Two new innovative Tacoma schools enter planning stage

Tacoma could have two new innovative schools in the works in the next few years, one for high school students and another for middle school students.

The Tacoma School Board on Thursday night said both concepts will enter the planning stage this school year.

If plans work out — and money is available — a high school focused on industrial design, engineering and art (known as IDEA) could open in the fall of 2016 at the former Park Avenue School in Tacoma’s South End. And a school-within-a-school focused on health and fitness could debut in 2017 on the campus of Jason Lee Middle School, near Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

Both proposals were submitted to the board from Tacoma Public Schools staff members earlier this year.

IDEA comes from the same team that developed Tacoma’s School of the Arts (SOTA) and the Science and Math Institute (SAMI). Jon Ketler, founder of those schools, is the lead proponent for IDEA.

The high school would borrow many of the concepts that have succeeded at SOTA and SAMI. Board member Karen Vialle said the model has provided excellent results in the past. Board President Scott Heinze noted that SOTA and SAMI had 100 percent of their students graduate this year.

IDEA, like those two schools, would be a small high school with a projected enrollment of 575 students, according to plans submitted earlier to the board.

The health and fitness program, to be called The Academy, was first proposed as a standalone school for both middle and high school students. But board members said they want to give the idea a test run as a school-within-a-school, similar to how Lincoln Center once operated at Lincoln High School before transforming into a schoolwide program.

The Academy would focus on teaching lifelong fitness, along with core academic subjects. Christy Brandt, Jason Lee’s principal and a former health and science teacher, is one of the proponents. She says it wouldn’t be a school for jocks or a place to build super athletes. Rather, it’s based on the idea that kids crave movement, and that physical activity can help boost brain power.

The Academy would include adaptive physical education for special education students, as well as nutrition education and a wider variety of fitness classes than are found in a typical middle school.

There was some debate among board members about which middle school should hold The Academy.

Board member Catherine Ushka said the panel’s intent when it put out a call for innovative school proposals was to increase alternative programs for students in the south part of the district. Jason Lee isn’t in that geographic sphere. She said she supports The Academy concept, but voted against the motion approving the planning phase because of her concerns about location.

Board member Debbie Winskill asked whether district officials have considered the effect another alternative high school would have on enrollment at Tacoma’s five comprehensive high schools.

“SOTA and SAMI are so popular,” Winskill said, adding that many students are turned away each year. “But I worry about what is going to happen to our comprehensive high schools. Have we talked to the principals?”

She said she would like to see a financial plan that ensures IDEA doesn’t take resources from those other high schools.

Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia said recruitment for the new high school would be handled in a manner similar to how students are enrolled at SOTA and SAMI, where spots are allotted proportional to middle school enrollment. If more than the allotted number apply, students are selected by lottery.