by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Over a decade ago, Seattle Central Community College underwent a number of construction projects that shifted some of the institution’s programming away from the main campus. One such program, a Middle College school, had to relocate to the Northgate neighborhood. For 11 years, Capitol Hill was without a college-run school for teens at risk of not graduating and even dropping out of school altogether. In November of 2012, Seattle University brought Middle College back to the Hill. The program gave the community a look inside its humble digs at an open house on Jan. 24.
Middle College is an educational model designed to provide a more focused, individualized alternative to standard public school for at-risk high school students. They generally place a high priority on preparedness for college or some other measure of success post-graduation. The specific structure of any given Middle College program depends on the institution that hosts it. So, while Seattle Central Community College ran its own Middle College program for several years, the new program at Seattle University is not officially a continuation of its format or policies.
Currently, the Seattle University Middle College operates out of a small number of rooms at SU’s Loyola Hall, not coincidentally sharing space with the College of Education. The current roster of 30 students benefit from the experience of teaching leads Beth Brunton in Humanities and Patty Borman in Math and Sciences. Students also work with Dr. Charisse Cowan Pitre for college preparation studies. In addition to the two, small classrooms at SU Middle College, there are a computer lab with 18 machines and a student lounge that pulls double duty as a cafeteria and occasional science lab.
The Middle College’s daily structure differs from the standard high school format in Seattle Public Schools in a number of ways. The day is broken up into four periods, each lasting an average of 70 minutes, as opposed to the typical high school period of 45 minutes. Students are also afforded a full hour for lunch rather than a half hour, and the fourth period of the day is an hour of study and one-on-one support for students from the teaching staff. This one-on-one time is among the most important elements of the program, according to both its students and staff.
“To work in a school like this, you have to sincerely believe in students even when they don’t believe in themselves,” says Beth Brunton.
“You can’t fake that,” adds Principal Cindy Nash.
The program compensates for its limited space and staff by taking a more holistic approach to the Seattle Public Schools curriculum. Beth Brunton’s Humanities class encompasses history, reading and writing, public speaking, and other subjects by integrating each of those components into a single, overarching topic. A unit about the American civil rights movement, for instance, is likely to include historical readings, class discussions, group projects, and even a mock trial with the assistance of the Seattle University College of Law. The school’s Math and Science content takes a similar, applied concepts approach to the same material taught to students at institutions like Garfield High School and Rainier Beach High School.
The staff and administrators of Seattle University Middle College are especially enthusiastic about the opportunity to interact with other departments at SU. While the program has already had activities like the aforementioned mock trial with the College of Law, as well as shared studies with the nearby College of Education, Nash is confident that many other departments would receive Middle College with open arms. She has expressed an interest in the potential of the College of Nursing, the College of Music, and other departments providing hands-on learning experiences for the diverse range of interests present in the small but driven student body.
SU Middle College has also partnered with the Marah Project scholarship charity to fund a special spring session of the Teens in Public Service program. TIPS provides community service and community-focused internship opportunities for teens in the Seattle area. Most TIPS sessions take place in the summer, but Seattle University’s Middle College is currently developing a unique program for the spring quarter that will give two students a real-world experience improving their city with the help of other community leaders. Details of the spring TIPS session are still being determined, but funding has been secured with the guarantee of Marah Project founders Penny LeGate and Mike Williams.
The Middle College at Seattle University has been designed to stay small, at least for now. It has room for approximately 20 additional students, 10 of whom will be remote “distance learners.” Today, many Middle College students fulfill elective credits, such as foreign language, by taking electronic courses through the Apex Learning digital curriculum, so tech-based remote learning is already a regular part of the program. Students aged 16 to 20 years with a minimum of ten high school credits are eligible for Middle College. There is no tuition and Seattle Public Schools provides both breakfast and lunch on each day of classes.