School Modernization and Equity for a Future Portland

by Kelley Schaefer-Levi

As the historic buildings of Portland and century-old public schools require repair, updating and expansion to accommodate a growing city and the needs of students, Portland Public Schools (PPS) is working with local designers, architects, contractors, school administrators, staff and alumni associations on creating schools that will accommodate the future of a changing Portland. The 2012 PPS School Building Improvement Bond is funding modernization projects around the city. The most recent of them is Grant High School in NE Portland.

Grant’s outdoor renovations, including new sports fields, landscaping and structure improvements are in bold color.


Construction on the new Grant High School has just begun, but the planning has been in the making for almost two years. The design and master planning of the high school renovation has been a community effort, progressive and collaborative in nature and has included an extensive engagement process over numerous public meetings.

Grant Magazine provides a voice for students in the planning and renovation stages of the project.

Beginning in the fall of 2015 through the spring of 2016 a series of public design workshops and open houses took place providing the Grant community a voice in the schematic design process where students, staff, alumni and the neighboring communities provided input on what they hoped to see in a modern Grant High School. The Grant Design Advisory Group held regular meetings throughout this time to provide feedback for the modernization process. From design to management and development, the project embodies innovation and equity. “The {Grant Modernization} project is one of the most progressive that I have worked on, from the women in leadership roles to the MWESB {Minority-owned, Women-owned, Small Business} joint venture with Colas Construction, to the inclusive culture of the school,” says Emi Day of Mahlum Architects.

The overall building design will maintain Grant’s historic exterior facade, including replicating the original 1923 windows, and the new additions will have a contemporary application of the same material palette, and follow the historic window rhythm. Housed in the new athletics wing will be brand new main and auxiliary gymnasiums, weight and locker room facilities, a new band room, and covered bike parking. The historic 1923 gymnasium building will become an Arts Complex containing ceramics, graphic design, printmaking and photography studios each with access to ample daylight from new windows and the historic skylight.

The library and science buildings will be demolished so that the lower level will become a light-filled space where students can convene in the commons and courtyards. The auditorium renovation was a major priority for the community, and will be updated with state-of-the-art theater equipment. The PPS Educational Specifications require 500 seats and the Grant Advisory Group decided to maintain the existing auditorium to keep as many seats as possible. Furthermore, the campus will be one of the first high schools nationally to achieve 100% gender-neutral toileting, a testament to the community’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

The campus will include additional outdoor areas that will be open to the public. The majority of classrooms will be located on the second floor, allowing views to nature from inside. One of the Design Advisory group’s main goals was to blend indoor and outdoor spaces to enhance the quality of the learning environment and deepen our connection to nature.

Mahlum’s rendering of Grant’s new courtyard.

Grant’s remodel focuses on daylight, accessibility, technology and modernization. In the public design workshops, the Grant community prioritized the need and desire for state-of-the-art facilities in all disciplines that meet Grant’s high-level leadership in curriculum and developing programs designed to prepare students with skills that will take them into future. Technology is at the center of the design where architects like Day of Mahlum has been advocating for digital displays in the public spaces where students will be able to connect to relevant content, whether it’s a custom welcome wall, digital playbill, details about an upcoming event, or a school-wide alert on monitors in the common areas.

These public spaces will also become an access point for students who may have hearing loss or different learning abilities. Historic team photos that once lined the halls of the high school have been digitized and could also be displayed as part of showcasing Grant’s long legacy. Grant Magazine articles and video could also be prioritized and could tell student and staff stories in the newly designed commons, lobbies, and gallery. Day explains, “There is so much digital content that Grant students create already. Grant has risen to the challenge of creating and curating authentic, meaningful content which is full of youthful, provocative questioning. Students are writing {and publishing} critically acclaimed stories that celebrate the voices of Gen Z. We want to take that culture of excellence and bring it to the forefront.  It must be part of the public experience of Grant High School.” While the budget doesn’t allow for the entire technology package, the community will likely see the value in becoming a truly digital campus.

The project will accommodate 1700 students. This number is specified by the district in the Educational Specifications for all new and modernized PPS high schools. The increase in student population is anticipated to grow and the new campus will add room for an additional 200-300 students.

Construction will begin in the summer of 2017 and the work will last for two years, with the modernized Grant scheduled to open in the fall of 2019. The spirit of inclusion and diversity along with public interest in creating a school that moves Portland into the future is at the heart of the project. At the groundbreaking ceremony the excitement was palpable. Says Day, “I am so inspired as a woman of color in architecture and construction to see women in top decision-making roles. The construction team was handing out t-shirts with EQUALITY across the chest, and I could really feel the momentum of change!”

This full feature appears in our July issue of All Things Real Estate magazine. To learn more, email