An early-morning staff meeting in the waning weeks of the school year found the library at Stewart Middle School packed with teachers planning everything from student locker cleaning to associated student body elections. The room buzzed with energy, information and positive vibes.
It wasn’t always this way at Stewart, a neighborhood landmark on Pacific Avenue.
In the first year of the federal SIG grant, teachers complained about a constantly evolving academic focus, a rumor-driven environment and problems adapting to teaching special education students in mainstream classrooms.
The tensions spilled over into grievances filed by the teachers union. More than a dozen teachers left and, in spring 2012, Janet Gates-Cortez was named principal, replacing Jon Ketler.
Stewart was a school in perpetual motion, a reflection of the man who led it into the SIG era. Ketler, who also founded Tacoma’s School of the Arts and the Science and Math Institute, added Stewart to his list of responsibilities in 2010. Stewart was first designated a STEM school, emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math. An arts focus was added, making it a STEAM school and, more recently, an ‘R’ for reading emphasis made it a STREAM school.
In December 2012, staff from the U.S. Department of Education visited Stewart for a week, observing classrooms and interviewing administrators, teachers, students and parents. (Stewart was one of two state SIG schools the federal team observed; the other was in Marysville.)
The report catalogued a list of shortcomings: teacher turnover, particularly in the math department; a lack of academic focus during Stewart’s first two SIG years; and a failure to sustain increased learning time — part of the conditions of the grant. It also criticized the school district for giving Ketler too much work and responsibility.
“The district allowed the new principal to serve as a school leader at Stewart Middle School, while continuing to run the other two high schools,” the report stated, noting that “this process was not successful.”
But the report also stated that the current leadership team feels confident that it can move forward, given time and district support.
Science teacher John Hoover has been at Stewart since the dawn of SIG. He was a voluntary transplant from Truman Middle School in Tacoma’s more affluent West End.
The veteran teacher said Stewart students were “starved for something challenging.” Contrary to old stereotypes, he found most Stewart kids “appreciative, polite and well-behaved,” though often in need of academic help.
Hoover said the negative comments from teachers during Stewart’s first SIG year came from “a small handful of people.”
“Most of the staff is still here,” Hoover said. “They have not changed their philosophy.
“This is one of the best staffs I have worked with. They’re eager, willing to push themselves.”
Principal Gates-Cortez agrees: “I have a staff who believes in doing whatever it takes. It’s about not giving up. If the kids are here, it’s our job to find a way.”
As the 2012-13 school year drew to a close, there was uncertainty about fall class offerings and staffing. Not only was the SIG grant ending, the school also was projecting a 50-student drop that would translate into fewer teachers.
Despite all the hurdles, there are bright spots in the Stewart story. One is the retention of mini-term, an innovation that Ketler brought from SOTA and SAMI. During mini-term, students spend two weeks studying one subject in depth at the end of the school year. Teachers pair up to teach the classes, which often include field trips and projects.
Sally Stewart’s son Chuck, who finished eighth grade at Stewart this year, is the last of her three kids to attend the school. Of the three, his experience has been the best, Stewart said.
“The first year of the (SIG) transition was a little rough,” she said. She wishes communication with parents had been better.
But she said new school policies have reduced fights between students.
Stewart had high praise for her son’s science teachers, who brought hands-on learning opportunities to the classroom. She said her son loved the enhanced arts and technical classes. He learned to write music and program robots. He studied sea life in the San Juan Islands.
For many students from low-income homes, she said, school is the only place they get such opportunities.
“He enjoyed school so much more,” Stewart said of her son. “He blossomed here.”