New elementary, middle school model headed to Fircrest

Tacoma Public Schools is accelerating plans to rebuild the shuttered Wainwright Elementary School in Fircrest, but the school won’t follow a traditional elementary school model when it reopens in September 2016.

Instead, Wainwright will be the first school in the Tacoma district to serve students in grades four through eight.

Meanwhile, nearby Whittier Elementary School will shift to serving students in preschool through third grade – another first in the district, school officials said. The changes at Whittier are also scheduled to take effect in fall 2016.

Stacy Flores, a spokeswoman for Tacoma Public Schools, said changing the grade levels served by each school will accommodate future growth at Whittier, while also giving parents the opportunity to send students to a middle school close by. Many middle school students from Fircrest have been attending schools that are further away – such as Truman Middle School on the other side of Highway 16 – since the closure of Hunt Middle School in 2010, Flores said.

“Having Wainwright be that unique model from 4 to 8 would let those students who live in that neighborhood stay in that neighborhood,” Flores said.

She added that research shows that students often have difficulty transitioning from fifth grade to middle school, and combining fourth- through eighth-graders could help with that.

“With that model, it makes it easier for students to make that transition, and older students can also mentor younger students coming in,” Flores said.

Kurt Miller, president of the Tacoma school board, said the district is trying to embrace new approaches to education that could help students. He said that fourth- and fifth-grade students are closer in maturity level to middle school students, and could benefit from being grouped with older kids.

“When you have a younger group, they have different needs than a fourth- and fifth-grade group,” Miller said. “We want to be innovative, and we want to try different things in our school district.”

District officials say the changes are being made with the support of parents whose students attend Fircrest-area schools.

David Stemp, a past president of the Whittier Elementary PTA, said parents have been concerned about overcrowding at Whittier, as well as sending their students to more distant Tacoma schools to attend middle school. During the past 18 months, Stemp served on a parent task force that met with district officials to discuss options for Whittier and Wainwright.

“The concern was, ‘Where are we going to send these students coming out of Fircrest for middle school, since they closed Hunt?’” Stemp said. “Without question, getting a space where they could be much closer was definitely on the top of our list.”

The new Wainwright will house about 400 to 450 students, about the same number of students as the previous building, Flores said.

Stemp said the school’s small size has some parents concerned that it won’t offer the same electives and sports programs as a larger middle school.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how many people embrace this smaller concept,” Stemp said.

Tacoma Public Schools is budgeting $30 million to build a new Wainwright, Flores said. The money to pay for the project comes from a $500 million bond measure that school district voters approved last year.

The building, originally constructed in 1924, needs to be replaced due to its age, school officials said. The school was closed at the end of the 2010-11 school year as a cost-saving measure.

Hunt Middle School is also slated to be replaced using money from last year’s bond measure, but construction isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2021, according to the school district’s website.