Annie Wright will break tradition, add boys high school

Head of schools Christian Sullivan discusses the decision to welcome the first class of high school boys at Annie Wright this fall, breaking from a 133-year history.
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Head of schools Christian Sullivan discusses the decision to welcome the first class of high school boys at Annie Wright this fall, breaking from a 133-year history.
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Education

Annie Wright School to add boys high school this fall

By Derrick Nunnally

dnunnally@thenewstribune.com

January 05, 2017 07:00 AM

For the first time in its 133-year history, Tacoma’s Annie Wright School will welcome a class of high school boys as students this fall.

In spring 2020, two school years after a new building for their classes opens on North Tacoma Avenue, they’ll become the inaugural class of the Annie Wright Upper School for Boys, a sea change for the landmark North End private school that has, until now, awarded its high school diplomas exclusively to girls.

The shift follows decades of Annie Wright slowly allowing male students into its classrooms — elementary classes in the 1970s, and the middle school up to eighth grade in the 1980s.

“The families of our boys want what the girls are getting in the upper school,” said Christian Sullivan, head of schools at Annie Wright.

The school plans to build its male high school gradually. A class of 10 boys will start as freshmen this fall, for which the school is to begin accepting applications this week.

As those students move to higher grades, other classes of high school boys will enter the school behind them.

Eventually, Annie Wright’s high school demographics will shift drastically, from a graduating class of about 50 girls each year to a total enrollment of up to 300 in grades 9-12 split evenly between boys and girls.

The cost of the private school will be the same for each gender. It’s currently $26,265 a year for tuition plus mandatory uniform, book and laptop costs. Students who board at the school pay more.

Although they’ll share a campus — and boarding students of both genders will be housed in the same building — the students are to attend different schools.

In an interview, Sullivan and other school officials said they plan to incorporate boys into Annie Wright high school education without taking the school coed. Most classes, and even the teachers and classrooms, will be separate for the Upper School for Boys and the Upper School for Girls, Sullivan said.

“It is very different from being coed,” Sullivan said. “There will be a high school for boys and a high school for girls.”

An effort to take the school high school coed in 2005 to match the lower grades failed, he said, largely because the school’s parents and alumni are proponents of gender-segregated high school education. He said conversations with the school’s current high school girls helped illustrate why.

“What they say to me is they love their classes now, they love being in the leadership positions, and they love not being under pressure from boys throughout the school day,” he said.

The school plans to hire a handful of teachers for the boys classes, and has preliminary plans for a two-story, $8.2 million building on the east end of its campus for the boys. Its design is in the very early stages and will be worked on by the school’s first male high school students as a class project.

In an interview arranged by the school, three Annie Wright eighth-grade boys said Wednesday they were excited about getting to stay on campus as students rather than departing next fall for other high schools, as their male Annie Wright predecessors have done for decades.

Even the prospect of entering a new world of single-gender classrooms did not raise immediate concerns, they said.

“I’m going to be part of something that lasts longer than I am,” said Parker Briggs, 13. “Annie Wright has been a huge part of the history of Tacoma.”

Although the goal of offering high school to boys has been a part of the school’s strategic plan for several years, school leaders had until this week closely guarded details of how it would happen. Eighth-graders and their parents were informed, said Jen Willey, the school’s communications director, but alumni and other families were only notified Wednesday evening.

The school’s expansion will be the latest test of an occasionally fraught relationship between Annie Wright and its neighbors in one of the city’s priciest districts. In May, the school abandoned a court fight against objections to its plans to light a new soccer field. The construction of the building for boys classes will be the most visible change from the street.

The cost of the new building is still being determined, Sullivan said. The school is working toward a design that looks like the rest of the buildings on the stately campus, and the building will be within the 25-foot height limit imposed by the R2 zoning of the campus and its surrounding area.

Annie Wright officials had looked into buying the historic Weyerhaeuser mansion at 4301 N. Stevens St. and converting it into a school for boys and even commissioned a feasibility study, but ultimately decided the site wasn’t suitable.

Sullivan said a variety of reasons played against the Weyerhaeuser site, from the $5.4 million price tag attached to the property to the difficult logistics of running a boys high school three miles from the school’s central campus and athletic facilities.

“If they want to give it us, that’d be great,” he said. “We’ll find some use for it.”

Sullivan said the school won’t need to raise money to pay for creation of the boys high school, which school leaders expect to pay for itself.

“In a sense, we’re doubling our market,” he said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693