It’s no secret that Bellevue has experienced explosive growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city’s population grew by approximately 12 percent between 2010 and 2017, creating pressure to accommodate everything from housing to transportation to schools.
A few years ago, Bellevue School District officials began plans for the district’s first new elementary school in 40 years. Instead of building a conventional school, however, several families envisioned breaking the mold and building a new kind of educational institution that would leverage Bellevue’s proximity to Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters and combine the district’s curriculum with insights and suggestions from the global tech giant.
That vision crystallized in August, when Wilburton Elementary welcomed its inaugural class of students.
While Wilburton Elementary promises to relieve overcrowding at other schools in central and west Bellevue, officials hope it serves the population beyond its classroom walls.
“It’s a neighborhood school, but the partnership with Microsoft (means it’s) a school that will host many visitors … from our own schools (as well as) other school districts in Western Washington (and) around the country and the world to see best practices in teaching and learning,” said Eric Ferguson, the district’s director of instructional technology.
The district originally set out to make Wilburton a “showcase school,” a designation Microsoft awards to thousands of schools around the world, including Bellevue’s Sammamish High School and the International School.
District officials, however, soon realized that shooting for only that goal limited their possibilities.
“Because we are … starting from the ground up, (Wilburton Elementary) was something more (than a showcase school),” principal Beth Hamilton said. “What it became was, ‘We’re starting from ground zero, so what can we do from the beginning that will change the way we do business in a school that meets the needs of all students?’ It’s not just the structure and design. It’s not just the technology in the classroom. It’s security, layout, modern teaching — everything. You put all those pieces together.”
“It’s not just the structure and design. It’s not just the technology in the classroom. It’s security, layout, modern teaching — everything.”
Much of the connection between Wilburton Elementary and the tech behemoth centers on Microsoft’s Education Transformation Framework, a guide to innovation in schools. Hamilton closely follows the manual, which focuses on modern teaching practices, an aggressive technology blueprint, and innovative and intelligent learning spaces.
Importantly, the guide does not singlehandedly focus on core Microsoft functions like computing and software, nor does it solely aim to advance the use of technology in the classroom. And there are limits on the company’s involvement: Microsoft has not touched the curriculum, the school is not a testing ground for company products, and the district receives no financial compensation for its efforts, according to Ferguson.
Instead, Ferguson views Microsoft as a “thought partner” helping to build a school from the ground up. Since the district hasn’t done that at the elementary level in four decades, Hamilton said, she could not turn to Bellevue colleagues for insight on past practices.
What does Microsoft’s Education Transformation Framework look like in a real-world classroom?
One simple answer involves learning spaces. Not every student does his or her best work sitting at a regular desk, Hamilton and Ferguson said, so not everyone was served effectively with standardized furniture. Instead, Wilburton Elementary includes dynamic furniture that allows students to sit alone or in small groups, forward or backward, at a standard height or elevated.
Another example involves technology. Bellevue School District’s use of Microsoft OneNote offers students quicker feedback on assignments, including voice comments left by teachers. Older students with district-issued computers can access their OneNote files offline, helping to level the playing field for those without internet access at home.
Thus, the district hopes, the Microsoft-aided innovations focused now at Wilburton Elementary will reverberate well beyond those grounds.
“The partnership is … us leaning on each other and supporting each other, because the end goal is that we have a productive group of citizens in our world that can solve problems,” Hamilton said. “That has been the main piece of, ‘How do we work together to do that, and how can we not only work together for our school but for others?’”