Educating Military Children at Fort Lewis and McChord Field

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 7/16/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10414

Camp Lewis, the forerunner of Fort Lewis (and later Joint Base Lewis-McChord) in Pierce County, was constructed in 1917 without family housing or schools. After World War I ended, families moved on to the installation and their children attended the nearby civilian DuPont School. Educating the children from Fort Lewis created a burden for the DuPont school district, which did not collect property taxes from the fort. In 1949 Fort Lewis representatives testified to the U.S. Congress that DuPont had an unreasonable burden. A federal law was passed providing funds to school districts impacted by a large military presence. With this funding, school construction began at Fort Lewis and the adjacent McChord Air Force Base. Quickly a boundary issue emerged between the Clover Park and DuPont-Fort Lewis school districts over which had responsibility for schools on the bases. The battle lasted 15 years until Clover Park was identified as the school district for Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base.

Fort Lewis Schools

Camp Lewis opened in September 1917 as a World War I training center where troops would stationed be a short time before going to battle. A few officers who brought their families lived at the Tacoma Country Club or in cabins on American Lake. They sent their children to the DuPont School, a brick veneer building with four classrooms, located across Pacific Highway (later I-5) from Camp Lewis. With the end of World War I, Camp Lewis became a regular post but with a limited troop population. This left hundreds of vacant camp buildings, which married personnel could convert to family housing through self help. Soldiers and their families partitioned the buildings, added kitchens, and created livable homes. Their children were sent to the DuPont School, paying tuition of one dollar per month. To meet the increased student load, the school added a three-room addition.

In 1928 Camp Lewis became Fort Lewis, a permanent post with family housing for officers and noncommissioned officers. An agreement was made between the Fort Lewis commander and DuPont that the latter would provide elementary schooling. This agreement ended the tuition charges and the State of Washington provided DuPont limited financial aid. Fort Lewis officials helped by providing the school with surplus buildings. In the first year of the agreement, 142 Fort Lewis children attended DuPont School. The agreement for providing classes from kindergarten to ninth grade was made formal in 1936.

By 1939 the number of Fort Lewis children at DuPont School had grown to 222. Among them were the son and daughter of Major (later General) Mark W. Clark (1896-1984): William D. Clark (b. 1922) and Patricia Ann Clark (1926-1962). William Clark would go on to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1945, later becoming a decorated Korean War veteran. On March 19, 1941, DuPont School Superintendent Wendell Laughbon (1902-1978) wrote Colonel Mark Clark, then at the War College, seeking his assistance in obtaining federal funding. Colonel Clark replied in a return letter that he would speak with Washington congressional representatives. He also wrote glowingly of the DuPont School and Bill and Patricia Ann's three years there. Federal assistance soon arrived in the form of a Works Progress Administration project that added six new classrooms.

Fort Lewis high school students were bused to Stadium High School in Tacoma or to Clover Park High School. In 1940 John Eisenhower (b. 1922), son of Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) (later General of the Army and President), attended Stadium High and graduated that year. On July 3, 1940, McChord Field was dedicated as a bomber training base with few family houses, thus with limited school needs.

Temporary Wartime Housing and Schools

From 1922 to 1941, local school districts did not receive federal assistance when they educated military dependents, and they could not tax federal military bases. In 1941 Fort Lewis accounted for 231 of the 309 students at the DuPont School. In July 1941 the new federal Lanham Act funded housing and school construction in areas impacted by war defenses. Lanham projects at McChord Field and Fort Lewis created family housing, with 250 homes built on Fort Lewis and 102 houses at McChord Field. These complexes increased student enrollment at the DuPont School. Additional Lanham funds were received to add more DuPont classrooms.

The Clover Park School District obtained Lanham Act and Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding. With WPA funds, the district built eight high-school classrooms, a gymnasium, and a cafeteria. Led by Superintendent Arthur G. Hudtloff (1895-1968), the district strongly supported the military. The district had night classes so soldiers could complete elementary and high school. Some 4,000 to 5,000 servicemen took these classes. Clover Park also established a vocational program that produced skilled mechanics and shop personnel for McChord Field, Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot, and Fort Lewis.

