Bethel Public Schools
“Together We Can Develop Our Most Precious Resources”
The History of Bethel School District
Washington State’s 19th largest school district began life 132 years ago as a one-room school in Spanaway. In the years since 1855, thirty-four different school districts were formed, saw service, and ultimately consolidated with other districts until Bethel School District was created in 1949.
The first Kapwsin School was built in 1906-07. Kapowsin High School was one of the first big schools in all of Pierce County until the 1949 earthquake severely damaged it and led to its closure after Bethel High School opened in 1952.
Other schools consolidated into the Kapowsin district included schools in Thrift, Benston, and Graham. The one-room Graham school opened in the early 1900s and was followed by a two-room in 1918 that served until 1949. When it was closed, students were transferred to the present Kapowsin School.
Roy, the only incorporated towns in the Bethel School District, was officially plotted in 1884. The founder of the town gave the land for the first new school—a one room, 20×30 foot building built in 1885. In 1904 a new school was erected on the east side of town near the present Roy Elementary School. In 1913 when Roy constructed and opened a high school, many of the small districts in that area consolidated with the Roy district. In 1937 the present Roy school was completed, and in 1942 Roy High School burned to the ground. High School students were taught in portables and other available buildings in town until Bethel High School opened in 1952.
For many years the Kapowsin and Roy High Schools were the only ones serving south Pierce County. Students were bused from as far as the Tacoma city limits and one-way bus runs of more than 50 miles were not unusual.
After several years spent studying the possible consolidation of the Roy and Kapowsin districts, along with the other districts in that area, consolidation was approved in 1949 and the construction of a high school became the first goal. On June 3, 1949 the new school board voted to name the district after Mrs. Ruth Bethel, the county superintendent of schools who had played a key role in the consolidation movement.
The district sprawls over 140,000 acres of land and extends some 33 miles from border to border in southeastern Pierce County. Besides the city of Roy, six additional community areas make up the balance of Bethel’s estimated 49,000 population.
The district may be separated into two economic regions. The northern one-third is primarily a residential suburb of the city of Tacoma and the military installations (Fort Lewis Army Base and McChord Air Force Base) with some commercial and industrial development. The southern two-thirds is largely rural and undeveloped. Since the developed area of the school district is primarily suburban, commercial development is limited to those small service establishments needed to support a residential community. A recent Puget Sound Council of Government survey found that 17 percent of local wages and salary employment in the school district was provided by the retail trade sector; 11 and 9 percent were provided by the service and construction sectors, respectively.
Bethel School District has not supported an independent economy in the past and has functioned primarily as a suburban community to Tacoma and Seattle-King County. According to the 1980 census statistics, there were almost 9,000 more wage and salary employees than jobs in Bethel School District. The school district is the largest single employer within the district boundaries providing more than 1,000 jobs. Projected population increase of 25 percent during the next 10 years will be supported in part by renewed economic development, especially centered around the Frederickson Industrial Area and the southward extension of Canyon Road and associated sewer services.
Bethel School District is most commonly known outside the immediate area for its radical solution to the enrollment growth problem (year-round-schools) between 1974 and 1981. Ten years of bond issue failures resulted in severe overcrowding problems in elementary and junior high schools, and for seven years, the district operated a rotating year-round schedule which accommodated 30 percent more students in existing buildings. Passage of bond issues permitted a return to the traditional calendar in the 1981–82 school year. Since that time, bond issues have passed with sufficient regularity to keep pace with growth without resorting to double shifting or the “radical solution.”