Walk down the streets of the East Side neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, and you might see people of all ages planting trees in a former parking lot. You might stumble upon a block party full of families and community groups. Or you might come across residents on their way to a Neighborhood Advisory Council Meeting.
Tacoma’s East Side hasn’t always been this picture of a harmonious community. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, poverty, crime, and urban decay plagued the area. “It was considered a rough neighborhood,” says Jeremy Villareal, who grew up on the East Side during the 1990s. “I saw the police department move out and schools and stores close.”
In fact, the century-old Rogers Elementary School, which Villareal attended, closed in 2002. The building eventually fell prey to vandalism and vagrancy. As Villareal, who volunteers as a police officer in the county, explains it, “When a building is abandoned, it increases crime. It’s a domino effect.”
In the fall of 2015, however, the Rogers Elementary School building opened its doors again—this time as Green Dot Destiny Middle School, one of nine public charter schools to open in Washington after voters approved a ballot initiative to bring charter schools to the state. Leased by the non-profit organization Green Dot Public Schools, the building underwent a full renovation and transformed a major area of urban blight. The renovation restored the building interior to the original 1907 architectural design, involved a complete rebuild of the surrounding grounds and sidewalks, and included a new car turnout behind the building.
To Lynnette Scheidt, president of both the East Side Neighborhood Advisory Council and the Dometop Neighborhood Alliance, it’s a shining example of how her neighborhood is making strides. For the past several years, Scheidt and her neighbors have been working to bring the community together and make it safer and more livable. “The school is the icing on the cake,” she says.
Since moving in, Destiny has become a hub of community activity. Many local residents were involved in the renovation process, and many more have visited the school during tours and open houses throughout the past year. Many East Side families also have chosen to enroll their children in Destiny; the greatest concentration of its students hail from the East Side’s 98404 ZIP code. And in September 2015, when the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that public charter schools were unconstitutional, many community members rallied around the school and joined the fight to make charter schools legal again.
One of the main reasons neighbors have been so supportive of Destiny is that they see the powerful impacts the school is having on its students. Just three months after the Destiny opened, more than a third of the students had met their annual growth goals, growing one to two grade levels in reading.
Beyond academic performance, students also are more engaged than ever. “It’s wonderful to see how the kids love this school,” says Schiedt, whose granddaughter will attend Destiny next year. “I know kids who didn’t want to go school a couple years ago, and now they’re excited—they run to that school.” Villareal, who now is the IT manager at Destiny, agrees that students are engaged and thriving. “Yesterday, we received an email from a parent, and she said, ‘This has been the best interaction my child has had in a school environment,’” he recounts.
The Destiny community celebrated a big win when a bill saving Washington State’s public charter schools passed in April 2016. While more legal battles may lie ahead, those in the East Side neighborhood remain optimistic about the future as they continue to build the community of which Destiny Middle School has become an integral part. “It’s not like they’re just a school, and we’re just a neighbor,” says Scheidt. “It’s a real partnership. We’re like a family.”