In 1947 Lanham Act funding ended and with it federal assistance to overburdened local school districts. Also, at this time the 2nd Infantry Division arrived at Fort Lewis. Many of the soldiers came with their families and school-age children. It was the time of the postwar baby boom. The DuPont-Fort Lewis School District found itself unable to meet the demand, so DuPont opened an annex on post. The former 3rd Infantry Division headquarters at Division Street and Wyoming Street (later Bitar Street) became a school. This still did not meet the demand, so a former World War II hospital alongside the Pacific Highway became an eight-building annex. It educated 425 students from Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. The annex remained in use until 1966 when new school construction finally met Fort Lewis needs. During the immediate postwar years, Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base high school students attended Clover Park High School in Lakewood. At DuPont more than 75 percent of the students were Fort Lewis children.

Federal Aid for School Districts Impacted by Military Bases

On November 16 and 17, 1949, representatives from the Fort Lewis commanding general's office testified before the United States House Committee on Education and Labor concerning educational problems. They spoke of local school districts paying for military student education, but not receiving property tax support. In a brief, the commanding general noted that in 1948 Fort Lewis had 706 students and most of them went to the DuPont School. The U.S. Congress listened to these and similar concerns and in 1950 passed two laws, Public Laws 815 and 874, designed to assist local school districts with construction and other costs of public education impacted by federal defense efforts. The acts made federal funding available to build schools on base and then turn them over to local school districts to operate.

In 1952 construction started on the first Fort Lewis permanent school, Elementary School Number 1 (in 1954 renamed Greenwood), and it opened in September 1953. The prolific school-architecture firm of William Mallis (1883-1954) and Joseph Henry DeHart (1899-1999) used existing plans to build a school with both traditional and modern elements. It had modern-style bands of windows, but old-style hallways and limited connection to the outside environment.

Elementary School Number 2 (renamed Parkway) and Number 3 (renamed Clarkmoor) were designed by architects Charles Lea Jr. (1903-1990), Charles T. Pearson (1905-1994), and John G. Richards (1908-1985) of Tacoma. They employed existing plans to create campus-style buildings. The low, flat-roofed buildings connected to the outside through exterior doors in each classroom. Each classroom had nine four-by-four-foot skydomes to provide light. Within the classrooms were plastic ceilings that diffused the light. The largest share of the federal impact funding for 1956 went to the Clover Park School District: $128,032. In 1958 Fort Lewis had three on-post elementary schools, the annex, and the DuPont elementary-junior high school. High school students attended Clover Park High School. The Fort Lewis Chapel provided free bus transportation to a Lakewood parochial school.

Elementary School number 4, Hillside School, was dedicated on December 7, 1959. However, it remained vacant until September 1960 as the DuPont-Fort Lewis School District Number 7 and Clover Park School District fought over jurisdiction. Hillside exhibited an advanced campus style. Lea, Pearson, and Richards designed it with 13 classrooms and a capacity of 430 students, kindergarten through fourth grade. It was open to the outdoors with each classroom having a door to the outside and no hallways. The buildings were built around a central courtyard. Everyone had a view of grass or trees and open space. This design reflected a desire that the children be united with the environment. Covered walkways linked the classrooms to the auditorium/gymnasium. The wall of the auditorium facing the courtyard was entirely glass, allowing light and a sense of openness. While the campus style dominated school architecture at this time, it had serious shortcomings, especially in the Pacific Northwest. The covered walkways failed to protect students from the rain. The skydomes leaked, and the auditorium glass created problems. All these features were replaced in a 1984 rehabilitation contract.

McChord Air Force Base was within the Clover Park School District. Its first school, Heartwood Elementary School, opened in November 1960. Tacoma architect Donald Burr (1925-2003) employed plans that he had prepared for another Clover Park school. Heartwood was a cluster design with individual classroom pods. A second school, Carter Lake, opened in January 1962 with space for 420 pupils. Donald Burr used his plans for the Lake Louise School in Lakewood.

The fifth Fort Lewis School, Beachwood, opened on January 22, 1962. The architectural firm of Worthen, Wing, Seibert, and Forbes designed it. Donald W. Siefert (1922-1997) was the lead on this project and used existing plans for Beachwood.

