Second-grader Aryana Sharma proudly pointed out her paper bat among the cardboard colony hanging in her classroom window. It’s the one with the red fangs.
“They told me that we needed some Halloween decorations before people came tonight. We needed to jazz it up a bit,” Sharma’s teacher Stacy Bigger said Thursday during an open house for their new school, Swift Water Elementary, where many parents got their first look inside.
Swift Water Elementary School second-grade teacher Stacy Bigger and student Aryana Sharma admire paper bats in their classroom during an open house at the school. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
Students and teachers at the event said they’re happy to be back in school five days a week following pandemic-related shut-downs and hybrid school over the past two years.
“It’s a lot better than when we were online,” said Lilli Rimmele, 9, a fourth-grader. “When you’re online, it was hard to hear, the Internet would always go down, it was hard to Zoom.”
Being in a classroom makes it easier to focus and learn, said Rimmele, who is looking forward this year to “being around actual friends.”
Sharma said she’s enjoyed decorating her new classroom with “the cool stuff we make.” Indeed, within the first couple of months of the school year, the Swift Water Seals have taken the spanking new 74,000-square-foot building and put their stamp on it. During the tour, students showed their parents a large mural that is a map of the Gig Harbor area. Essays in praise of the school hung in the hallways.
“There are a lot of great schools, but the best has to be Swift Water. If you disagree, you should read this paragraph,” wrote one student whose favorite part of the school is the playground. “I like it because it has a huge field, a covered area and a very fun play structure.”
Swift Water, completed this summer, was the second of four new elementary schools to be built with funding from Peninsula School District’s $198.5 million capital projects bond passed in 2019.
Pioneer Elementary, created through a major expansion and renovation of the former Boys & Girls Club, opened in January.
A new school replacing the old Evergreen Elementary on Key Peninsula was finished just in time for the Sept. 7 first day of school. A new Artondale Elementary is projected to be completed sometime before the end of 2021.
Cost savings on elementary projects will allow the district to renovate Kopachuck Middle School and Key Peninsula Middle School by 2023. Those projects weren’t promised in the bond proposal.
Swift Water was built on property purchased by Peninsula School District in 2013 in anticipation of population growth in the town’s north end. A number of its students came from nearby Discovery Elementary, and the opening of the new school eases elementary crowding.
The school was named to honor the Swift Water People of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, called sx̌ʷəbabš in Lushootseed (learn how to pronounce their name here). The name comes from their connection to the swift currents of the Narrows Passage.
These original inhabitants of the area now called Gig Harbor gifted a native building to early settlers recognizing their need for a place to teach their children. “Our school is proud to continue this spirit of kindness and community,” reads a plaque at the school.
The first thing many Swift Water students noticed about their new school is its expansive size.
“It was big. It’s probably the biggest school I’ve ever been to. I was really excited to explore it,” said Kate Finley, 10, a fifth-grade student, about her first impression of the school.
“I’ve never been to a school that had a second floor,” said her sister Reagan, 8, a third-grader.
“I was just like, oh, I feel like I’m in a rich kid neighborhood,” said Lukas Rimmele, 9, of his first reaction to the school. “And I’m just like, oh my God, this is like awesome. Yeah, it was very nice and cool.”
The library was mentioned by several students as their “favorite” part of the school for its comfortable layout, trove of great books and beautiful views of the surrounding woods.
And then there’s the new technology.
Swift Water Elementary School students Luana and Samara Moss, 7, pose for their father Roger Moss during an open house at the school. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
“It’s really nice to see all the features they offer the kids with all the great technology, the touchscreen boards and just the flow of the school,” said parent Roger Moss. “It’s really nice to see that combination they’re providing for the students.”
Teachers said they like the flexible, “interactive” learning spaces, where bookshelves, chairs and tables can easily be configured for new projects and groupings of students. There are shared “flex space” areas between classrooms that are already seeing creative use.
“The openness of the spaces is phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for more space,” said third-grade teacher Christy Poulton. “We have great classrooms but, we also have these flex spaces that allow all of our third-graders to kind of collaborate when we can.”
Swift Water is the district’s first “walking school” with the majority of students living close enough that they can walk or bike to and from school. Lukas and Lilli Rimmele, who are twins, last year attended Voyager Elementary where their mother Katja Rimmele is principal.
“I wanted them to be able to walk and bike on their own and get some independence and be able to hook up with some neighborhood kids, although I have to say that Mama heart misses them. “Katja Rimmele said.
As much as the building got praise, students and teachers talked about the friendly, “welcoming” vibe of the school.
Reagan Finley said her favorite part of the school is, “all the nice teachers in the playground, and all the nice people and stuff.”
“The kids love being here,” said Bigger. “We’ve been working on building our community and the kids are learning what it means to be a Swiftwater Seal, and how to be a positive member of their community. We want everyone to feel like they belong and to have a relationship with everyone in this building, because we are happy to see them every single day.”
Swift Water Elementary School student Lukas Rimmele and his mother Katja Rimmele, seen through a glass partition, tour Lukas’ fourth-grade classroom during an open house at the school. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
The biggest bonus, according to teachers and students, is being back at school five days a week.
“It’s been fantastic. The way it should be, right?” said Poulton. “The kids are so excited, so excited to be here. Yeah, they were a little tired in September, I think, a little bit. Not used to some of the routine, but really once we got it down, it’s like riding a bike, right?”
“It’s good. They’re definitely getting back in shape of being in school and just kind of how we’re reteaching a lot of things like how to cooperate,” said Carlyn HansonSmith, a fourth-grade teacher. “We’re happy to be back in person, and you know kids are definitely also happy to be back. And it’s just, it’s great to see the building filled with kids and kid noises and kid art. And so that’s what school should be.”
The kids are nonplussed by the state’s extension of the mask mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to HansonSmith. “The kids do fine with the masks. It’s just kind of been their normal.”
The district, with with 9,685 individuals on its campuses, reports 122 cases originating outside of school since Sept. 7 and a total of 10 cases originating inside school facilities. Five of those cases occurred within the past 14 days, according to a report that was current on Oct. 25.
Swift Water, with 435 individuals on site, reports a total of eight cases to date, including one case within the past 14 days that originated inside the school. There have been 19 people at Swift Water identified as “close contacts” of people infected with COVID-19.
Swift Water Elementary, 10811 Harbor Hill Drive
Principal: David Brooks
Size: 73,967 square feet
Cost: $38.9 million
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