Editor’s note: Most school districts have a ratio of households with students to those without students of 1:3. The Peninsula School District has many more households without students, with a ratio of 1:5. This is the first article of a planned series of four to introduce readers to the schools on the Key Peninsula. This installment is a basic description of the schools on the Key Peninsula. Future articles will cover funding, testing and the school board, all as they pertain to the KP schools.
If ever there were a place with pride in its schools, it is the Key Peninsula. With three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school serving local children, there is much going on, and much more happening that most may not know.
Any rural area has its challenges. Compared to the more suburban schools in the rest of the Peninsula School District, transportation can be challenging, and poverty levels are double or nearly triple those in Gig Harbor (40-70 percent of students live in poverty, qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program).
But every principal on the Key Peninsula is excited about his or her school, the quality of the staff and the accomplishments of the students. And with a combined century of teaching and administrative experience among them, they know what they are talking about.
Three elementary schools serve the youngest students, more than 1,000 total. From north to south, they are Minter Creek, Vaughn and Evergreen.
Principal Ty Robuck has been at Minter Creek for three years. He taught at Voyager and Discovery prior to serving as assistant principal at Key Peninsula Middle School (KPMS).
“We have a great mix of veteran and new teachers,” he said. “I love my teachers with their level of dedication, openness to feedback and a wish to grow.”
With 400 students, Minter Creek is the size of most of the elementary schools in the district. About 40 percent of its students live in poverty.
Each elementary school has specialist teachers. These teachers come to the classroom to teach when the regular teacher has a preparation period scheduled. At Minter Creek, there are three specialists who teach music, physical education and art.
There are some unique programs at Minter. The highly capable program is housed at the school — a single classroom of 25 fourth- and fifth-graders currently. A second classroom of second- and third-graders is scheduled to open next fall.
Watch DOGS — Dads Of Great Students — is a new initiative with fathers, grandfathers and big brothers all coming in to volunteer for a total of a hundred days during the school year. After school, the choir and the Crazy 8s math club meet. And Little Toasters, a group that encourages girls to advocate for themselves, also meets at the school.
Vaughn Principal Susan O’Leary has been an educator for 25 years and at Vaughn for five years.
“We are truly a community school. People feel welcome and our kids learn and thrive,” she said of the school climate.
The teaching staff is very stable and many live in the community. She is proud of academic growth — twice the school has won the Washington State Achievement Award for growth in reading and math.
Like Minter Creek, Vaughn serves 400 students, with more than 50 percent living in poverty. They have three specialist teachers, covering the subjects of music, physical education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
O’Leary said that the staff has concentrated on the core curriculum, especially on writing, and also on school climate most recently. Their PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) program is closely aligned with that of KPMS.
A recent collaboration with Cora Voce in Tacoma raised money to upgrade the risers and sound system for performances.
Evergreen, with 240 students, is the smallest of the PSD elementary schools. With nearly 70 percent of those students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, it has the highest number of kids living in poverty.
Principal Hugh Maxwell is in his second year at Evergreen. He arrived from Idaho and has been an educator for 26 years.
“I have worked in great schools, but this is one of the best staffs I have ever worked with,” he said.
He noted that some staff live in the area and others have commuted long distances for years because they simply love the school.
He cited the small size as one of the things that makes Evergreen special, noting, “It feels like a family.”
The school has two specialists — in music and PE — both of whom meet with each class twice a week.
The school district added funding this year to eliminate split classes. Last year, there were two split classes, and Maxwell noted that the combined challenges of increased academic expectations with the new Common Core curriculum and poverty were stressful.
Thanks to a grant obtained by Therese Souers, Evergreen is actively integrating technology into the classroom. The school has a set of Chromebooks and students are learning to use them in writing during the school day, and there is an after-school program where they are learning about 3-D programming and printing. Maxwell hopes the school can get a set of iPads for each classroom.
Two Waters Arts Alliance artists have been working with students at Evergreen to complete a mural on an environmental theme. It will be completed by the end of the school year. (Murals were previously created at Minter and KPMS under TWAA).
Key Peninsula Middle School Principal Jeri Goebel came to the school seven years ago from Port Angeles. With 400 students and over 50 percent living in poverty, there are certainly challenges, but she describes a vibrant school with an amazing teaching staff.
“I’d pit my staff against any in the state,” Goebel said.
The school has programs designed to meet the needs of all students, she said — from those who need extra support to those who are already high achievers.
KPMS has been a NASA Explorer School for 11 years, with a program that initially focused on aerospace. That has now evolved into a STEM focus, which includes forensics, robotics and an introduction to multimedia productions. Students are also exposed to college and career classes to get them ready for college.
The Cougar Academy is a 35-minute “flex class” that meets daily. Students receive tutoring in math or reading if they need it. Those who are already working at grade level have enrichment electives in such areas as literature, jazz band, art and computer coding.
Tutoring is available after school every Thursday for those needing additional help — personally provided by Goebel and Andrea Bowman, assistant principal.
Goebel is proud of the music program. Students arrive with a solid basic background thanks to their specialist teachers in elementary school. There is a music revue each year, with a choir and an award-winning advanced band.
In the fall KPMS will offer AVID (Achievement via Independent Determination) to about 30 students. It is a national program focusing on students typically underrepresented in college and who are “middle achievers.”
The curriculum focuses on writing and organizational skills and also exposes students to college visits and financial assistance. The AVID class teachers will get training in classroom strategies that they will then share with other staff.
KPMS will also house a new, highly-capable program for incoming sixth-graders in a combined language arts/social studies class. Kopachuck is the other Peninsula School District middle school that will have a similar program.
Lest you think that school pride is limited to the younger students, just talk to David Goodwin, principal at Peninsula High. This was his first year — he said that when the position opened (he had been principal at Henderson Bay High School for four years), he simply “jumped at the chance” to move to Peninsula.
In describing what is unique about his school, he said, “The student body is so very accepting. There just aren’t cliques. Group activities are very inclusive — and no kids are excluded due to things such as socio-economic background or disabilities.”
Peninsula High has 1,400 students, with at least 30 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
Goodwin said that the teaching staff is phenomenal, with tremendous life experience and intellectual curiosity.
Athletics are strong — Peninsula is one of the most-competitive schools in the 3A league. Choir, band and drama programs are known for their wonderful performances. Academically, Goodwin notes that there are 15 AP (advanced placement) classes as well as a strong speech and debate program.
“We want to prepare our students for whatever future they anticipate,” he said. “We have something here for every single student.”