Academic Aces

10 Amazing Adventures at Seattle's Private Schools

From the great outdoors to foreign shores, these private schools prove education can happen anywhere.

By Cassie Sawyer Illustrations by Amrita Marino October 16, 2018 Published in the November 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Some lessons happen in classrooms. Others take hold as kids grow vegetables for the food bank, travel the Peruvian highlands, or just roam free on a next-level playground. These Seattle institutions offer but a sampling of the region’s many private schools acing the academics, and so much more.

The Great, Educational Outdoors

The Bush School, Grades: K–12

Few classroom exercises test problem-solving skills like the (supposedly) simple act of assembling a tent. Or deliver the tactile joy of pulling a carrot that you planted from seed. In 2016, the K–12 school added a satellite campus in the Methow Valley, where lessons—both academic and otherwise—happen via snowshoeing, hiking to Alpine Lake, or river rafting. The campus, with its main lodge, serves as a home base for everything from a middle school fly fishing elective to a weeklong filmmaking immersion where students conceive and produce their own digital shorts. Bush faculty keep finding new ways to use this 20-acre refuge: Teachers take upper school students rock climbing to test vital-to-adulthood concepts like leadership and risk taking. This year, eighth graders will harvest peppers from the vegetable garden to make salsa and collect eggs from chickens. When smaller groups stay they call dibs on bunk beds, while larger groups camp out in the yard (enter those tent-based life skills). Maybe this sounds more like summer camp than school, but maturity tends to bloom when kids get a week or so away from their parents. Right now, the Methow campus mostly hosts shorter programs, but plans are in the works to let students stay for a full semester.

Better Together

Two Schools Project: Giddens School and Lake Washington Girls Middle School, Grades: PS–5, 6–8

Each January, the students from Giddens School and Lake Washington Girls Middle School represent in full force at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march and parade. They carry handmade rainbow-colored signs saying “everyone is allowed here” and asking for “peace and love.” Come next year, instead of meeting at the march, students will head out together from one unified campus. While Giddens and LWGMS will remain separate institutions, the new shared design, dubbed the Two Schools Project, will transform the old Imperial Lanes lot in Rainier Valley into conjoined campuses that share common spaces like the lunchroom and outdoor areas. Anjali Grant Design and Graham Baba architects, a go-to for hip Seattle restaurants, have designed a sleek space with solar panels, water cisterns, composters, and a garden that would make even Kermit the Frog change his mind about the ease of being green. It’s the natural evolution of two like-minded communities whose activities and values often dovetail—Giddens kids have a relationship with the nearby food bank growing veggies and making deliveries via little red wagons; and the girls of LWGMS volunteer to sort food and work the kitchen line. On the Giddens side, retractable walls of the preschool to fifth grade classrooms allow daily discussions on race, religion, empathy, and mindfulness to be shared across ages. And on the LWGMS side, girls rule in the new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) studios and labs. Both schools will operate from their current locations this school year, but plan to be in the new digs by fall of 2019.

Co-Operation Makes It Happen

KapKa Cooperative School, Grades: K–5

This co-op on Phinney Ridge adopts more of a play-based Scandinavian approach to education, which means kids construct forts outside at Woodland Park and build connections with the community. The residents of the nearby Norse Home senior facility, meanwhile, are delighted when the kindergartners come by to read storybooks. Classes take advantage of proximity to the zoo with weekly outings to see the penguins. With 66 kids enrolled this year across the six grades, KapKa’s student body is small compared to many other private schools in Seattle. Families often end up here in search of a “less rigid educational experience,” says parent and volunteer Carrie Sherley, one that benefits wildly creative kids as much as the quiet academic types. Parents like Sherley must spend two and a half hours per week in the classroom (more if you have two kids enrolled). They might help fifth graders with math assignments, monitor lunch and recess, or be clean-up crew after a rousing bout of painting. The benefits expand far beyond extra hands for tasks, Sherley says; the requirement builds a tight community of families from disparate cultures “who all get to know and to love each other’s children.” 

Legendary Lessons Abroad

Lakeside School, Grades: 5–12

The legendary alumni roster might be the first thing people associate with this school—Bill Gates credits his Lakeside education for the creation of Microsoft (it’s also where he and Paul Allen met). The campus that helped inspire a global company also takes its students worldwide through Lakeside’s Global Service Learning program, which integrates academic theory with real-world practice. This school year, Lakeside added three new courses with an international component: When upper school kids explore the Peruvian highlands, study ecosystems in French-Polynesia, or meet farmers in Colombia, explains Director of Global Education Charlotte Blessing, these adventures also foster “empathy, resilience, and intercultural competence.” In other words, they are helping to shape a kind, but also extremely capable next generation. Students stay with host families, where they share meals, speak the language, and interact with the community. This fall, Lakeside also helped open the Downtown School, a micro sister high school near the Pacific Science Center; it offers similar values and a slightly lower price tag

Planning for a Greener Seattle

The Northwest School, Grades: 6–12

Remember when those tattooed, handlebar-mustached, skinny-jean wearing kids used to run Capitol Hill? Well, now those kids have kids of their own—and they go to the Northwest School. Some of this institution’s cred stems from an alumni list heavy on grunge luminaries: Guitarists Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam and Mudhoney’s Steve Turner are both graduates. At NWS, musical education is just as important as algebra, as evidenced by the array of options like jazz choir, a cappella, musical theater, and chamber orchestra. The school was an early adopter of sustainability practices, now fundamental to campus culture. Three times a week students and teachers work in teams to clean and maintain the campus and nearby grounds on Summit. It’s not unusual for classes to be held in the outdoor vegetable and herb farm and garden planted by students. And when it comes to food waste, this school is serious about creating zero, so when their usual bagel supplier switched to individual packaging, NWS dropped them for one who deals in bulk. 

