Wilburton Elementary: A new community breaks ground on creativity

In August, we shared the story of Wilburton Elementary in Bellevue, Washington. The state-of-the-art school is being built from the ground up, following the guidance of the Microsoft Education Transformation Framework, in a collaborative effort between the Bellevue School District (BSD) and Microsoft. Each month, we’ll share Wilburton’s progress on this journey from plan, to structure, and finally to a brand-new elementary school, set to open its doors in September 2018. We invite you to follow along.


It’s a beautiful autumn day in Bellevue, Washington as Beth Hamilton looks out her office window to the towering old-growth trees that have stood for generations. Today, however, there is something new looming above the tree tops: a crane. And it’s moving.

“Watching the crane move means something’s happening over there,” says Hamilton, who was named principal of Wilburton Elementary. It will become an 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility and Microsoft Showcase School next fall.

But before the asphalt was poured or the crane appeared, Hamilton oversaw one of many ‘firsts’ in her career as principal: the Wilburton Elementary groundbreaking.

A community comes together


Breaking ground on the new school wasn’t just ceremonial. It marked an important new era for this booming city east of Seattle – the construction of its first built-from-the-ground-up elementary school since 1972. With a population that’s nearly doubled since 1980, the area is in urgent need of a new school to relieve over-crowding at three nearby schools.

The groundbreaking was a lovely hot day in July,” Hamilton says. “I’ve never been a part of a groundbreaking before, so I kind of made it up on my own.”

To build the kind of community she knew she needed to support the massive project, Hamilton reached out to multiple Wilburton stakeholders, including Bellevue School District (BSD) leadership, her district’s communications and IT groups, Microsoft, and many families in the area. Hamilton also invited the principals of the three feeder schools.

The result became a family-friend event that “set the tone of being laid-back, and all about family,” according to Hamilton.  “One of my favorite parts was one of the kiddos (a current kindergartener) who was enamored by the construction process. He thought a shovel wouldn’t be enough to move the dirt. So, he brought his own sit-on ‘big digger,’ and he sat there and dug forever. He didn’t want to leave!”


Built for creativity


The community that came together to mark the start of Wilburton’s construction was celebrating something truly special.

“Wilburton is unique,” says Kyle McLeod, the BSD project manager for Wilburton. McLeod and his team oversee everything related to this ambitious project — from concept, to architectural plans, permitting, construction, and “close out.” When all is said and done, McLeod will have worked on the Wilburton project for five years.

While McLeod notes that most of the schools in the BSD, including the “replacement” builds, have technology in place and are built to be efficient, Wilburton is being built with the Microsoft Education Transformation Framework at its core.

“What is different is the shift in curriculum and how the students will learn, and Microsoft is helping to put a much bigger focus there,” says McLeod.

For Principal Hamilton, how kids are learning is just as important as what they’re learning. And creating space where students can naturally collaborate and solve problems is key. That means designing spaces around the learning process, not the latest innovations in furniture or classroom layout.

The Microsoft Education Transformation Framework (EFT) helps Hamilton ask the right questions to ensure that happens.

“The Framework breaks this challenge into tangible ‘things,’ and gives me buckets to put them in so I can solidify my ideas on my own,” Hamilton tells us. “Learners are at their best when they have the right environment to thrive in, including everything from the way technology is used, to how learning spaces are optimized to support collaboration, active engagement and deep learning.”

When it comes to infrastructure, perhaps the biggest difference between Wilburton and other buildings in the district is the built-in flexibility – from the fiber backbone, internet bandwidth and wiring, to the geo-thermal heating and cooling and shared learning spaces designed to spark creativity.

“Flexible spaces are an important part of the building,” says McLeod. “Being able to take students outside of their classroom to collaborate shows that learning doesn’t have to happen within the four walls.”

Wilburton, which is located on a wetland, also shares space with the Bellevue Botanical Gardens, making its location not only a site amenity but an important learning opportunity for the students.

“I’m excited about the project,” says McLeod. “It’s great for the community and the district, and it’s cool that it’s in Microsoft’s backyard. It’s going to be a great resource.”


What’s next for Wilburton


As the building structure continues to take shape, Hamilton is now turning her attention to other necessities – like hiring teachers (30 certificated educators by March), and working with her district to make sure she has everything needed to open a new school. That calls for professional development, building community and culture, and ensuring her staff is aligned with goals and expectations.

 “I feel like I’ve been training for a marathon,” Hamilton says. “The pace is starting to pick up.”

But what’s really keeping her up at night? It’s building the Wilburton community.

“My goal is that students don’t just say, ‘we go to Wilburton,’ but that they say, ‘we are the Wilburton Family,’” Hamilton explains. “Just like in a family, there’s give-and-take and we learn from others. I don’t want parents to just drop their kids off at school. I want them to hang out, have a cup of coffee, and make suggestions. We are all in this together, with a common goal to provide the best opportunities for our kids.”

Up next: Using Skype as a hiring tool. 

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