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Seattle Girls School plans to break ground this spring on new building and start of new campus in the Central District

The planned design for the new Seattle Girls School campus shows a paved walkway leads into the main entrance of the school. Above the entrance is a shared classroom meant to be used as a communal space for all students. (Image: Corrie Rosen/Mahlum)

By Jethro Swain

Seattle Girls School, an independent middle school for girls and gender non-binary students, is looking forward to breaking ground this spring for their new school building at its new location in the Central District.

Located in the block between S Massachusetts and S Grand, and 24th and 25th Avenues, the new location for the school is exciting for many reasons including being close to the Northwest African American Museum, Coleman Playground, and Jimi Hendrix park, as well as being just southeast of the soon-to-open Judkins Park light rail station.

“The biggest thing I’m excited about is that we will own it,” said Head of School Brenda Leaks. “That’s probably more than anything else why we started this, because the space we’re in right now we rent, and, although we had a good lease, with all the development happening in the Central District, our landlord at any point could have decided that he didn’t want to move forward with that lease and our school would have been gone.”

Leaks has been the Head of School at SGS for five years. She’s worked at many independent middle schools all across the country, but to her, SGS stands out because of its strong sense of purpose.

“I’ve never worked with a school until SGS where the mission was so focused, where it’s a part of our conversations on a daily basis and in how we make decisions,” Leaks said. “Other schools’ sense of purpose is really lofty…they’re things that feel like you can’t put a finger on them. The mission of helping girls and gender non-binary students find their voices and use it to help themselves and their community, it’s laser-focused.”

The school was established in 2000 by a group of South Seattle parents.

SGS has grown to hold a current student body of 133 students, and for the past 20 years it has been located in the same building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way S and S Jackson about a mile north of the planned new campus location.


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While grateful for the home that they’ve grown up in, Leaks explained that, “We have a very cozy campus currently, we use every nook and cranny of it… [However] it doesn’t support the way that we teach and the way that our kids learn.”

Ready to move on from their current home, a team of parents, faculty and staff joined together to make a plan for establishing a new home in a new location, one that they owned themselves. For years the small, independent SGS team was getting consistently outbid by big companies, since land in Seattle is precious and often sold at a very high price when auctioned publicly.

After years of searching and frustration with the market, SGS found their answer in Pioneer Human Services. Pioneer was looking to sell their plot of land in the Central District to raise enough money to help with their own relocation. “It’s like this kind of fairy tale story,” Leaks said. “We got connected to Pioneer Human Services just as they were beginning to develop on another piece of property that they owned.”

With their location locked down, the project took its first, huge step towards its goal of establishing a new home. The next step along the journey was to raise the money for the building itself, another task that had its own set of challenges.

“We definitely have to rely more on the community than on a large base of alums and parents,” said Natalie Anderson, one of the Co-Chairs of the Board of Trustees for the Rise Up Campaign which was created to raise the funds needed to build the new school.

“Because SGS is a young school, and one devoted to diversity, we do not have generations of alumni and grateful parents to support this effort,” said Karen Lane, Co-Chair. “Our oldest alum is only 30… so our biggest challenge has been to invite the community to join us, believing that when girls Rise Up, the entire community benefits,” Lane said.

On top of not having a lot of alumni,“our school has always had a deep commitment to tuition assistance because we really believe we can’t do our work without a diverse community and that includes socio-economic diversity,” said Leaks. “We don’t have a lot of families that can write five, six figure gifts.”

Without the depth of alumni to open up their checkbooks, a strategy that most independent schools use when raising funds, nor an abundance of parents able to do the same, SGS turned to it local community for help.

SGS has now raised $8.8 million of their $9.5 million goal and still works hard to get every bit of support they can to fulfill their dream school. Now, with the money and location secured, all that was left to do was design and build the campus itself.

Egg-shaped pods were inspired by students and implemented into the design to promote a space for individual thinking. (Image: Corrie Rosen/Mahlum)

Corrie Rosen is a Principal Architect for architecture firm Mahlum who has been working with SGS imagining a master plan for their new campus every step of the way.

Rosen’s goal for her designs is to create a school that utilizes every bit of space that they have.

The full campus is set to be built in three different phases.

The first phase includes building the majority of classrooms, office spaces, and shared spaces. In these shared spaces students can find chairs, couches, tables, and even little, egg shaped pods built into the walls, each with the purpose to give students the opportunity to work in groups or independently, but always in a communal space. Once this phase is complete students will be allowed to move into the school.

The classrooms are designed to have big windows that look out into the shared spaces so that no part of the school feels restricted from any other part, and so that teachers can be most effective in watching over their students and making sure group work runs smoothly. The shared spaces were designed with the school’s mission to support collaborative group work in mind, something they’ve been struggling to do in their current building.

The second phase of the building process will implement a gym/auditorium for the school. The third phase will add more classrooms and shared learning spaces, as well as a cafeteria, all built with the possibility to expand the number of students in the future.

The classrooms on the left share a common area filled with multiple spots for students to collaborate comfortably. The big classroom windows will also teachers to monitor multiple areas at once. (Image: Corrie Rosen/Mahlum)

To try and incorporate the students’ ideas in the designs, Rosen and her team tried a few different approaches.

“When we started the project we met with a group of students and we gave them disposable cameras,” Rosen said. “We asked them to take pictures around the school or their neighborhood that bring joy, spaces of joyful learning…then we brought them back together and collected their cameras and developed their photos, and we asked each of them to share what they chose.”

From those photos, Rosen was able to identify different parts of the school that students valued. A few of those valuable parts were a presence of art, their STEAM space (which is a specific part of the school dedicated to science, technology, engineering, art, and math), and spaces outside for natural learning.

“It’s about recognizing that different learners have different needs,” Rosen said, “and so how do we support that. The typical classroom doesn’t work for all students.”

After incorporating students’ vision and values into her designs, Rosen and her team have settled on a master plan for the school’s campus and are excited to get construction under way.

The school plans on breaking ground in spring 2021 to launch phase one of its three-phase process, and the new building is scheduled to host its first classes in fall 2022. You can visit the Rise Up campaign page here to find out how to donate or find more details on their project.

“I’m really excited to see the new space come to life,” said Anderson, co-chair of the fundraising effort. “It’s been very cool for me as an alum to get to be so involved in securing the future of the school that played such a big role in shaping me as a person. It’s a real full circle moment.”


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Andrea
Andrea
23 days ago

Sad to see them go; they have been great neighbors. Will miss hearing the kids out at recess. The new school is beautiful.

Rick Park
Rick Park
21 days ago

Super news! This has been the dream since day one. I’m glad to see it becoming a reality.