Saplings That Touch the Sky


By Ananya Rabeya

We took our four-year-old niece to the Muir Woods a few summers ago. It’s a forest of redwoods and sequoias in California. Seeing my niece wonder at the sizes of the trunks and the heights of the trees, I asked her if she would like to know the forest’s secret; a wisdom that someone had shared with me once. You see, some sequoias and redwoods are thousands of years old. But interestingly, these trees that are about 350 feet tall have roots that grow only about ten feet deep.

So, without deep roots, how do they keep standing for centuries enduring some of nature’s worst disasters?

My niece looked intently at me.

That day, I told her that the roots do not reach deep; they reach outward, seeking the roots of other redwoods, intertwining, making permanent bonds with each other when they meet. This way, all the redwoods in the forest either directly or indirectly support each other. They reach out and care for each other, sharing nutrients to hold each other up. From the Muir Woods, nature gives us this precious lesson that our true strength is in our willingness to care for and support each other.

At The Downtown School, we consider service learning through the lens of social justice-- the principle that all individuals are entitled to fair and impartial treatment as well as equity and equal opportunity. With its many parts, social justice includes:

-The right to the things required for human decency and dignity

-The pursuit of justice and peace

-Care for the weakest.

Among my favorite maxims of John Dewey is this observation: “When we reflect upon an experience instead of just having it, we inevitably distinguish between our own attitude and the objects toward which we sustain the attitude.”

It’s not just service, but the perpetual re-evaluation of our way of thinking as our hypotheses--and our beliefs--shift; our students’ journal prompts after every service opportunity, and their senior year capstone projects are, hence, crucial to that exercise. Reflecting upon an experience may bring closure to, but it also opens up the possibility of critical inquiry of one’s own assumptions, change, and ultimately growth. This is precisely the hope for our saplings that have understood this simple universal principle that in giving, in fact we receive.

The Many Faces


By Marit W., class of ‘22

It was November, and The Downtown School was this really scary thing—a new school in the middle of the city with fancy architectural renderings and an impossibly articulate head of school. I’d applied and gotten in, but it hadn’t gotten any easier.

I’d spent that February, chewing my nails. I’d always been in public schools with more students than square footage, where I’d gotten used to flailing legs and over-large binders. The Downtown School was terrifying compared to my public high school. It was small and new and shiny and different.

My middle school was this familiar place with its chipped bricks and irritable staff. The thing about it was that I wasn’t happy. I loved school, sure, loved the teachers I’d spent years talking with, but the wear and tear of ducking my head was something that I could’ve gone without.

I left the familiarity of my friends and all the walls that I could’ve mapped out and filled with faces for this school. Our head of school had all the goals lined out, hard hat tours lined up, interviews at the nearest hipster coffee shop carried out, all shiny and efficient. I was still scared, then. Scared that I’d left everything I knew on the off chance this school’d offer me a chance to nerd out and find some sort of family, I guess.

September came, and everyone was stiff with new-school jitters. By the end of September, the jitters fell away, mine included. I’d found some friends who I still eat lunch with now, still fall into stitches laughing with now. The funny thing about having forty-four kids in a school is that everything happens quickly. One person, one little group, could do something, and it’d affect everyone.

Familiarity spread like a wave through these kids and these teachers. Things didn’t seem so new and shiny. The giant bean-bags are broken in, smiles broken in.

It’s been three months. Three and I feel like I know these people more than I knew the smudge of faces I’d spent eight years with.

The Downtown School is a little shiny and new, sure, but I’m so glad I chose it. I can draw a map of our little school, maybe sketch one of Seattle Center too, and fill it with faces of people I get to know better every day.

Tips for a Successful Application


By Kelsey van Dalfsen, Ph.D.

So you visited our table at a PSIS Independent School Fair and you attended an Open House. Now what? If you think The Downtown School might be a good fit for high school, it’s time to complete your application! We’ve compiled the following list of tips to help you prepare a strong application for admission to The Downtown School:

1) Start now!

All components of the application are due by January 15, 2019. In addition to the forms that students and parents/guardians complete, you will need teacher evaluations, school records, and an administrator form. Plan ahead to ensure that the teachers and administrators you ask to complete these pieces have time to get them in prior to the deadline. Register to take the SSAT or ISEE before the end of January to ensure consideration of your application. And last but not least, make sure you’ve scheduled an interview with a member of our admissions team! You may complete your interview before the rest of your application is complete; so if you haven’t already, schedule an interview today.

2) Ask questions.

We are looking for students who would be a good mutual fit at The Downtown School. This means that you are right for us and we are right for you. Your interview is an informal conversation and is a great time to ask the questions you have about The Downtown School. Still have questions? Email us!

