‘First day of school’ comes in December at Tacoma’s new elementary school

Every school day since February, second grader Jacob Levitt walked to Browns Point Elementary holding a sign that said, “THANK YOU.”

The sign was meant for construction workers who spent the last year working on Levitt’s new school.

Jacob’s family lives across the street from Browns Point Elementary and have been watching the construction process since it began in October 2017. Jacob is “thrilled” about the new school, said Julie Connors, the boy’s mom.

On Tuesday, Levitt carried the sign to school one last time.

He was met with applause and cheers from construction workers and Tacoma Public Schools staff, who were there to welcome students to the new school.

“It was awesome seeing the kids walk through ... They were like, ‘Oh, this is awesome!’ It’s so rewarding to hear that,” said Renee Lang of Skanska construction.

Tacoma Public Schools officially completed the $37.7 million project to replace Browns Point Elementary this month after years of planning. The school, located at 1526 51st St. NE, is among 13 others that received funding from the district’s $500 million capital facilities improvements bond, which voters passed in 2013. The bond is meant to remodel or replace Tacoma schools in an effort modernize school environments for better learning.

To get out their excitement and jitters and ease the transition, students were shown the new school and their classrooms the week before. They’ve previously been attending school at the old Browns Point campus. On Monday, parents were invited for a look around.

“We opened it at this time of year because we have to stagger our projects — we can’t roll them all out at once,” said Nora Doyle, facilities communication coordinator for Tacoma Public Schools. “It wasn’t delayed — we were always aiming for late fall, early winter. What we try to do is, rather than hit the specific date, we want to get the school right.”

Scott Thieste, parent to Browns Point fourth grader Cruz Thieste, said it’s been a smooth transition to the new school so far, despite it happening in early December.

“They’re already in learning mode,” Thieste said Tuesday.

New school, new environment

ASB president Piper Russell isn’t shy in admitting she won’t miss the old Browns Point Elementary.

“I’m not really sad,” the fifth grader said in an interview with The News Tribune on Tuesday. “I just like this school because you can make more memories.”

Russell spent the last few years attending the former Browns Point Elementary, which is across the street from the new school. According to district documents, the former campus consists of two buildings, the original 1951 Browns Point Elementary and the 1960 Meeker Middle School.

ASB vice president Cruz Thieste said he has good memories of the old building and that he’ll miss the old recess field he used to play on.

“I’m not used to all this new stuff,” he admitted.

That “new stuff” includes floor-to-ceiling windows to allow natural light to filter through classrooms and hallways. The windows also encourage “shared spaces” and increase visibility for teachers when students work in the hall for group projects or independent study.

Inside the classrooms, students use new “360-degree” laptops — where the touch screen rotates — and teachers can use microphones to speak to students.

“The desks I think are pretty cool because they’re whiteboard on the top, so you can write on them,” Thieste said.

The new building was built with a nautical theme, inspired by Commencement Bay. The belly of a ship hovers above the cafeteria.

Each wing of the 24-classroom school is designated a color, with clear signs outside rooms to signal the library and other various classrooms. Outside, a plaza, trails, planting space and a performing platform accommodates outdoor learning.

Both Thieste and Russell like the additional levels and spaces and say it feels much better as a whole than their old school.

“It looks like a bigger school. It’s more nicer, more clean — the other one’s a little more dirtier,” Thieste said.

“A lot dirtier,” added Russell.

Saying goodbye

A “last look” event will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the old Browns Point Elementary campus on Saturday. Former students and community members can say their last goodbyes and sign the walls before the buildings are demolished in January.

It’s bittersweet for 63-year-old Rhonda Garrison, who attended Browns Point between 1968 and 1970, back when it was Meeker Junior High.

“It was a great building, but it was old,” Garrison said in an interview with The News Tribune. “It was time.”

As a student, Garrison remembers cooking in the home-economics class and participating in painting murals. She even attended school there with her now-husband, Bruce Garrison.

The couple plans to attend the “last look” on Saturday and take a look at the decades-old photos.

Garrison’s sons and grandsons also attended the school.

“Three generations went to that building,” Garrison said.

This winter, Tacoma Public Schools will have a similar opening of Mary Lyon Elementary School, which is also being replaced. That project also is part of the district’s 2013 bond.