Chief Leschi Schools (formerly known as the Puyallup Tribal School) was founded in 1976 to address the high drop out rate of the youth in the Puyallup Tribe. This first school operated in what was the Hawthorne Elementary School, which was borrowed from the Tacoma School District. It once stood on the site that is now occupied by the Tacoma Dome.
Two years later in 1978, a new elementary school was built on tribal lands near the current tribal administration building. The middle and high schools held their classes on the second and third floors of the tribal administration building but, with such poor working conditions the staff turnover rate was high. In 1991 federal engineers deemed it unsafe and that it would not withstand even a minor earthquake. Again, the students had to be moved to another building. After making arrangements with St. Ann’s Catholic Church, a vacant elementary school on South 72nd Street was used for the middle and high schools. The name changed to Chief Leschi Schools at this point. 790 students and 205 staff members congested the classrooms. The nearby athletic center provided the only gym like area for the school. These were trying times.
By 1983, only 99 students were actively enrolled. When the active enrollment dwindled below 60 students the following year Chief Leschi Schools faced closure.
From these early hardships that were endured by the staff, school board members, parents, students, friends and tribal council, we developed a model tribal school which is everything a dream school should be. It took 20 years of talking, dreaming, planning, and 11 years of actively pursuing it, but with the hard work of representatives like Don Renwick, who made 29 trips to Washington D.C. and the loyal teachers assistants of whom which had endured stifling classrooms, this dream school was destined to happen.
There were several major setbacks at the federal appropriations level that tribal leaders and school administrators had to overcome. At one point, our school which was designated as one of the top ten priority, had been changed to the 63rd. This was unexpected.
Today, our new 32 million, 200,000 square-foot school is the crown jewel of the Puyallup Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is the largest of seven tribal schools in the state of Washington and one of approximately 200+ tribal schools in the United States. It is also one of the largest tribal schools that has been funded by the Bureau of Indian Education. To help make this dream come true, the Puyallup Tribe bought 68 acres of farm land which included a farmhouse and outbuildings. The administration offices were remodeled into the old farmhouse.
In our first year of operation, 788 students and 32 graduating seniors graced the schools.