Acceptance, Celebrated

Seattle Academy, Grades: 6–12

The first thing former Seattle Academy parent Jennifer Zinda noticed about the campus that sprawls at 12th and East Union: “It was a place of acceptance.” Terms like “band geek” or  “theater nerd” simply don’t apply at a school where visual arts, music, dance, and theater credits are a graduation requirement and there’s a no-cut policy on sports. While every student participates in activities like ballet, jazz choir, sculpture, or costume design, Zinda’s own kids (class of ’16 and ’18) explored a diverse set of programs and ultimately thrived in STEM. “The kids are celebrated and respected for whatever it is they choose to focus on,” she says. And as of this fall, the 300 or so middle schoolers have a new 70,000-square-foot building to explore with all the freshest of perks: a makers and robotics lab, a rooftop playfield, and a first of its kind grades-by-floor layout. The five-level addition unifies an extremely urban campus and creates a more cohesive space for these artsy (or science-y or math-y) kids to express themselves and feel really good about it. 

Club Culture

Seattle Prep, Grades: 9–12

While Prep is indelibly a Jesuit school, you certainly don’t have to be Catholic to attend; around 75 percent of students consider themselves of that faith. All of them, however, participate in the serious Ivy League training drills that happen on this campus on the north end of Capitol Hill—so much so, that 100 percent of 2018’s graduating class was accepted into college. But it’s not all AP physics and theology courses, either. These kids have a host of co-curriculars (that’s what Prep calls extra-curricular activities). Traditional picks abound, like the 44 sports teams, pep band, and dance squad. But for the mechanically inclined the robotics club competes at the VEX World Championships. The mock trial team, meanwhile, has argued the win at the state finals 13 times. Prep also conveys its religious values in a context of equality and acceptance, like the One Voice club, which promotes a welcoming environment for students of all orientations. Amen to progression. 

Students Young and Old

University Child Development School, Grades: PS–5

Every year, this elementary school in the University District chooses a theme; for 2018 the pick is trace. Teachers base their curriculum around this topic. Sometimes it’s literal, like students tracing drawings in art class. Or they might read mysteries and trace the clues, study maps and trace the geopolitical boundaries, or trace the evolution of musical instruments throughout history. During recess, though, you can trace kids’ whereabouts to the new playground installed this summer. The outdoor space got a real-life Chutes and Ladders treatment, with a labyrinthine climbing gym and a huge tunnel slide connecting the upper and lower areas. Most likely in the fall of 2019, the school will see an influx of students way older than its current crop of elementary schoolers: UCDS will operate a graduate-level school, called the College for School Culture, offering the adults a master’s in education within its own walls, and the kids a supply of future teachers to support the younger grades. The twisty slide, however, may be off limits to the grad students. 

A Fanciful Playground Where Imaginations Soar

The Valley School, Grades: PK–5

What’s important to kids is not always what’s most important to parents, but children and adults agree that the 20,000-square-foot playground at The Valley School in Madison Valley is monkey bars above the rest. Pear and plum trees offer shade plus ripe fruit that’s fun for play, while the mere sight of the rabbit cage and school chickens, Sassy and Snow White, is enough to lodge “Old MacDonald” in your head for the rest of the day. Four craftsman-style houses connected by wood chip pathways create their own tiny neighborhood, where little explorers climb ladders to tree houses or future astronauts pilot a big wooden rocket. Valley teachers consider the outdoor space their “second classroom.” No matter the weather, you might find kiddos out here making apple cider from a borrowed press or setting up an obstacle course out of big blue rain barrels. Teachers observe and let student curiosity blossom. Any minute now, they know, comes the appropriate entree to a lesson on water flowing though tubes, or how the bees pollinate the vegetable garden. 

Polyglots Travel in Packs

Westside School, Grades: PS–8

The ideal time to learn a second language is when the brain is young and still developing, not on your flight to Costa Rica using Rosetta Stone. So it’s muy beneficioso that Westside School begins lessons in Spanish (and Mandarin) starting in preschool. Playtime, simple songs, and games lay the groundwork for second through fifth graders to start on writing and reading assignments. Before sixth grade, each student picks a focus, Spanish or Mandarin. Before you know it you’ve got a bilingual teenager who can tell you off in two languages. When the hilltop campus in the Arbor Heights area of West Seattle acquired the neighboring Presbyterian church back in 2015, Westside preserved the cathedral architecture, so 45-foot arched wood beams now span the school’s theater and gym. Common areas are bright and spacious, and built-in reading nooks dot the interior. These cozy spaces also serve as a meeting ground for groups that Westside calls “wolf packs,” made up of students from all grade levels, from ages three to 14. Kids of different ages connect best around common themes, explains visual arts teacher Anna Forster-Smith, “like family traditions, food, and goal setting.” The wolf pack groups she supervises “make art together, share highlights and challenges from our lives, and play a lot of games.” 

Adventurous Seattle Private Schools By the Numbers

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