SAMI will build new home inside Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

When it opened in 2009, Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute was already an educational pioneer.

A specialized public high school situated in a public park, SAMI had a mission from the beginning to use Point Defiance Park — from the shores of Owen Beach to the elephant exhibit inside the Zoo & Aquarium — as a living laboratory where students could see science in action.

But even hardy SAMI kids need a place to get out of the rain once in a while. And now, after a months-long process that examined several locations around the 765-acre park, officials have agreed on a permanent school site.

Inside the zoo.

The school’s main hub and primary classroom spaces have been been housed in a string of 13 portable buildings and a small shed near the park’s main entrance.

But when a new SAMI building opens in a year or two, the school will break ground once again.

Tacoma Public Schools and Metro Parks Tacoma have teamed up to create a shared facility designed to serve the needs both of SAMI’s roughly 460 students and the zoo’s public education programs.

The school district hopes to break ground for what it’s calling the SAMI Environmental Learning Center in late summer or early fall, with a target opening in the 2016-17 school year.

The shared-use building will be constructed with an estimated $16.6 million in funding from the $500 million school bond measure approved by Tacoma voters in 2013.

Metro Parks’ main contribution comes in the form of about 40,000 square feet of property just north of the main zoo entrance gate. The site currently houses some portable buildings and an outdoor space.

Nearly three-quarters of the new two-story, 30,000-square-foot building will be devoted to SAMI classroom space — including modern laboratories that will be a big improvement over SAMI’s current portable classrooms. The rest of the learning center will have shared storage and utility space, along with zoo offices and zoo program space.

The SAMI classroom space will also be used when school is not in session for the zoo’s educational offerings and other programs. The building will be connected to the park’s forest and trail system by a pedestrian bridge that will span nearby Animal Loop Road.

SAMI founder and co-director Jon Ketler said having a permanent home in the park has always been part of the dream for SAMI.

“It’s great to have leadership from the zoo, Metro Parks and the school district working together to increase opportunities for students,” he said. At the same time, the facility will be an asset for the entire community, he added.

While the school district has been eyeing a new SAMI location in the park for several years, the park district is currently in the midst of creating a new master plan for Point Defiance Park, including the zoo and aquarium.

Plans call for a pedestrian and bicycle promenade connecting the waterfront Ruston Way walkway with Point Defiance Park. Those plans, along with other park improvements, meant that Metro Parks and Tacoma Public Schools needed to work together to find SAMI a new park home.

The parks and school districts looked at several potential sites. They asked current SAMI students about some of their most memorable places in the park.

As the two government agencies talked, “it just clicked,” said Gary Geddes, director of Metro Parks zoological and environmental education division. The partnership between SAMI and the zoo will help zoo programs, he said.

The zoo and SAMI already have a close working relationship, with zoo staff working with students. The hope is that joining zoo programs and SAMI in the new learning center will help forge an even stronger bond.

“Our partnership with SAMI is a wonderful example of a shared vision and commitment to the environment,” Geddes said.