3) Show us your full self.

We’re small by design. This means that every member of our school has a significant impact on The Downtown School community. We want you to do more than come with a solid academic foundation—we want you to bring your passions, your hobbies, your strengths, and your opportunities for growth to enrich the school community. Let these elements shine in your application by carefully selecting teachers that really know you to complete the teacher evaluations and by making sure your student essay reflects you as a whole person—including your interests, quirks, and unique personality!

Admissions season is in full swing, and we are thrilled by the excitement so many prospective families have shown for The Downtown School. As you complete your application, please reach out to us at with any questions about the school or the admissions process. We can’t wait to read your application!

Better Than We Had Hoped

By Sage, class of ‘21

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It was just another Wednesday assembly when Brian mentioned the opportunity to be a DJ for our school’s first dance.

My first reaction was “cool, that’s something I’d be interested in doing.” However, when Brian explained the time commitment, I worried that it would conflict with my extracurricular activities. We were to meet after school a few times before the dance to work out how to use the equipment that we were so graciously allowed to borrow. A team of six students—including myself—tackled the challenge, regardless of the conflicts.

In addition to learning how to run the Serato DJ software, we all had to make playlists, which is one of the hardest things that a DJ has to (gets to) do. We try and find songs with similar beats-per-minute and key, just to make transitions from one song to the next pleasing to the ear. On top of this, we have to improvise and change songs on the spot if technical difficulties arise, or if people just aren’t feeling it. I personally spent over five hours making assorted playlists just so that we could be prepared for whatever problems arose, but me being me, I listen to music probably six hours everyday. This made it a lot easier to find songs because I already knew their style.

After a few weeks of practicing, we finally got to put our skills to the test. We set up the system without a problem and made a schedule as to who was lead DJ at particular times. When the dance started we were ready to have some fun.

The dance was a little slow at first, and getting people to dance was more difficult than we had thought. Eventually, after much coaxing from the DJ team and a few classic songs no one in their right mind could refuse to dance to, we got people groove and have a good time.

It was a lot of fun throughout the whole process, and the end result went better then we had hoped. There were almost no technical difficulties, and people were enjoying themselves. The skills that our team has acquired are some that we will hopefully use many times in the future. Maybe we can even train new DJs in the coming years so that when we graduate, the DJs will have a strong presence and be able to bring some fun to the dances to come.

This experience is just one of many unique things that we as students of The Downtown School have been able to do. In my past schools, we have always brought in people to DJ, and students never really had the chance to do this unless they specifically went out and looked for it. One of the many cool things about The Downtown School is that experiences come to us. And thanks to Jill M., the DJ who trained us, this unusual but fun thing is now a part of who we are as a school and who I am, as me.

Let's Jam!


By the Members of the Music Club

Clubs at The Downtown School have a lot of freedom, short of danger: almost any idea can be up for discussion. The Music Club is a small club (like any other club during this founding year), and consists of five regular members and three people who drop in every now and then. Our goals as a club focus around writing music, though we have other plans, such as recording songs of our own and playing some songs live. Here at The Downtown School, Music Club means a lot to us, from the friendships gained through our routine Community Time practice sessions to the frequent banter about all things music.

Our school community makes our school unique in the sense that each of us can come in with our unique interests and strengths and come together to create an inclusive and engaging environment. From the experience that I’ve had so far, Music Club reflects this by bringing a mishmash of people with different musical tastes together over the love for producing and playing music; and it is truly an amazing experience.

The Music Club has been a great way for us to have fun with people that-- despite the small school size-- we wouldn’t have really talked with, but now we know very well. Music Club has encouraged all of us to try new things; Aidan, for example, picked up bass guitar after a combination of our guitarists (Dan and Jonah) decided to help teach him. All of us have also begun to listen to other genres in Music Club.

Last week, we had the opportunity to perform a song at our school’s first dance, and even though we weren’t able to perform at the most recent dance (thanks to darn mic issues!) the experience of preparing for a performance while on a time crunch allowed us to gain experience and be more prepared for a future event. Just a disclaimer: we were completely ready for the performance.

Writing music is difficult. But when we have the chance to work on a song together, and eventually see the finished product, it is all worth it. We also all have different areas of expertise which means we can all learn from each other.

The Allegory of the Long Spoons

 By Seonaidh, current parent

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You are at a dinner party. This is a sumptuous feast, with delectable food arrayed on your plate. But your silverware…. you only have these long-handled forks and spoons. You are starving, as hungry as Tantalus was thirsty, but you can’t get the food to your mouth. Everyone else at the table is just as miserable, starving and wretched. Consigned here for an eternity. This is hell.

