That big sound you just heard? It’s a Tacoma Public Schools building boom

McCarver Square, the hub of McCarver Elementary School, will include a library and performance space.
McCarver Square, the hub of McCarver Elementary School, will include a library and performance space.

Tacoma Public Schools is in the midst of a building boom.

Two new schools — one a renovated historic building — are scheduled to open during the upcoming school year. So is a long-awaited new section of Wilson High School.

They are among six school construction projects that have been underway this summer — possibly a historic first, according to district officials. Even more construction projects are coming down the pipeline, thanks to a $500 million bond measure approved by Tacoma voters in 2013. The first school to be rebuilt with bond money was a renovation of the historic Washington Elementary in the Proctor District, which opened in September 2014.

There have been school building growth spurts in the city before. Tacoma opened four elementary schools in 1962. And between 1924 and 1926, the school district launched seven intermediate schools, later known as junior highs and then middle schools.

If there’s one watchword guiding the new construction, it’s flexibility.

Space inside the new and renovated schools includes classrooms, as well as gathering spaces that allow several classes to work together. Furniture is portable and so is technology. Walls can slide to join or divide classrooms. Skylights punctuate roof lines so that kids see more natural light.

Spaces dubbed “DaVinci rooms,” in honor of the Italian Renaissance master, are designed to allow students to get creative — and messy.

While there are places for large gatherings, there are also niches and pockets for small group gatherings. Comfy library reading nooks invite elementary students to curl up with a favorite book, while some middle and high school students will be able to create their own TV productions in specially designed studios. Tucked into ceilings are intentionally exposed pipes and cables, designed to prompt questions from curious kids about what makes their school tick.

A new vision

In 2015, the Tacoma School Board learned how educators were working with architects to develop a new vision for district elementary schools. You can read more in a document called “A Vision for the Elementary Learning Environment"

  Tacoma Public Schools

Here’s a school-by-school progress report on how the new projects are shaping up.

McCarver Elementary

2111 S. J St.

Project: Modernization of a historical school.

History: McCarver was built in 1924 as an intermediate school, with 22 classrooms, a large auditorium and two gyms. In 1968, the school was transformed into an elementary school and, in an effort to promote racial integration, McCarver became the first “magnet” school in the United States, drawing students from around the city. McCarver is recognized as a historic building by the city of Tacoma.

Budget: $39 million.

Size: 83,000 square feet.

Scheduled to open: Sept. 7.

Highlights: The building is a historic treasure trove, but much of that treasure lay hidden for decades until the renovation project began to uncover it. An open, central area of the school, christened McCarver Square, will house the library. A DaVinci room is adjacent.

The square is centered around the old auditorium stage, where the decorative plaster border framing the stage had been covered up for years. It’s now exposed, and the maple flooring on the stage has been restored. Principal Becky Owens is already envisioning the school’s Martin Luther King Day production and thinking about possible partnerships with performing arts organizations.

Downstairs, what was once a dark cafeteria has been transformed into a bright eating space with a wall of windows and splashes of bright paint. There’s a commercial kitchen for the lunch crew and a mini-kitchen that can be used by the community. The library also was designed with an eye toward potential after-school community use.

Stewart Middle School

5010 Pacific Ave.

Project: Modernization of a historical school.

History: The original building was constructed in 1924. A classroom addition and a gymnasium with connecting bridge were added in 1973. Subsequent building modifications occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, but there has never been a major renovation of the school, which is recognized as a historic building by the city of Tacoma.

Budget: $66 million.

Size: 125,000 square feet.

Scheduled to open: September 2017. But work is ahead of schedule, and there’s discussion about a possible earlier opening.

Highlights: The original brick is being repointed, and new windows replicate the look of the old. A drab 1970s addition was demolished, making way for a student courtyard. The creaky former gym has been replaced. There are six science labs.

Anchored in the school basement, there’s a multistory project lab for art or other projects that need a lot of elbow room. Large hallway windows let kids walking by see their fellow students at work below. Also downstairs, there’s a TV studio that will be equipped with “green screen” technology.

The old auditorium stage is being restored, and the distinctive “S” crests along the side walls remain. But audience seating will no longer be fixed in place. Instead, workers are installing fold-out theater-style seating that can be tucked away until a performance. The audience space is now also a commons area where students eat lunch.

The community garden, started several years ago, will blossom again behind the school once construction is finished, and the school will also get a new playing field with a running track.

Wainwright Intermediate School

130 Alameda Ave., Fircrest.

Project: Demolish the old Wainwright Elementary and replace it with a new Wainwright Intermediate for students in grades four through eight.

History: While the charming 1924 brick building was a beloved landmark in Fircrest, school officials said it looked better on the outside than it did inside. Unlike Stewart and McCarver, the building did not carry a historic designation. But it has a place in history. The school went by several other names over the years, but in 1948 it was renamed for World War II hero and Bataan Death March survivor Gen. Jonathan Wainwright. He visited the school in 1949.

Budget: $35 million.

Size: 65,000 square feet.

Scheduled to open: Construction delays held up the planned September opening. Officials now say the building should be ready for students to move in no later than mid-way into the 2016-17 school year.

