A brief burst of a flash bulb spotlighted the action inside Columbia Crest Elementary School just after the school opened in winter 1952. The new school stood in a clearing along the highway, nine miles west of Mount Rainier National Park.
A semi-circular roof sheltered the new gymnasium, but it had no floor. That was left up to a volunteer crew of sweaty-looking, rough-handed guys who gathered nights after work to lay it down.
An unknown photographer captured them on their knees in a huddle near a thin stack of tongue-and-groove. The men set down their tools for a moment, looked up and allowed the too-bright light of the flash to contrast their white faces and long, muscular arms against the pitch-black emptiness of the unfinished gym.
Columbia Crest students still pound those highly polished and reverently preserved boards.
Community makes good schools, they say. And good schools make community. There’s a kind of yin and yang there. The benefits of that dynamic interaction are manifest in generations of Columbia Crest graduates. Their portraits, going back more than 50 years, line the school’s front hall.
One image is of my husband, in the center of his eighth-grade class, his picture slightly larger than the others. He doesn’t know why. He treasured his time at Columbia Crest. For children like him, it was a sanctuary, a haven, a refuge from an otherwise chaotic upbringing.
He found friendship there. Teachers nurtured his intellect. He happily recalls recesses playing king of the hill on a sand pile in back. The no-nonsense principal who rightly put him in his place for making potty jokes. The cooks who treated him to extra hamburgers when he helped in the kitchen.
Now, as then, Columbia Crest is a cozy place, where no child escapes notice. Such schools can’t replace family. Still, they can shore up the foundations of young lives.
But without students, schools close. In the beginning, Columbia Crest served those upstream and downstream of the nearby Nisqually River, from the national park to Alder Lake. Its students were the children of loggers, mill workers, park employees and a few others whose livelihoods depended on the tourist trade.
The changed economy has altered the demographics. Good-paying jobs in the woods have virtually vanished. Families with school-aged children live closer to town. What always was a small school has lost so many local students that it tries to attract kids from Eatonville, 18 miles away.
This leaves leaders of the far-flung Eatonville School District in a quandary. Transportation costs are huge and growing. Some wonder whether it is prudent to continue running a fully staffed elementary school so far from children’s homes.
Things came to a head last spring when the school board allowed teachers at Columbia Crest a year to explore a new instructional approach focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM for short. It aims to give students regular opportunities to experiment, explore and apply their skills to real-world problem-solving in preparation for future jobs.
The school year has just begun, and newly installed Principal Angie Tuning and her staff have embraced STEM in the hope it will reinvigorate, broaden and deepen the community support that has been a hallmark of Columbia Crest from the first. The school has until May to make its case for a bigger commitment. At that time, the school board is expected to again weigh Columbia Crest’s future.
Eatonville School Superintendent Krestin Bahr, also a newcomer, is excited about the prospects. She calls herself a “former science geek” and applauds both the STEM concept and Columbia Crest’s legacy. Throughout the Eatonville district, “everyone knows everyone,” she said. “To have such community support is such a gift. It’s the way education should be.”Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former News Tribune staff writer. Reach her at SJGordon Communications@gmail.com.