During the 2007-2008 school year, a team of teachers and administrators hatched the idea to build on the success of the Tacoma School of the Arts and its placed-based approach to education by developing a sister school at Point Defiance Park. SOTA, built on community partnerships and teaching through the lens of arts in the arts-core of downtown Tacoma was wildly popular and successful. Could this success be replicated through a partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma and the community assets at Point Defiance? Could we build a science and math school that, like its sister-school, teaches Community, Empathy, Thinking, and Balance through the lens of the park? 

The thought-provoking questions turned into a collaborative team of people from SOTA, the school district, Metro Parks, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and Elements of Education Partners working together to build the school. And, in Fall 2009, The Science and Math Institute opened at Point Defiance Park with a class of freshmen students from all over Tacoma, outfitted in rain gear and mud boots - the official SAMI uniform. Students took biology at the zoo, horticulture in the commercial greenhouses, outdoor education on the trails, and history in Fort Nisqually. SAMI students forged trails metaphorically and figuratively, and together with the dedicated faculty pioneered the school at the park, all with continuous partnership from sister-school SOTA and Metro Parks Tacoma. 8 years later, we are still growing and developing. With a new collaborative learning space opening in the Fall at the Point Defiance Zoo, complete with a early learning center for all Tacoma Public School pre-school students, we continue to blaze trails.
The following article, written by current Sami student and Next Move intern Aly Apeles, tells more about opening the school. We invite you to read more, and to get involved.
Kristin Tinder

After the opening of the Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) in 2001, several teachers from SOTA began to dream about a school inspired by another local community resource- Point Defiance Park. They came to agree that, as Tacoma’s art museums and theater district had resources that inspired the location of SOTA, Point Defiance Park, would provide an ideal environment to teach students about science and math. They began having regular conversations with one another, Tacoma Public Schools, and Metro Parks Tacoma to turn this idea into reality. The final proof of concept was a SOTA miniterm in January of 2009 where Kristin Tinder, Terri Placentia, and Alexa Folsom-Hill piloted many of their ideas.

One of the first orders of business was to find students that would sign on to be the inaugural class. These students would need vision, imagination, and grit to join a school community that didn’t quite exist yet. Ms. Tinder talked with 8th graders at every middle school in Tacoma about whether or not SAMi might be a good fit for them. Those early trailblazers were excited to join a community and build something new.

In September of 2009, SAMi had transformed from thought into reality. 120 SAMi students and 14 staff worked together to build the SAMi community. As the school year progressed, students learned to feel at ease with each other and with their teachers and mentors and to foster a sense of community. As students and staff found their unique sense of place, they decided that the community needed a fifth pillar - adventure - to fully encapsulate the SAMi experience. Staff, students, and community partners worked together to achieve community and create the “Samily” that’s in place today. Seven of those early staff members- Kristin Tinder, Ralph Harrison, Johnny Devine, Mary Mann, Bethany Schmidt, Brittany Skobel, and Jeannie Toy- are still part of the SAMi staff today.

Metro Parks and SAMi staff worked together to discover how the community resources of the zoo, pagoda, and fort could be used effectively to educate students. All of the partnerships with the organizations in Point Defiance are vital in making SAMi work. The addition of a SAMi-Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (PDZA) liaison in 2011 helped the two organization intertwine their educational programs more fully. Students are able to take animal life drawing, design items for animal habitats, and learn animal biology thanks to this partnership. SAMi and the PDZA are cooperatively planning a 2018 Service and Study Tour to Indonesia that utilizes partnerships from both the PDZA and SAMi. In fall 2017, SAMi and PDZA staff will move into the Environmental Learning Center, a SAMi building co-located with the zoo, which will include an Early Learning Center jointly run by SAMi and the PDZA.

SAMi is now in its 8th year and the values instilled by those early pioneers are still present. Faculty and pupils hail the creative freedom allowed in both teaching and learning – and this extends beyond the classroom. Spending a substantial amount of time outside, rain or shine, is what those at SAMi do on almost a daily basis. Time in nature teaches a greater respect for the environment and the property of others both human and non-human. The bonds created between people in this atmosphere are forged out of mutual understanding for the common efforts and interests of one another. While the passions and personalities of each individual at the school are different, a love of science and math connect them all. Mammal Biology, Makerspace, Astronomy, and a variety of AP classes are all popular courses among the students who are eager to deep dive into the study of their common interests.

SAMi is still a new school, and will be saying farewell to only its fifth graduating class this June. Staff, students, and community partners continue to work together to preserve SAMi’s unique culture and develop new opportunities as a team. Cultivating community relationships and developing an academic support system is what has developed SAMi’s true character. From now, and long into its future, the Samily will continue to build themselves as an institute of science and math, and to keep innovation at its core. 

More photos of the first year at SAMi!