First year of Seattle Center high school encourages district to keep thinking small

On the second floor of a brick church at 160 John St. in Seattle, there are six classrooms, two bathrooms and no water fountain.

Sunday school? Not quite.

For the past year, this has been the temporary — and cramped — quarters for 140 students who attend The Center School, a fledgling arts-and-sciences high school designed to make the most of its Seattle Center location.

The Center School also represents a first step in the Seattle School District's aim to broaden options for students and parents in the state's largest district.

Things have not gone exactly according to plan, which is why students are going to school at a tiny church rather than at the sprawling, 20-acre Seattle Center next door.

But enough has gone right that, from the district level to the classroom, people are declaring the model a success — and that has triggered plans for at least one new alternative high school to open in South Seattle next year.

"We're thrilled with how the first year's gone," said Seattle schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske. "The Center School offers a distinctive choice to parents, different than other schools in the district. ... And the environment of Seattle Center offers really unparalleled opportunities for kids to learn outside the classroom."

The Center School takes advantage of its location by partnering with nonprofit organizations such as the Pacific Science Center and Seattle Repertory Theatre for school projects.

A Duwamish-area high school tentatively called SoDo High, set to open in fall 2003, will develop partnerships with nearby resources to offer rigorous courses in engineering and technology. And there is talk of a possible Hospital High on First Hill that would partner with nearby hospitals to serve students interested in nursing and medicine.

"Clearly, the large comprehensive high schools serve many kids well," Olchefske said. "But we as a district have a mission for academic achievement for every student. We think a smaller classroom learning environment will connect better with some kids."

That doesn't mean students at this new breed of school get out of core classes such as math, science and English. And 10th-graders at The Center School, like their counterparts throughout the district, are taking Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests.

At The Center School, which runs about two hours behind most high schools, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., mornings are spent studying math, science, humanities and Spanish. To earn physical-education credits, students can choose from yoga and dance classes or participate in activities outside of school such as karate, crew or club sports.

Afternoons are devoted to the arts, along with interdisciplinary projects created jointly by the eight teachers on staff.

For one assignment, students studied the architecture of buildings at Seattle Center; in another, they attended the Seattle Repertory Theatre production of "Proof."

"I like working with a small staff," said Principal Judy Peterson.

"We're developing this school. We decide everything together."

School to move this fall

As with any new project, there are ups and downs. One of the biggest challenges for students and teachers this year has been adjusting to the school's makeshift quarters. Delayed construction of eight classrooms and three labs on the second floor of Seattle Center House forced the school to open in the church down the street.

At a cost of just more than $3 million, which includes leasing and renovation of two floors at Center House, creating a home for the school exceeded initial estimates but remained well below the cost of building a new facility.

"We had never done a school like this, so we weren't sure exactly what we would encounter," said district spokeswoman Lynn Steinberg. "The reason for (the cost) is unforeseen things related to converting a space that was not intended for a school into a school that meets all the necessary codes."

When finished, the facility will feature state-of-the-art science and computer labs. The Center School will move to its permanent site this fall.

But for now, students trek in and out of the principal's office to store band instruments or, at lunchtime, line up to use the microwave oven. Ditto for teachers and the coffeemaker.

"My office is a faculty room, custodial closet, library, you name it," said Peterson. "But we've made do. Two months and then we're out of here."

In a previous life, around the late 1960s, the space was used as a Roman Catholic elementary school, Peterson said. She points to an alcove in the hall that probably once housed a statue of Jesus. A plant lives there now.

The office secretary sits out in the hall, surrounded by filing cabinets and a coat rack. Down the hall, two copy machines and stacks of copy paper clutter the orange carpet. There are no lockers for students.

Science teachers cope with the challenges of operating labs out of ill-equipped classrooms.

"We run extension cords and power strips so we can set up microscopes," said science teacher Kim Mullen, who came to The Center School from Bishop Blanchet High School in North Seattle. "We're waiting to blow circuits. But when you know it's temporary, you make it work."

In its second year, The Center School plans to add two teachers and a 90-member freshman class to its current crop of ninth- and 10th-graders, Peterson said. By fall 2004, the school will have all four high-school grade levels, topping out at about 300 students. Steinberg expects the school again will be a popular choice among incoming freshmen and will have to turn away students next year.

Most students to return

But school is still school, and teenagers will be teenagers. Students scribble messages on bathroom stalls ("I love Punk Boys," "Save the tree"). But at The Center School, butcher paper lines the walls for that purpose.

Between classes, the hall fills with chattering students sporting distinctive styles: purple hair, animal-ear headbands, pink Converse shoes.

"You feel a lot more comfortable being yourself," said 14-year-old Jessica Greco, who wears a cat collar and, on some days, wears cat ears as well. "Certain other public schools are more focused on one style: You get pushed down if you're not part of that group."

Still, Greco, who came to The Center School from a private school in Magnolia, says she's not sure she'll return for her sophomore year. "This place is really hard academically," she said. "I thought it would be way more focused on the arts."

About 17 students have left The Center School since it opened, according to Peterson. Some moved to other districts; others transferred after spending time on waiting lists for other high schools.

While many students expressed a particular interest in the arts that drew them to the school, some said they were a little disappointed with what it had to offer. ("Music sucks," said one student.) But programs are expected to improve as the school continues to grow and develop relationships with the 21 arts, science and sports organizations at Seattle Center.

Others say that although the school is challenging, it has enough going for it to bring them back next year: small classes, a connection with teachers, an open social environment and location, location, location.

"I like its location. At lunch, you can go running in the (International) fountain," said Kat Carlson, a 15-year-old freshman. "It's different. It's cool."

Meanwhile, teachers — all eight will return next year — say they are looking forward to a second year of growth. "I love the fact that we're starting something new," said Spanish teacher Beth Aguilar. "I'm the kind of person who likes new beginnings."

Pam Sitt can be reached at 206-464-2376 or