Highlights: The school’s sleek, modern design stands in contrast to the old school’s “little red-brick schoolhouse” look.

The new school includes three distinct buildings, linked together but offset from each other. Inside are three floors of classrooms, teacher collaboration spaces, three science labs, an open-concept library, a music room, a DaVinci room with a kiln and more.

The building is designed for maximum flexibility. Teachers won’t “own” a single classroom, but instead will share a central work area and move between spaces. Technology on wheels will travel with them and their students.

Wainwright fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders will begin the school year at nearby Whittier Elementary, where temporary classrooms have been created in the lower level to accommodate a bigger student body. After the transition to Wainwright is complete, Whittier will become a primary school housing preschoolers through third-graders, while Wainwright will eventually add seventh and eighth grades.

Some of the site’s evergreens were removed to make way for the new building, but many remain. There will be a picnic and play area that can be used both by students and the community. The parent and bus drop-off areas are separated, in an effort to reduce traffic congestion at the beginning and end of the school day.

Wilson High School

1202 N. Orchard St.

Project: Phase II of planned improvements replaces two old classroom buildings with one new two-story academic building and upgrades the school gym, locker room and pool areas. A new music building and new sports fields are slated to be completed in the spring.

History: When Wilson opened in 1958, it was the first new Tacoma high school in more than four decades.

Budget: $60 million.

Size: 30,000 square feet.

Scheduled to open: New academic building opens Sept. 7, followed by new locker rooms, pool and gym facilities. New sports fields are expected to be ready for spring sports, and the music building should also be completed by the end of the school year.

Highlights: The ROTC program and the glass hot shop will remain in older buildings behind the new space. But TV production and the culinary arts program, equipped with commercial grade appliances, will both move into new facilities in the academic building.

An airy open space with built-in steps for seating faces a large flat-screen monitor. Outlets for power cords and USB cords are built into the seating area, giving the space the feel of a state-of-the-art college lecture hall. Adjoining the second-floor teacher’s lounge is a rooftop deck.

Arlington Elementary

3002 S. 72nd St.

Project: Complete replacement of the old school.

History: Originally opened in 1919, with new additions in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, and remodeling in the 1960s and 1980s.

Budget: $26 million.

Size: 54,000 square feet.

Scheduled to open: Fall 2017.

Highlights: Demolition and construction began this summer. Interior items that were salvaged for repurposing include the Arlington sign, lockers, doors, hardware and furniture. Plans call for a single-story building with a library in the commons area and courtyards adjacent to each classroom.

The Douglas fir that stood in the middle of bumpy Cedar Street, adjacent to the school, has been removed, and the street is being paved by the city. The project will add 131 trees to the 5.9-acre property.

Science and Math Institute (SAMI)

Point Defiance Park

Project: Build a new Environmental Learning Center on the grounds of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

History: SAMI opened as a small alternative high school in 2009 in portable buildings near the Vashon Island ferry dock at Point Defiance. In 2015, SAMI pulled up stakes and relocated to the site of the former Camp 6 logging museum, across the park. The move made way for a new Metro Parks waterfront project. The school’s concept centers around study of the park environment, as well as a partnership with the zoo.

Budget: $17.5 million.

Size: 31,000 square feet.

Scheduled to open: Fall 2017.

Highlights: A partnership between Metro Parks Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools, the new Environmental Learning Center will include SAMI classrooms, two science labs, administrative offices, an early learning center, and space for zoo staff and volunteers. Construction began this summer.

More to come

Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2017 at Mary Lyon and Browns Point elementary schools, and both schools are scheduled to open in 2018.

Next in line for replacement or modernization are Grant and Birney elementary schools. Construction on those two projects is expected to begin in summer 2018. Future projects also include Boze Elementary and Downing Elementary, currently scheduled to start construction in summer 2019, and Hunt Middle School, planned to begin construction in summer 2020.

Building for security

New schools being built in Tacoma, like most modern schools, include new security features. Among them:

▪ Secured entries. Visitors cannot freely enter the building without checking in with the office and being “buzzed in.”

▪ Moveable partitions that can be closed to secure portions of a school building or the entire building during an emergency.

▪ Designated safety areas where students can gather without being seen by an intruder.

▪ Glass classroom walls allow staff members to see what’s happening in school hallways.

▪ The ability to cover those glass walls, along with windows, if an intruder manages to get into the school.

Back to school in Pierce County school districts

Bethel: Sept. 1 for most students, Sept. 7 for kindergarten and preschool.

Carbonado: Aug. 31.

Clover Park: Aug. 31 for most students, Sept. 6 for kindergarten students.

Dieringer: Sept. 6.

Eatonville: Sept. 7.

Fife: Sept. 1.

Franklin Pierce: Aug. 30.

Orting: Sept. 6.

Peninsula: Aug. 31 for most students, Sept. 6 for kindergarten.

Puyallup: Sept. 6 for most students; Sept. 9 for kindergarten.

Steilacoom: Sept. 1; developmental preschool starts Sept. 8.

Sumner: Sept. 9 for most students; kindergarten starts Sept. 14.

Tacoma: Sept. 7 for most students; kindergarten starts Sept. 12 and preschool starts Sept. 19.

University Place: Sept. 6.

White River: Sept. 6.

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