Welcome back, Stewart. Remodeled Tacoma middle school resumes its spot at the heart of a community

Ryan Booth remembers when Tacoma’s Stewart Middle School could have served as the poster child for what a crumbling urban school looks like.

He started his teaching career at Stewart in 2006, in the same classroom where he’d been a math student in the early 1990s.

“The classroom I taught in — we’d close the door, and dust fell off the door jamb,” he remembers. “There were tiles missing from the gym.”

Those flaws — along with the leaky ceilings, dark creaky passageways, substandard gym and other deficits — have been swept away in a $66 million remodeling project that welcomes back students Monday (March 13). It’s one of more than a dozen construction projects funded by a $500 million bond measure approved by Tacoma voters in 2013.

Last week, Booth, now employed by Tacoma Public Schools’ Planning and Construction Department, guided students and their families through preview tours of the school. This week, he’ll be on hand assisting teachers as they learn how to use the building’s new technology.

Rachel Dunbar, whose sixth-grade daughter will move in with classmates Monday, said the school is “incredibly different” from how it used to look.

“I don’t even recognize the old school,” she said.

Nicholas Shines, a Stewart eighth-grader, remembers the old building: “It was slowly breaking down.”

Sometimes when toilets overflowed in an upstairs bathroom, water leaked into his basement classroom, he said. He’s happy to be in the new building.

“The attention to detail is pretty amazing,” said Tara Scheidt, whose daughter Lauren is a Stewart sixth-grader. “All the little things are what we’re noticing.”

The school, at 5010 Pacific Ave., is opening six months ahead of its scheduled September opening. Stewart kids, who live in neighborhoods in the east and south parts of the city, have been temporarily housed across town at the former Hunt Middle School campus, near Tacoma Community College, since September 2015.

When the Stewart project finished early, officials decided they wanted to move in as soon as possible.

School district planning and construction head Rob Sawatzky said the early finish is especially significant given the overheated construction market that’s creating labor and material shortages. He credits a collaborative process that brings together building designers and contractors in the project’s early stages. In addition, while Stewart was a historic remodeling with the potential for unexpected delays, much of the work was on the inside of the building and unaffected by weather.

Teachers and others used a two-day conference period, and the weekend, to move materials and get their new classrooms ready for the Monday arrival of students.

Here’s some of what the kids will find:

▪ Nods to history. Stewart, built in 1924, is a landmark building on the city’s register of historic places. Its red-brick exterior has been cleaned and brightened, and new windows added, but the exterior retains a classic look. Inside, there are reminders of the building’s age, such as older doors. But the overall feeling is of an ultramodern space designed for the way kids learn now.

▪ The old auditorium has been renovated and converted into a space that will serve as a school commons eating area, and as a performance space. When they are not being used for a performance, the 400 auditorium seats telescope back against the wall to make way for lunch seating.

The old stage is still in place, and the crown moldings marked with the Stewart “S” have been repainted. But the space has been given a modern face-lift to match the rest of the school’s forward-looking design.

▪ There are two three-story project labs that will house the school’s burgeoning video production and broadcast program, robotics demonstrations and more.

▪ The library extends into a balcony overlooking the commons, creating a space for small group gatherings.

▪ Classrooms are designed with technology and furniture that can be easily shifted into whatever configuration a teacher desires. There is no set “front” of the classroom.

▪ The new gym — there’s also an auxiliary gym — has a regulation-size basketball court. Original wood flooring from the old gym has been transformed into acoustic panels, benches and wall hangings.

▪ A regulation track and field will be completed this spring, and space for a community garden has been maintained.

Principal Zeek Edmond is bracing for the expected bumpup in enrollment after the new Stewart debuts. With the move to Hunt in 2015, enrollment fell from around 650 to its current 335 students.

But the district expects the new school, along with some changes in boundary zones, to bring enrollment back by this fall. The new Stewart is built for 650 students, with expansion possible.

Looking over one of the school’s multistory lab spaces, he notes that staff members are excited about the possibilities. There’s power, water (and a floor that’s OK to get wet), along with a ventilation system to draw out the airborne aftermath of messy science or art projects.

“We couldn’t think of anything you can’t do in there,” he said.

He’s also proud of the academic progress Stewart students are making. Not many years ago, Stewart was listed among the lowest-achieving schools in the state, based on test scores. But Edmond says they are improving. Last year’s test scores put Stewart at about the 35 percent mark, and he’s now eying a spot closer to the midpoint.

“To go from the bottom 1 percent to the middle of the pack — I’ll probably sleep better over the summer,” he said.

He and others point to the deep roots that Stewart holds in the community. Many current Stewart Panthers are the children and grandchildren of former Stewart students. Educators are hoping that the new building will inspire a school and community renaissance.

“I have some of the fondest memories of my childhood, and my teaching, from this building,” said Booth, the teacher-turned-tour guide. “I am beyond excited for what it means for this neighborhood — the neighborhood that created me and who I am now.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

Stewart Middle School renovation

Square footage: 125,000.

Architect: Bassetti Architects.

Contractor: Skanska USA.

Current projected cost: Nearly $66.5 million.

Opening day: Monday, March 13.

Grand opening celebration: 5:30-7:30 p.m. May 24.

SOURCE: Tacoma Public Schools

More construction on the way

Tacoma Public Schools is in the midst of a building program financed by a $500 million bond measure approved by voters in 2013. The money will finance the construction or renovation of 14 Tacoma schools, along with smaller projects.

Here’s a status update:

Already open

Washington Elementary

McCarver Elementary

Wainwright Intermediate

Stewart Middle School (track and field improvements to be completed this spring)

A new academic wing at Wilson High School

Under construction

Arlington Elementary

SAMI Environmental Learning Center

A new music building at Wilson High School, as well as a new track and field

Being designed

Mary Lyon Elementary

Browns Point Elementary

Birney Elementary

Grant (Elementary) Center for the Expressive Arts

Remaining projects

Downing Elementary

Boze Elementary

Hunt Middle School

SOURCE: Tacoma Public Schools