Taholah starts to craft vision for new school on higher ground

Leading the way in seismic safety program, community sees bright future for Chitwhins

Quinault tribal elder Ken Stevens sat in the Taholah school library and pointed to the ceiling, where, above a thick cedar pole, large cracks in wooden supports had been filled in. Stevens said the crack occurred during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, a magnitude 6.8 that originated about 30 miles below Olympia. It was the most recent earthquake that caused significant damage in Washington.

Damage from a future quake is likely to be more catastrophic than a crack in the wood.

It was not long after the Nisqually quake that Stevens and others on the Taholah school board started thinking about a new school. They succeeded in getting an engineer to draw up designs, but the effort never panned out.

Now, if everything goes to plan, a new Taholah school will be built on higher ground — resilient to earthquakes and safe from tsunami waves — by the 2027 school year.

“This is a dream,” Stevens said. “It’s finally coming true again.”

With a target date set three-and-a-half years out, it will take a collaborative effort for the dream to materialize, starting with brainstorming ideas for the character of the new school. That process started Saturday, April 6, at the Taholah school library, where tribal leaders, students, district officials and staff shared their wants and needs — what they want the school to reflect about the community — with the architects in charge of designs.

The new school will “essentially be designed by the community,” said Ross Parker, senior architect with Arcadis, the firm hired five weeks ago to produce conceptual designs.

“It’s really important that this be Taholah’s school, and it be designed to tell their story,” Parker said.

Several members from the firm’s team have experience working on schools that emphasized tribal culture, including the new Toledo High School in south Lewis County, which was completed in 2022. Suzanne Donaldson, a Cowlitz tribal council member, advised on that project as a community member, and is now providing professional consulting services on the Taholah project to ensure the tribe’s voice is heard.

The firm will hold a series of four meetings over the next few months to gather input, with the next set for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16 at the Taholah school.

The new K-12 school will be 75,000 square feet and serve about 250 students, according to the district’s request for design services. The construction project will also include landscaping, a sports complex, pedestrian, surface transportation and stormwater management.

At 150 feet above sea level, the school will be one of the centerpieces of the new upper Taholah village, as the tribe undertakes to move critical infrastructure and neighborhoods a few miles uphill from the current village, which is situated at the mouth of the Quinault River where it enters the Pacific Ocean, at risk to sea-level rise, flooding and tsunami waves. Trees still need to be cleared to make way for the new school alongside freshly platted streets of a future neighborhood.

The village relocation is a national example of resilience to natural disasters and climate change planning, and its new school has a shot at becoming the first in the state to complete the Seismic Safety Grant Program, which the state Legislature created in 2022 in an effort to help the most seismically vulnerable schools in Washington.

Earlier assessments from the Department of Natural Resources showed the Taholah school, built in 1973 and renovated in 1991, sits on soils that would amplify shaking as opposed to hard rock. Later mapping showed a tsunami would put the school 40 feet underwater.

So far, school districts in Grays Harbor have received more from the program than any other county in the state, as schools on the Central Harbor are beginning to probe soils for new school sites or look at retrofitting existing buildings.

Taholah completed that step last August after getting a jump start because of its high risk. Studies found the new site, three-quarters of a mile southeast of the current school, has denser soils less likely to “liquefy” in an earthquake.

By law, state grants must fund at least two-thirds of project cost, from planning through construction. Taholah School District has received nearly $2 million for commissioning designs.

Once those designs get approved by a state seismic safety committee, grant awards for construction could be many times that amount, although exact amounts won’t be certain until designs are complete, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“It’s a really key opportunity,” said Jacob James, Taholah school board president. “Here we are in the 21st century. How can we do things for the future?”

A community gathering place

Starting the process of getting a new school is like deja vu for Tesha Bailly, who started as Taholah principal in August and lives in a house on school grounds. As part of her 25-year career she last taught at a tribal school in North Dakota that worked to relocate from a flood-prone valley to the top of a hill.

“Being part of it is empowering,” she said from the Taholah library on Saturday. “It’s definitely looking more real.”

Bailly said elements of natural lighting will be important in the new school’s design, and incorporating outdoor spaces to emphasize the school’s strong nature-based technical education program and “hands on learning.”

In her first year as principal in the school of 188 students, Bailly has worked to improve attendance. One strategy is incentives, like awarding “Student of the Month” or the playful “Bus Rider of the Month.”

Many parents and community members show up for the award ceremonies and other large events. Bailly said the new school should not only “feel good and inspiring, but also works for logistics.”

“Everything has to flow safely and conveniently for our different events,” she said.

That includes Chitwhin athletic events, a strong point of pride for Taholah. Sacariana Charley, a seventh grader at the Taholah school who plays volleyball, said she was looking forward to having a new building to play in during high school — and a football field that other schools would be jealous of.

“We’re big on sports,” Charley said.

Attendees to the early design forum also emphasized the need for more Native art in hallways and central school areas. In addition to increased access to weightlifting facilities, Omar Estrada, a Quinault tribal member and recent graduate of Hoquiam High School, suggested adding wood carvings to large cedar pillars like the ones in the current school library.

Others suggested a classroom resembling a longhouse, a traditional tribal dwelling and home to ceremonies.

“Kids need to make memories,” said Raeann Glaser, another Quinault member and former Hoquiam student. “We need new memories around here, better memories for them.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.