By Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times -
There are hundreds of private schools in Greater Seattle, many with special areas of focus that stray from the norm of King County public schools. Among those specialties is language immersion, an educational environment that brings a significant percentage of all lessons into a non-English language. Many of these programs, like Los Niños de Seattle and El Cuento Spanish Immersion, serve pre-kindergarten kids. Currently, the only Spanish immersion schools dedicated to elementary-level students are on the north side. That will change in September when the Seattle Amistad School opens its doors in the Central District.
The Seattle Amistad School occupies a pair of classrooms in the long-unused second floor of the Horace Mann building on 24th and Cherry. The only other occupant of the property is the Work It Out non-profit organization that advocates for education and job opportunities for at-risk teens and young adults in the Central District. The structure, today in the process of being designated a protected historical landmark, is more famous for its role in the Occupy movement than for any of its current renters. An attempted occupation of the property in November 2011 ended in two arrests but no formal charges, and now various political activist groups gather on the corner of 24th and Cherry each Sunday for the Food For Everyone potluck.
The old Horace Mann building was once a school. Specifically, it was the original home of the Nova Project alternative public high school. Nova existed at the Horace Mann building from 1970 to 2009, when statewide budget cuts made renovating the aging structure impractical and the program was relocated to the Meany Middle School building. The school district still owns the Horace Mann site but there are currently no plans to clean up the exterior or update the interior.
“It’s hard to breathe life into a building from two rooms,” says Amistad School executive director Farin Houk. She muses over the murals and inspiring quotations painted onto the school’s walls by Nova students years ago, wondering which ones she’d like to keep and which should be painted over. From her desk in the kindergarten classroom where she will teach in the upcoming school year, she looks down on the distressed but still green grounds now surrounded by a fence. Before the first students take their seats in September, Houk plans on fixing up the outdoor space to use for recess.
In its current form, the Seattle Amistad School is far from the typical image of a Northwestern private school. The two classrooms are simple and far from sleek. It’s still, as Farin Houk puts it, “Old and funky, not new and shiny.” The kids at the Amistad School won’t be learning on state-of-the-art laptops in architecturally ambitious spaces.
The innovation on which the Amistad School hinges is a progressive, 90/10 immersion program. When students enter the school at either the kindergarten or pre-K level, 90 percent of their lessons will take place in Spanish and 10 percent will be in English. Each year, the ratio of Spanish to English will even out until the day is split up 50/50 between the two languages. This design is supposed to make the process of learning Spanish easier for English-speaking students while also easing primarily Spanish-speaking students into the everyday use of English.
The 90/10 approach is still relatively rare in Seattle’s immersion programs and its merits compared to the more straightforward 50/50 model are still up for debate. A recent study by Dr. Kathryn Lindholm-Leary of San Jose State University found that 90/10 immersion benefited English Language Learners (ELLs) coming from predominantly Spanish-speaking backgrounds, but that adding additional English to coursework didn’t necessarily improve overall academic achievement in English for ELLs. The Amistad School’s progressive ratio plan hasn’t been as extensively studied, but it has a vote of confidence from Eva González Abad of the Center for Spanish Studies at the University of Washington. She visited the Amistad School’s open house on the same day as the Capitol Hill Times and seemed enthusiastic about the program.
Aside from the language immersion element, the curriculum at the Amistad School doesn’t really differ from what most kids can expect from a small class environment with a high student-to-teacher ratio. No more than 20 students will be enrolled in any given class and the typical daily schedule involves hallmarks of early education like reading out loud, hands-on math learning stations, even show and tell.
In its first year, the Seattle Amistad School is asking $13,800 per student at the kindergarten and 1st grade level, while pre-K will break down into a monthly charge of $810. That tuition is comparable, if not far below, what many Seattle-area private schools are asking and is also very close to the per-child price tag of $11,406 spent by Seattle Public Schools. The median household income in the school’s neighborhood is lower at approximately $40,000 per year than the citywide median of over $45,000 per year. This is only compounded by the 2009 King County Census findings that, on average, Latino people in Seattle make considerably less than people of other ethnicities.
The Amistad School is providing financial aid through the Student Service for Financial Aid and they will also be accepting Department of Social and Health Services childcare subsidies. In some cases, the school administration has even offered volunteer opportunities to families in extreme need so they can contribute to the school in non-monetary ways.
Even with all this help, the reality of the Seattle Amistad School’s operations requires the participation of families who can afford to pay the tuition without assistance. Though it is located in the comparatively modest Central District, the school is surrounded by wealthier communities like Madrona, Capitol Hill and Montlake.
Farin Houk, who has lived on a public school teacher’s salary for years, expressed an understanding of the financial burden of private school, but also stressed the need for more extensive foreign language education in our city.
“I can’t wait 10 or 20 years for Seattle to figure it out,” she says. Houk’s own daughter will be attending the Amistad School this fall.