Cool Schools -- Mukilteo School District Boldly Heads Into A New Era Of High-Tech Education

The teacher bypasses photocopies of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and heads toward his classroom computer. He punches a few keys, and the screen shows the speech available on laser disc at another school's library.

The teacher, never leaving the classroom, telephones the librarian at the other school to load the disc. The teacher flips on the television and within minutes students see King himself speak the words they've only read in books.

Welcome to the state-of-the art school. Welcome to the Mukilteo School District, which heads into a new era with high-tech buildings, including possibly the most expensive high school in the state, a new grade configuration and a modern philosophy of meeting student needs and sharing power with teachers and parents.

While some see the changes as a positive first step, others are skeptical and frustrated. Critics say the district builds buildings better than it meets the needs of all children or builds trusting relationships.

Building schools

Mukilteo has opened eight schools in the past six years to serve a student population that has almost doubled since 1980 to about 10,500.

The 72-foot fly loft of Kamiak High School's 500-seat performing-arts center rises out of the heart of Harbour Pointe like a lighthouse, the district's official emblem. This $34 million school looks more like a college campus than a high school. Next door, $13 million Harbour Pointe Middle School boasts a two-story, coffered ceiling befitting the Street of Dreams.

The brick walls and pitched steel roofs of Kamiak and Harbour Pointe, the newest buildings to open this fall, are costly materials, but will save money in long-term maintenance, said Norm Felix, director of facilities planning and development.

The performing-arts center and the school's swimming pool are expensive additions that boost the total cost to about $142 a square foot, but these amenities are for the entire community as well as students, officials say.

Rich-looking features such as high ceilings, colorful tiles and combinations of rough- and smooth-faced brick really aren't that much more expensive, said Ben Black, a former architect who now coordinates construction for the district.

"When you invest this much of the community's money, why should you go in and intentionally make it look poor?" he said.

"And this community expects good stuff," added Felix.

Besides opening new buildings, the district has been modernizing every school built before 1981. The remodeling phase will finish at the end of this school year with projects totaling about $30 million at four schools, including $13.5 million to remodel Mariner High School.

As the lone high school, Mariner used to be the melting pot of the 26-square-mile district, which is divided by Paine Field. Now some are concerned the former "White Palace" will be the stepchild to Kamiak.

Last year, several parents from the east side of the district unsuccessfully begged the School Board to redraw an attendance boundary that would send east-side students to Mariner and west-side students to Kamiak. It would divide the district between the haves and have-nots just as the former junior-high boundary did, they said.

Student turnover was much higher on the east side, where half the housing is multifamily dwellings. Income level was lower and so were test scores.

The inequities between the communities affect success in the classrooms, critics said.

"The boundary issue was and still is a concern for teachers," said Gary Plano, president of the Mukilteo Education Association.

Senior classes at Mariner haven't changed much this year because all seniors are remaining at Mariner. However, far more juniors signed up for advanced-level classes at Kamiak than at Mariner.

"I see coming through the years a different program at the schools," said Mariner math teacher John Orr, who has taught in the district for 29 years. "It's automatic. There's no way around it."

Gerrymandering the boundary to improve the socioeconomic mix of students is not the answer; raising expectations for all students is, said Superintendent Jim Shoemake.

"We have to convince these kids that they can do these things," said Shoemake, referring to students who don't enroll in advanced courses.

A higher concentration of disadvantaged students at Mariner qualifies it for more teacher's aides under federal programs. "And there's never enough. . . . The important thing is we recognize the difference and we're trying to help where we can," Shoemake said. "We're going to be vigilant about watching it and monitoring it."


No matter which school students attend, "kids are going to come in and see things they've never seen before," says Roger Long, director of curriculum and instruction.

By the end of the school year, all secondary schools in the district will be on the same computer network, 800 new computers will be installed, and every building will have access to an electronic card catalog with the capability of tapping into other library systems.

"It just blows us old folks' minds away," Long said.

Examples abound.

Instead of ordering a new eighth-grade history book, the teaching staff decided to supplement the old book with instructional software, videos and CDs. Students working on different historical reports can see how they relate to each other when a computer combines information from their reports and prints out a timeline.

"Imagine a timeline of what everyone has worked on draped around the room? For those kids who are visual, it gives them a quick look at history," Long said.

Both high schools have computer-aided drafting labs. Accounting students will practice on automated accounting programs. Art students will tinker with computer graphics. Middle-school students will learn to read music and play on individual electronic keyboards.

The central office already uses software to translate letters and other documents into foreign languages for some parents of the district's 350 students who speak 30 different languages.

Even chairs are high-tech.

When Voyager Middle School partially opened last year, the library staff purchased three-position tilt chairs to make the school more kid-friendly.

"Kids are going to tilt back anyway so we said, Why not? Why waste your time saying don't tilt back? Why make it wrong?" said Felix, as he leaned way back in a tipping demonstration. "Besides, it's so darn comfortable."

Middle schools

The district replaced two junior highs with four middle schools to better serve adolescents. The interpersonal relationships of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are more compatible than seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, Long said.

Teachers will work more as teams and students will have the same team of teachers for more than one period. Students will also have a specified time to get to know each other and a specific adult adviser. This time is dedicated to help students improve confidence, leadership and self-esteem.

In essence, the schools will no longer be "junior" versions of high schools.

But some parents say the district's switch to middle schools is more because of overcrowded elementaries than some new "philosophical" commitment.

That was apparent when parents had to fight to get foreign language and more science offered at the middle schools, as well as parent representation on individual school planning teams, they said.

The middle-school fight is an example of the the biggest change in the district - sharing power.

Sharing power

Sitting in the teachers-union office, president Plano summarized the relationship between the 600 teachers he represents and the district administration: "There is a better feeling of trust today than in the past three years."

Nearby, black-and-white photos of tired teachers and picket lines is a reminder that this "better feeling" is in comparison to a time when there was absolutely no trust.

Mukilteo, the sixth-oldest school district in the state, is slowly evolving from a centrally operated system in which administrators make all the decisions to a place where they work with parents, students, teachers, secretaries and other staff.

This was a key issue in 1990 when teachers went on strike for 33 days, the longest in the state.

Last year, the School Board voted to include parents, teachers and other staff on all standing committees in the district.

"The district has made incredible strides in the past two years," said parent Marilyn Cole, who has served on several district committees. "I think the commitment is there at high levels. But I think perhaps that view has not been clearly articulated to building administrators or district administrators. So there is this conflict between what parents think they've been empowered to do and what the reality of their involvement is."

Several parents, including Cole, were frustrated when they found out last year that they could not vote on any decisions as members of the Middle School Steering Committee because it was an ad hoc committee versus a standing committee. And parents could not sit on the core planning teams for each of the middle schools for the same reasons.

Armed with a parent survey demanding true participation, parents took their case to Shoemake and the School Board. Parents were eventually allowed to sit on the core teams.

"The potential is there. The process is there, but somehow it needs to be made very clear that this is the way life is going to be," Cole said. "This isn't open to negotiation anymore. We will have parents and we will work together, and you won't try to find loopholes."

Six schools this fall will have community site councils that can make recommendations on such topics as teacher hires, staff assignments, student discipline and attendance policies, staff training and how individual school budgets are spent.

Site councils, formed earlier this year, are a move in the right direction, Plano said. But they exist at only six schools, and setting school goals is the only area in which the council can make a decision without the threat of a principal veto.

Any school that wants a site council can have it, said Shoemake. The only stipulation is that everyone, including the secretaries and janitors, has to want it.

"It just won't work if I dictate to them because it requires open and sharing communication and I don't think you can make people do that," Shoemake said.