Consider a single change. Same table, same people, same utensils, same eternity. But here, everyone is lifting the food to each others’ mouths. Every person helps the one across from them, tastes the delicious food, savors eternal contentment. This? This is heaven.

This allegory exists in some version or another all around the world, and there is a good reason for that. Humans are social creatures; we have evolved to be collaborate in our social groups. We are more successful individually when we work cooperatively and help our group. Evolution built in a strong feedback loop to reinforce that behavior: it feels good to help; it meets needs for connection and contribution and so much more. Quilting bees, fence-painting parties, barn-raisings--these are all events that are essentially volunteer activities within a social group. They meet specific practical needs; they provide an opportunity to socialize; they indulge our curiosity; they allow us to learn and share our skills; and they often leave artifacts that are a lasting physical testament to the communal effort (like a barn that will be used for 50 years). We feel satisfaction, pride, joy, and share a history over time as we tell and retell stories about the challenges and triumphs of our shared endeavor. We are bound together by our experience, our mutual investment—our interdependence.

And now here we are, jump-starting an entirely new community in The Downtown School. Tuesday night we held our very first Parent Guardian Association meeting. The energy was palpable as we all shared our hunger for connection with other Downtown School families and our ideas for supporting it . . . How might we connect? How might we contribute and collaborate?  

We connect and contribute as volunteers, reaching out. We started with the basics--people stepping up where they could to help put together benches and clean out the school kitchen before school started. This was simple, physical work, but satisfying. We connect with resources, like Chris N.’s expertise for Math 100, or a parent hitting up a New York Times journalist connection for the 9th-Grade History class. There is more to come: Google groups and Facebook pages, social events, weekend activities. And I think there is something quite beautiful about the fact that one of our very first PGA projects turns out to be a series of potluck dinners (featuring normal-sized cutlery, I hope). We connect with the simple act of sharing a meal with each other. Heaven, indeed!

But this doesn’t happen by itself. It takes organization and work from volunteers, just as raising a barn or cleaning a kitchen does. So I entreat you: grab your proverbial hammer and jump in to raise this barn. The PGA is going to be looking for volunteers, please sign up whenever you see an opportunity!

One Worth Taking

By Jessica, a current parent

As a longtime resident of Seattle I am often frustrated by the growth and changes in this city. Yet, I have this enormous appreciation of entering I-5 off of 520, as you come around that crowded curve. On a clear day the view can literally take my breath away. You can see the expanding, sparkling city, Mt. Rainier, and Lake Union. I’m sure this must be a unique experience; there can’t be many places in the world that have such a beautifully framed freeway entrance. I feel lucky and privileged every time it happens to be part of such a stunning community.

My son is an amazing kid; he is smart and kind, he is a gift to raise, and he makes me proud every day. He is not me; he doesn’t have much need for a lot of social outlet; and he asks deep and introspective questions. We are a public school family, we live in a good neighborhood with great public schools, and our three kids have always attended them. Our middle child was bored—not because he didn’t have enough work, but because the work was not tangible; it was not specific, and it was not deep. I thought he might benefit from a different experience, so we went looking for one. We drove all over that crowded freeway and visited many independent schools. My son didn’t warm up to these schools, even though the personalized service blew me away. But to him the other schools looked and sounded like expensive versions of large public high schools, where his older brother attends.

And then we went to a school fair, where we were introduced to The Downtown School. The entire experiment seemed like a risk, but it felt like a unique experience. We went to an interview with Sue Belcher, Head of School, who explained the sparkling vision of a school that would hire teachers that taught from an interdisciplinary approach and use this expanding city as a place to learn from and grow. When it came time to apply, my son chose The Downtown School. He liked the novelty, the experiment, the size of the school, and the theory behind it. 


We are now two months in, and I can say that this risk was one worth taking. This unique experience has been a privilege to participate in. Listening to my son talk about his day, reading Ananya’s post on teaching math, I am inspired, I want to go back to high school, I feel privileged to be part of such a stunning community.

The Evolution of Teaching

By Lupe Fisch

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The students sit at attention. They focus on their young teacher. Tension fills the air, along with a little fear. The teacher has a severe look on her face; her eyes are watchful, scanning the small classroom for inappropriate behavior or a lapse in concentration.

The first task is dictation. The pupils open their makeshift notebooks, pick up their pencils, and laboriously write what they hear. The young teacher circulates menacingly, monitoring each student’s progress with skepticism. The only one that has a little difficulty is Julieta, but she’s only three and hasn’t learned to read yet, let alone write. She scribbles earnestly, inventing her own script as she goes.

