Arlington Elementary School

Architect: Mahlum

Owner: Tacoma Public Schools

Location: Tacoma, Wash.

Award of Merit

Like many districts across the country, Tacoma Public Schools has experienced declining graduation rates, hitting a low in 2010 at 55 percent matriculation.  In 2011, the state legislature created the Innovation Schools and Zones program to encourage districts to create new, innovative programs. In 2012 Tacoma Public Schools was selected as the first Innovation Zone catalyzing their commitment to educational innovation that empowers student achievement.

They analyzed the data and found that two factors, socioeconomics and peer relationships, account for 85 percent of their students’ success. They recognized that the rate of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch is a statistic associated for lower test scores, and that in 17 of their 35 elementary schools, more than 80 percent of their students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. Put simply, the data showed them that their influence would be limited if they continued to think of schools in the traditional way. They recognized that to accept the challenge for their schools to be an agent for serious change, work must happen that touches these deeper levels by rethinking the concept of school, empowering community partners and establishing a positive culture.

"This is a complete package that rethinks the concept of learning environments beyond the traditional classroom.  The care that went into design and planning, as well as the incorporation of research implementation is innovative and praiseworthy."  ~ Jury Statement

To begin, Tacoma Public Schools developed a robust framework of inquiry towards “A New Vision for the Elementary Learning Environment” that asked a series of provocative questions rather than providing concrete solutions. The result is a non-traditional educational specification that allows new interpretations to be created while providing the District with guidelines for building planning and design that stipulates relentless reinterpretation, deep analysis, creative synthesis and meaningful reinvention at every turn.

Arlington is the first ground-up elementary school constructed since this framework was published.  It is a case study of what can happen in school design when you explore the spatial possibilities that emerge when a community sets out to totally rethink the basic assumptions behind traditional elementary schools in order to build a culture that wraps around kids. This culture allows them to learn all day, every day, and throughout the year in environments where learners are continuously challenged, relentlessly supported, and engaged in a way that is both safe and healthy.

To understand the context of this community in need, the team embraced a collaborative, immersive approach with broad user engagement. Each participant provided unique understanding into design opportunities. By drawing on individual strengths of all participants, the community of practice surrounding the Arlington Elementary School project has kindled innovation from initiation into completion.

Designing for the myriad of ways in which students learn necessitated that we challenge the basic givens in schools: do we need classrooms; do we know how to program for learning and not numbers; can we fully integrate furnishings that support a rapidly variable and flexible instruction space; do we understand the impact of transparency? The response at Arlington is a collaboration between the design of learning programs, the design process and a design result that moves the needle away from traditional cells and bells.

Additional information

Acoustics: A3

Acoustics Cost Consultant: The Robinson Company

Civil Engineer: AHBL, Inc.

Construction Manager:  Greene Gasaway

Electrical Engineer: BCE Engineers

General Contractor: Neeley Construction

Landscape Architect: AHBL, Inc.

Mechanical Engineer: Metrix Engineers

Structural Engineer: Coughlin Porter Lundeen


David Van Galen, AIA, (2018 Chair) Integrus Architects, Seattle

Linsey Graff, Assoc. AIA, Ayers Saint Gross, Tempe, Arizona

Wendy Rogers, FAIA, LPA, Inc., Irvine, California

Judy Hoskens, Assoc. AIA, REFP, Cuningham Group, Minneapolis

Image credits


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider


Benjamin Benschneider