LACEY – At Aspire Middle School, the district’s first magnet middle school, there are kids dancing in the classroom – but other than that, it’s a lot like North Thurston’s three other middle schools, says its principal, Monica Sweet.
Aspire students must take math, science, language arts and other middle school requirements. Students can study honors oceanography, just like students at Nisqually or Komachin middle schools.
The difference at Aspire is that the school, which opened this year, focuses its enrichment classes on music, dance and drama. For physical education, students spend their class period practicing steps, and focusing on balance, flexibility and strength in dance at drama teacher Chris Traber’s dance class.
“We have big dreams of not only a theater dance class,” Traber said, “but having all kinds of dance, like ballet and modern and some cultural dance.”
About 300 sixth- through eighth-graders attend Aspire. In comparison, Nisqually, Chinook and Komachin each have 500 to 800 seventh- through eighth-graders.
Students were selected by lottery and there was no audition or qualifying level of arts instruction, because it is a public school aimed at all middle-schoolers of the district, Sweet said.
“The purpose of a magnet school is to find a focus of theme for everyone at the school,” Sweet said. “Performing arts is something we thought would get a lot of support in this district.”
Last year, some families in the Challenge Academy, which shares a campus with Aspire, were concerned about whether Aspire could accommodate students who did not want to focus on the arts.
The district added honors classes in language arts, science and social studies and high school-level Spanish 1, or advanced enrichment science classes, at all of its middle schools.
“When (district officials) discussed Aspire, they wanted to make sure those kids had the same opportunities for honors classes,” district spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said.
Sweet said that having a focus in the school’s enrichments serves to enhance the learning in all subject areas.
“Kids that struggle in school will have a reason to be here in school,” she said.
Administrators also looked at science as a possible magnet, she said, but administrators felt that the three middle schools had strong science programs. However, North Thurston doesn't have a formal district-wide drama and dance program in its middle schools.
Parent teacher organization president Jess Lindauer, whose daughters Teal and Snow Christensen are in eighth and sixth grade, said one unexpected aspect of Aspire was finding a community of performers, not only among students but also their parents.
“When we moved here, it was so hard to find dance instructors and piano teachers,” she said. “Now if you get to know the people in the building, you are coming across people that are doing this for a living. You find all those things that other children do and interests that other parents have.”
Sweet said administrators have started thinking about next year’s enrollment and making sure more students enter the sixth-grade lottery. Administrators will make sure that parents know that the school is open to any North Thurston student regardless of previous arts experience, Sweet said.
“I think we need to do more of that outreach, and let people know it’s open to everybody,” Sweet said.
She added that the school gives students an opportunity to learn dance or drama if they might not otherwise be able to afford after-school or private lessons.
About a quarter of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, which is about 10 percentage points less than any of the other middle schools.
And for some students the school is giving them exposure to subjects that they might not have chosen.
“I was nervous about dance, but I think it’s better than health and fitness,” said seventh-grader Thomas Reay, who came to Aspire as a student in the Challenge Academy.
Lindauer’s 10-year-old daughter, Snow Christensen, last week started learning her fourth instrument and is excited about trying out other subjects.
“I played the flute and I played the piano, and this year, I started playing percussion and bassoon,” she said. “I also want to start drama. I think I could be really good at acting.”
Venice Buhain: 360-754-5445