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Work at Pioneer Middle School takes shape

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Pioneer Middle School excavation

With a section of fence removed at Pioneer Middle School, workers and machines prepare ground for temporary class and cafeteria structures Wednesday afternoon.

While pandemic changes have moved the usual classes out of education buildings, another kind of school work is underway on the campus of Pioneer Middle School.

Although work has been ongoing for some time, the recent arrival of earth-moving equipment has made progress more visible to everyone, Walla Walla Public Schools officials said this week.

Renovations and upgrades to the Pi-Hi building, which was originally constructed some 70 years ago, were made possible when voters approved a $65.6 million Walla Walla Public Schools building bond in November 2018. Those dollars are being matched with $52.6 million in Washington state funding.

About $23 million of that is going into the middle school. The need for such work was apparent to the district’s task force members when they toured school facilities to make recommendations for pursuing a bond, Superintendent Wade Smith has said.

A 2016 inspection of Pi-Hi by the committee found antiquated bathrooms, failing floors, single-pane windows and a patched-together electrical system, among other problems.

The school has an undersized common area for students, a “severe” lack of parking and a cafeteria serving double duty as a gym, the report said.

A 1990 fire in one wing of the school was cause for some upgrading, but at its core Pi-Hi was still in the 1950s, Smith said.

The bond project schedule calls for taking most of the building down to the studs, and that means creating space now to continue serving students in the fall — however that looks, Smith said this morning.

Eight portable classrooms will be rented for a year while permanent classroom space is rebuilt, but the exciting piece of this pie is the industrial-style fabric building coming to the Bridge Street campus mid-summer.

The 75-by-100-foot tent-like setup — a smidge bigger than a basketball court – will have multiple uses, including as a place to feed students and for activities, Smith said.

While such structures are popular in the farming industry, their use in educational settings is fairly new, the superintendent noted.

“This is a great solution to many of us here. This meets all the code requirements — it has air handlers, heating, emergency exits, doors that lock … it’s a low-cost way to make sure kids are safely fed.”

When staff and students are back in their permanent home by fall of 2021, the district can resell the tent building or store it away for another project, Smith said.

In the end, Pi-Hi will sport new classroom space, a real gym, space for arts, improved access and parking, better traffic flow and a modernized kitchen.

People wanting to keep an eye on the school’s progress can do so though the construction cam that went live today at ubne.ws/2WQBQwA.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.