Education

Eastside Tacoma school district walking tour is an eye-opener for educators

A group of teachers from Lyon Elementary School on Tacoma’s East Side meet third-grader Gabe Nowak and first-grader Logan Nowak in their home behind the school on Tuesday. The teachers were walking around the school’s neighborhood to meet people and familiarize themselves with the community.
A group of teachers from Lyon Elementary School on Tacoma’s East Side meet third-grader Gabe Nowak and first-grader Logan Nowak in their home behind the school on Tuesday. The teachers were walking around the school’s neighborhood to meet people and familiarize themselves with the community. Staff photographer

Teachers from Mary Lyon Elementary School hit the streets of Tacoma’s Eastside this week in search of a community.

Their mission: Explore the varied neighborhoods where their students live, meet some kids and their parents, and get a feel for the world they inhabit.

For many teachers, that world held unexpected finds, both good and bad.

“We have a bunch of new staff here, and I wanted them to get to know who our kids are,” said Principal Anita Roth. She also hoped veteran Lyon staffers would gain new insights before school opens Sept. 9 in Tacoma.

Roth makes a habit of driving throughout her school’s broad attendance area, which stretches from the Lincoln High School neighborhood on the north through the heart of the Pacific Avenue business district, and past Stewart Middle School on the south.

Although Lyon itself lies on the east side of Pacific, the attendance area straddles both sides of the busy thoroughfare.

Lyon is a diverse school. It’s home to a special program for autistic children. About a third of Lyon students are Hispanic or Latino, and roughly 20 percent were in programs for English language learners at the close of the last school year. More than 85 percent of Lyon kids receive free or reduced-price lunch, a marker of family poverty.

Teachers say some of their students live “doubled-up,” sharing a home with another family or with grandparents.

Under a steady rain Tuesday morning, Roth divided her teachers and other staff into seven groups and dispatched them on walking tours around different parts of the attendance area.

Each group was assigned to visit two Lyon families. Teachers brought kids backpacks filled with school supplies. They stopped to chat with business people and neighbors. And they took pictures documenting their walking tour.

Roth asked them to look for positive signs, but she also wanted them to take note of what impacts the environment might have on students’ academic, social and emotional growth.

Many teachers said they were surprised to find block after block of well-kept homes and yards, along with fantastic gardens. And after checking the prices of some homes with “For Sale” signs, they were also surprised to see asking prices that ranged from $100,000 to $200,000.

“People can actually afford to live here,” one teacher noted.

“I saw pride in the neighborhood,” said Christy Lentz, a Lyon paraeducator whose group explored the area immediately adjacent to the school. Others noted that while houses were well-maintained, the sidewalks were sometimes cracked and overgrown.

In the blocks near Lincoln, second-grade teacher Guy Cooper said he found “a sense of community, an established neighborhood, with safe places to play.”

“Walking around gave us a chance to see houses with great character,” he said.

Exploring one apartment building near Lincoln made him realize how far many Lyon students must travel to school.

“Kids from the outlying area may need even more of a sense of community at school,” Cooper said, suggesting that teachers could help build it.

One teacher group stopped at a retirement home, where residents were singing karaoke. After meeting the activities director, teachers talked about bringing Lyon kids to visit or creating pen pals between students and seniors.

“They seemed pretty excited to partner with us,” said second-grade teacher Angela Evans.

Another group explored a neighborhood near McKinley Park. They said there didn’t appear to be a safe place for kids to cross the street to get to the park from the neighborhood.

Second-grade teacher Roger Iverson suggested that Lyon start a campaign for crosswalks, perhaps asking students to write letters to city officials.

One group of teachers came upon a car with windows broken out. Another observed someone shooting drugs. One resident talked to them about vandalism on his property.

Like its surrounding neighborhood, Lyon has struggled. It is classified as a “priority school” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Several years ago, test scores ranked the school the seventh-lowest elementary school in the state. But by 2014, it had climbed to No. 419, Principal Roth said.

In two years, Lyon is scheduled to be rebuilt with money from the $500 million bond Tacoma voters approved in 2013. While the new Lyon is under construction, kids will temporarily attend the old McKinley Elementary, which closed several years ago.

Roth wonders if the new school will attract more neighborhood improvements.

She believes better days lie ahead for Lyon.

“The school is at a tipping point,” she said.

Who was Mary Lyon?

She was a 19th-century Massachusetts farm girl who grew up to become a pioneer in American women’s education. In 1837 she founded Mount Holyoke College and served as its first president. She wanted a college to serve young women from families of modest means, and she wanted to ensure that their education was as rigorous as that of any men’s college.

Mary Lyon has been honored with her own U.S. postage stamp, and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N. Y.

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