to meet school needs. The school was unable to host some home sporting events due to space constraints and had less space than other schools for physical education (PE) and after-school uses. 

Thanks to voter support of the 2018 bond and post-bond planning from a committee of district and school staff, PE teachers and coaches, the need has been met with excitement and gratitude from the Shuksan community. 

“It really has been amazing,” Shuksan PE teacher Katie Powell said. “It’s been the most exciting thing that has happened in my teaching career so far, in 17 years. It’s been the best change that has happened.”  

The new gym features a varsity-sized basketball court, two varsity-sized volleyball courts and two middle-school-regulation-sized basketball courts. In addition, the facility brought bleacher seating, storage closets and restroom space.  

But it’s the learning and activity taking place within the new space at the heart of the student experience. 

“Our old gym didn’t have any kind of bleachers, so we’ve run some assemblies where students get to sit in the bleachers,” said Matt Whitten, former Shuksan Principal (now Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources). “It totally changed the game as far as the student experience with seating space, and everyone can see well during the assemblies.” 

Prior to the addition, the Shuksan PE team worked creatively to provide instruction for multiple classes of students sharing a single gym concurrently. In some cases, that meant upwards of 60 students pushing the constraints of the old gym’s dimensions during activities. 

“Now, we get to have one class in one gym and one class in the other,” Powell said. “Kids feel calmer and they feel more confident to participate. They’re not always in front of so many other people when they’re trying different things.” 

Fellow PE teacher Scott Larrabee recalled taking his Zoom classes on video tours during distance learning, sharing gym construction progress as students envisioned what is now a reality. 

“With more space allows us to build a more class culture within our own individual classes,” Larrabee said. “The smaller the group, the easier it is to get to know our students on a more individual level which has been absolutely amazing.” 

Larrabee added, “We team teach often at Shuksan in our PE department. We still do that, but we also are now able to offer additional activities. For example, Mrs. Powell’s class has been playing ultimate frisbee in one gym and I’ve been able to take my class to the other gym play whiffle ball. We never could do that before with just one gym.” 

The benefit isn’t strictly limited to dividing space by PE class. Depending on the activity, the Shuksan PE team is also able to better meet the needs of students through groupings based on student choice (for example, a competitively-inclined group in one space and recreationally-inclined group in another). 

After school and evening use has also seen improved experience with the new addition. For example, Shuksan’s before and after school BEATS program has consistent access to gym space while sport seasons are ongoing. Plus, there is expanded community use in the evenings. 

“There is added opportunity for community use with evening rentals and providing a really high-quality space for our families to access outside of the school day,” Whitten said. “We have different club teams and adult activities, too. And, it’s a great location right by I-5 on the north side of town giving access to many people.” 

As the Shuksan wrestling coach, James Hayes was a member of the planning committee for the auxiliary gym and reflected on the process. 

“That process was great because we were sitting there planning how the gym would benefit so many students, not just one group,” Hayes said. “It was going to benefit not only our wrestlers but everybody. Now completed, we have so much space which makes it really easy for us to run practice or host events, and to do it safely.” 

From need, to vision planning, to community support and now use, the Shuksan community and Bellingham Public Schools express gratitude for a completed bond project now in action.  

“We thank everyone for voting for the bond because it’s impacted the whole school,” Powell said. “It has really impacted the students.” 

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