A Bright iDea in Tacoma

Inside the new industrial design, engineering, and art school

Within the walls of the former Park Avenue Elementary School in the South end of Tacoma, 125 ninth-graders are challenging the traditional notions of high school. They are the first class of Tacoma’s newest specialized school, Industrial Design, Engineering, and Art — otherwise known as iDEA

Opening its doors in September, the iDEA school largely follows the model of successful predecessors School of the Arts (SOTA) and the Science and Math Institute (SAMI). SOTA was founded in 2001 by Jon Ketler, who also started SAMI in 2009 and co-directs both schools. A proponent of iDEA, Ketler also serves on the school’s board.

“Quite often what happens in education is that (it) seems to be something that is done to you, and not something you’re doing yourself,” said iDEA Principal Zach Varnell. “My biggest hope is that every student starts to see the possibility (of) how they can really take ownership of their own learning.”

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Melissa Moffett, humanities teacher and founding member of iDEA

Varnell previously taught audio recording classes at SOTA for 10 years. Already familiar with the core values of the Elements of Education schools, he witnessed firsthand how schools like iDEA are changing the face of modern education.

As Elements of Education “partner schools,” iDEA, SOTA, and SAMI run similarly to independent charter schools but all within the public school system. Revenue generated from each student is set aside specifically for the respective schools to continue their unique curriculums and programs.

Students at all three alternative schools are empowered and engaged in the classroom, and also in their communities.

Part of iDEA’s innovation relies on its community partnerships for project-based learning and internship opportunities. Six local businesses were reviewed and chosen for the 2016-17 school year.

Zach Varnell, principal at iDEA

Zach Varnell, principal at iDEA

One of those business owners is Ben Warner. He’s the executive director of Alchemy Skateboarding, a nonprofit and skateboarding advocacy organization in Tacoma and one of iDEA’s eight educators. Warner teaches a civic engagement class and leads a group of students in preparing a proposal to allow skateboarding on Tacoma school campuses. Warner is an example of one of the businesses helping iDEA build relationships between students, their community, and their vocations.

In exchange for their time teaching classes or leading after-school programs, businesses may receive free office space within the school. They’re currently in varying aspects of the move-in process, and the number of partners is expected to grow with the school.

Jared Potter, co-founder of two Tacoma tech companies, Red Quarry and Sixth Avenue Studios, is also on the iDEA board. “The education system in America can’t keep up with the constant change of technology,” Potter said. He believes iDEA’s approach of hands-on learning alongside working professionals will help better prepare students for the future workforce. 

“The education system in America can’t keep up with the constant change of technology.”

So far, the Elements of Education’s unique approach seems to be working. SOTA and SAMI have consistently taken top places in Tacoma for having high graduation rates. In 2015, SAMI saw 100 percent of its senior class graduate.

Prospective students to any of the three schools must submit an application during eighth grade before being placed in a lottery system. The process naturally sets the precedent for a student body eager to come to school.

“We are a school of choice,” said Melissa Moffett, a humanities teacher and founding member of iDEA. “We think that teenagers are perfectly capable of making that choice … They’re here doing something they want to do, and we can use that to keep hooking them into our different subject areas.”

Freshman MacQuarrie Templeton, or “Q” as she prefers to be called, agrees. “Everyone wants to be here, so everyone’s keeping up,” she said. “It’s more mentally rigorous and we’re getting more done, so I’m learning more. I’m getting where I want to be faster.” For Q, that’s the special effects industry.

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Jaleesa Trapp, computer science teacher and founding member of iDEA

At iDEA, remnants of the old elementary school collide with its recent modern additions: The school’s sign hasn’t changed, rudimentary children’s murals remain, and lockers no more than 4 feet tall line the hallways. As the school year continues, teachers are involving students in the building’s facelift and incorporating lessons from class.

The plain brick walls of Moffett’s classroom are in the midst of transforming into a painted homage to Dizzy Gillespie. Classroom dividers will be built by students in the school’s shop.

The teaching staff consists of a mixture of formally educated teachers and industry professionals. They form two groups led by Moffett and Jaleesa Trapp, the computer science teacher and another founding member of iDEA. The groups devise interdisciplinary projects that incorporate skills from class, and in the process, they expand their own knowledge. “It’s really a time to be open with our practice and share and learn from each other,” said Moffett.

Ultimately, iDEA is a high school. Students still want dances, spirit days, and sports. It will take time for the school to develop its culture and identity, but as the students develop their skills, the school and the city of Tacoma will feel their growth.

Whatever career pathways these students eventually choose, some will likely remain in Tacoma — and they will continue to push the City of Destiny’s potential.

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