They newly rebuilt Sunnyland Elementary School opened its doors to welcome students and staff on Aug. 30, 2022. The new school was part of the capital projects bond for Bellingham Public Schools that voters approved in 2018 to rebuild Alderwood, Parkview and Sunnyland. Dawson Construction broke ground in summer 2021, constructing the new building next to the old one while school was in session last year. In August, the old Sunnyland, a one-story building built in the 1950s, was demolished to make room for the new playground and turf field.
“What’s great about the school’s design is that it’s really intentional about incorporating flexible environments for all kids,” principal Amy Berreth said. “The biggest difference with new schools, compared to 50 or 60 years ago, is we’re building schools with spaces that meet the needs of everyone. It feels really good to have these appropriate spaces so every kid, regardless of ability, can go to their neighborhood school.”
With 24 classrooms and two stories, the new building is almost double the size of the old Sunnyland, which had 14 classrooms and several portables. The school’s design incorporates the theme of “the neighborhood” and has an open, airy feeling to it in contrast to the low-slung original Sunnyland. Classrooms are clustered on the south end of the building in pods of three by grade—with older students upstairs, and younger students on the ground floor. Each pod of classrooms has a collaborative learning area with tables, seating, and whiteboards where students from the same grade can come together for group work and projects. These collaborative learning areas are “the neighborhood” in action.
The school’s design incorporates large wooden beams, Craftsman elements such as Craftsman-style light fixtures, and sections of light wood paneling in the cafeteria and the collaborative learning areas that project warmth and the natural environment. The African Mural Project, a large mural from the old building, was saved and installed in the main hallway, greeting students with flamingos, elephants, and monkeys.
On the second floor, the library’s floor-to-ceiling windows provide a view over the new playground. On the main floor below the library, the cafeteria, gym, and music room are grouped together in a centralized hub that comprises the heart of the school. Movable walls can open up to create a much larger space for school or community events. One wall of the cafeteria is equipped with a glass garage door that opens to covered picnic tables outside. Because this side of the building borders Memorial Park, students look onto park green space as they eat lunch.
The full-size gym easily accommodates large groups of kids for PE and sports. It will also be available to the community to rent for use. That’s another neighborhood aspect of the school.
Sunnyland now has room for specialists to meet the variety of student needs. The school houses two preschool classrooms onsite, a Headstart program run by the Opportunity Council and a district-run developmental preschool for children with individualized education programs (IEPs) or other diagnosed developmental needs. There’s also a Promise-K classroom for neighborhood 4-year-olds. The under-5 group has their own age-appropriate play structure in a separate area from the main playground.
The building also has a motor room on each floor, another example of a space that meets student needs. These designated movement rooms are equipped with balance boards, a hanging swing, and a mini trampoline. The motor rooms provide extra support to students with special needs who work with the school’s occupational therapist. But any kid who needs to burn off energy can use the equipment.
“Whatever challenges or support that students might need, we are able to use our school environment to support them,” Berreth said. “The goal is that every child belongs and loves their school and feels connected and engaged and safe.”
In front of the school, the recently completed playground beckons students with vibrant colors—orange, blue, and green—and inclusive play equipment for all abilities, such as several slides of different sizes, swings, and a climbing apparatus that also spins. Instead of wood chips, the playground has a base of rubberized tiles.
As with other new Bellingham schools, Sunnyland follows district priorities for sustainability and energy efficiency. The school was built solar-ready. The electric air-to-water heat pump system is two to three times more efficient than a boiler. The HVAC system brings 100 percent of the air in from the outside, and exhausts it outside — the air isn’t recycled. Large windows increase natural light and reduce the need for artificial lighting. To learn about more sustainability features and other design-related highlights, view the Sunnyland school brochure created for the community open house in September 2022.
For a recap of the Sunnyland construction project in photos, click here.