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Seattle University


Bridging the Opportunity Gap

Written by Annie Beckmann
January 14, 2013

Seattle University recently launched an innovative, alternative high school aimed at students who seek a small setting to complete their high school graduation requirements and prepare for success in college, careers and life.

Located at the north end of Loyola Hall, the Middle College High School at Seattle University is administered by the Seattle Public School District and intended for teens between ages 16 and 20.

It's a dynamic collaboration between SU's College of Education and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) that has been many years in the making, according to Charisse Cowan Pitre, center, associate professor in SU's Master in Teaching (MIT) program and the Middle College partnership director. SU faculty and students contribute advice, advocacy, resources and support for the school in exchange for real-life learning opportunities.

"The students here have just as much promise as any other young person with hopes for a bright future, but they may not have had the opportunity to succeed academically," says Cowan Pitre. "This partnership provides the opportunity for students to reach their academic goals and prepare for college and career."

The school, which opened in mid-November with 25 students, is designed for a maximum of 40 to 50 high school juniors and seniors. Recruiting students who live near the university is a goal.

Beth Brunton, SPS site coordinator and a humanities teacher, says factors that draw teens to the transformational learning environment of a Middle College are adversity at home and challenges at a traditional high school. Thinking, listening and communication skills and managing goals are frequently as important as academics. Community building, leadership and setting norms-all common threads at Middle College-help students develop resilience and college readiness, according to Brunton.

The successful Middle College concept began in New York City in the 1970s and first found its way to Seattle in 1991. The program now thrives at five locations throughout Seattle with nearly 200 students. Margit McGuire, MIT program director, and the late Sue Schmitt, former dean of the College of Education, were instrumental in the planning for a Middle College at SU. The Seattle University Youth Initiative was a big impetus as well.

"I understand"

For writer Annie Beckmann, Middle College High School strikes a very personal chord. Click here to read why she can relate to the students at the school.

The individualized attention Middle College students receive blends group learning with digital curriculum, says Brunton, who taught at the Northgate Mall Middle College for 11 years before the SU location opened. Students focus on core classes of humanities, math and science in the morning. Afternoons are more student-directed and include special programming, often with guest speakers and career-focused panels. Senior Marche Rhyne lives just a five-minute walk from SU. He credits his grandmother with recognizing the value of a smaller school for him.

"I was a slacker in middle school and never had a lot of ambition. High schools are full of so much drama and too much trouble," Rhyne says. "Now I'm just about my education. Completing and accomplishing things gives me hope and the drive to do more." His dream is to become a music producer.

When Anh Pham and his family came to the Puget Sound region from Vietnam in 2008, he spoke no English. He recalls sitting in a classroom that first year unable to speak or understand. It became progressively easier for him, yet he soon recognized he wasn't learning in a traditional high school. At Middle College, this senior says what he likes best are the teachers, who genuinely care for him.

"I've learned how to work for myself rather than depend on others," says Pham, whose family moved to Yesler Terrace a year ago.

Brunton says believing in the students and creating bridges for them is a big part of teaching in Middle College.

"I don't want this to sound like a fairytale. It's hard work," Brunton says. "The best part is seeing the transformation in students, from the very beginning to when they come back to see us after they've graduated and share how their hard work paid off."  

Open House

Seattle Public Schools' Superintendent Jose Banda and Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., will be among the speakers at an open house for Middle College High School at Seattle University, 1-3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, in the atrium of the Casey Building. After short talks and music from some of the current students, there will be a walking tour of the school's new home in Loyola Hall. To find out more about the event or the school, contact Jennifer Spigner at (206) 720-3078.