15-Year Tug of War Between School Districts

Fort Lewis had confusing school district boundaries. There was an 1891 state district delineation and a later boundary with Murray Creek as a dividing line between the DuPont-Fort Lewis and Clover Park school districts. The boundaries were best described as helter-skelter. The Murray Creek boundary line was the issue that held up Hillside School's opening. The DuPont-Fort Lewis School District asserted that the school was in its area while Clover Park also claimed it. A systematic survey and court action over a ten-month period, November 1959 to September 1960, confirmed Clover Park's jurisdiction. At the same time, demands for a single school district at Fort Lewis were made by various groups. Fort Lewis commanding generals expressed the wish for a single school district that would be more effective. On August 21, 1959, 500 Fort Lewis parents attended a meeting at the Parkway School auditorium to discuss school districting. Coming out of the meeting was a petition signed by 2,524 Fort Lewis residents calling for DuPont-Fort Lewis School District to be the sole district. Others argued for Clover Park, a larger district that could provide a wider range of educational opportunities such as special education. The tug of war continued with court cases and legislative debates.

In 1961 federal impact funds spent in Washington totaled 9.56 million dollars. Nearly 32 percent of that went to the DuPont-Fort Lewis School District. Clover Park was second in funding. Fort Lewis continued to physically support the DuPont School, in 1966 moving a surplus theater building there to be a school theater. Off-post schools with McChord and Fort Lewis students were Lakes High School in Tacoma, Clover Park High School, and Woodbrook Junior High.

In October 1966 the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis went to Vietnam. The families left behind were ordered off-post, reducing by 500 the student population. The DuPont-Fort Lewis School District could not readjust its teacher load, and this combined with effects of earlier state readjustments, led to the district becoming bankrupt in 1967. Clover Park assumed its Fort Lewis schools and paid laid-off teachers back wages. In 1968 a proposed merger of the DuPont-Fort Lewis and Clover Park districts was accepted by Clover Park voters but turned down by voters in the DuPont-Fort Lewis School District. In 1970 several Fort Lewis spouses made consolidation their mission. They argued for Clover Park School District control, believing in the greater resources of a larger district. In July 1972 the state legislature passed a law mandating that military reservations in Washington have a single school district. In the case of Fort Lewis, the single school district would either be DuPont-Fort Lewis or Clover Park.

Consolidation and New Schools

With the passage of Washington's school district law, a special committee was established to decide between the Clover Park and DuPont-Fort Lewis districts. In February 1973 the Pierce County Committee on School District Reorganization voted seven to two to assign Fort Lewis to Clover Park School District. This ended the 15-year conflict over the Fort Lewis schools.

In 1984 a major renovation of the schools was undertaken. This included replacing the windows and doors. The overhead covered walkways were redesigned. The leaking skydome system was removed and new roofs installed. By the 1990s the campus style was completely out of date, with issues of security and violence in schools forcing rethinking. Parkway School was closed in 1998 and became a noncommissioned officer academy. Heartwood School on McChord was closed in 2004.

In 2011 a national program to fix educational facilities on military installations was approved. High on the list of schools needing immediate action were Carter Lake and Hillside Schools. They were replaced in 2013 on the sites of the original schools. The two new buildings were designed by BCRA Architects employing plans from Lakeview Academy. Planning continued for new Clarkmoor, Greenwood, and Beachwood Schools.


Sources: Alvin R. Broeckel, "A Historical Study of the DuPont-Fort Lewis School District Number 7, 1865-1969" (master's thesis, Pacific Lutheran University, December 1970); May G. Munyan, Du Pont: The Story of a Company Town (Puyallup: The Valley Press, 1972); C. William Brudbaker, Planning and Designing Schools (New York: McGraw Hill, 1998); Ruth Iafrati, "A Short Story of District 7, 1865-1975," typescript dated June 1985, DuPont Museum collection, DuPont, Washington; "School Days Start Again for Fort Youngsters," The Flame, September 5, 1946, p. 1; "School Population Outstrips DuPont-Ft. Lewis Building Plan,"The Tacoma Star, December 13, 1956, p. 4 ; "Latest Features in Fort School," The Tacoma Ledger, August 23, 1958, p. 8; "New School to Open at Fort Lewis," Tacoma News Tribune and Sunday Ledger, January 21, 1962, p. C-5; "DuPont School Takes Status Fight to Court," Tacoma News Tribune, April 9, 1963, p. 1; "W. B. Laughbon Quits DuPont School Post," Tacoma News Tribune, August 23, 1963, p. A-6; "DuPont Closes Shop, Gives Key to CPark," Tacoma News Tribune, December 10, 1967, p. 1; "Fort School Division Ends," Tacoma News Tribune, February 17, 1973, p. 1.

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