That was my first classroom. At eight, I would convince my half dozen younger siblings and cousins to gather on the patio, where we would drag end tables from the house to set up a classroom.

We laugh now at their willingness to endure the severe, 19th-century pedagogy that characterized my “teaching” then. They were great sports, and from this vantage I marvel at how early in my life I loved managing a classroom. Fortunately, my path into the profession has led me to some wonderful mentors and teachers; and it helped me transform those early, draconian impulses into a more thoughtful, student-centered methodology. Teaching has always called me. I tutored peers in high school and college, and when I finally had my own real classroom in graduate school, I felt like I had come home.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is its constant flux. Students bring their brilliance, their fresh perspectives, their desire for learning; and teachers adapt and hone their craft. Teaching in general--and second-language acquisition in particular--have evolved significantly in the twenty-plus years I have been in the profession. The language classroom has become more communicative and more task-based; and technology has allowed teachers to customize homework to prepare students for more meaningful class activities.

For me, teaching is, at its core, a dialogue--both with students and other teachers. My current focus of growth centers around this. I am working with colleagues at the Global Online Academy on the meaningful use of feedback and assessment; and I’m learning to exploit the robust tools on Canvas to customize instruction for my students, all of whom are at slightly different places in their trajectory. I am grateful for the energy, struggles, and richness of perspective that they bring to this dialogue.

They are already making me a better teacher.

Never say "No"

By Benjamin K.

The number one thing that has struck me about The Downtown School is how the teachers use language. They understand that words matter. It might seem self-evident to you or me, but the power of words is often discounted. However, deliberate word choice can do more good than we imagine. Word choice, which may seem like a tiny detail in our high-speed lives, can have a profound effect on people.

The Downtown School has one specific word policy that has surprised and inspired me. No faculty will ever say “No” to a student’s idea to improve the school, unless it specifically puts students in danger. This is such a simple rule, but the effects on the culture of the school are extraordinary. It empowers students to shape the school in order to make it perfect for them. It is an embracing of the fact that there is always room for improvement.

And I have seen the effects first hand.

I have been to nine schools in my academic career and never have I seen a student body more involved in the school than at The Dowtown School. A student brought in an electric piano for people to play. The student government makes up nearly half the student body.  The student-designed merchandise is some of the best I’ve seen. Even the school Instagram is run by students! People understand that the power of change is in their own hands, and this reflects an enormous trust of, and dedication to, the students.

I have the profound feeling that we have the ability to mold the culture and environment to our design. It is such a unique and empowering experience for us to have. This simple policy of never saying “no” has made me realize one important lesson: you should always sweat the small stuff.


Perpetual Beta


By Sue Belcher

The start of school is an exciting time. It is a time of renewal. I typically create a vision for what my year will look like, specifically when I operate as my best self. I create health and wellness goals, practice habits that will increase my efficiency, and design routines and chores for my kids in order to transform our household into a well-oiled machine.

At work, it’s time to develop a mantra, or motto, for the year.  In my experience, mottos are essential to rally a group around a purpose. This year the motto is “perpetual beta,” and the teaching team has fully embraced it. In the first year of operation, The Downtown School is essentially a startup. Our team is rethinking school in countless ways.


  • Distributive leadership - Each faculty member has administrative responsibilities (communications, facilities, technology, admissions) in addition to their teaching role.

  • Curriculum - The Downtown School has Lakeside School’s trademark academic rigor paired with experiential learning. We’ve built community partnerships, are re-envisioning our approach to teaching writing and math, and are weaving core competencies into everything that we do.

  • Communication - Our team exclusively uses Slack, rather than email, for internal communication. To book meetings with anyone outside our teaching team, I use YouCanBookMe, which saves precious time coordinating schedules. We are on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, with each being updated/posted to several times per week.

  • Admissions - Interviews take place at KEXP Gathering Space, demonstrating from the first point of connection that we use the city as a lab for learning.

  • Feedback - We weren’t with satisfied the grade and narrative options available in our student information system. In response, Ananya and Lupe, inspired by Seattle Girls’ School’s model, created our own feedback system using Google sheets. In addition to a grade, teachers and advisors comment on students’ strengths, areas for growth, and give feedback on course-specific competencies.

  • Time and Space - Our school day runs from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and Downtown School students embrace our open-campus policy during lunch. Learning happens everywhere, all of the time.

All this novelty can be challenging, especially for the perfectionists among us. With perpetual beta, our team is operating with a tech company approach. If you wait to release something until it is perfect, it’s already outdated. Perpetual beta allows each of us to try new things, and it creates a sense of safety around risk and failure. The rapid prototyping of ideas required for success in a startup assumes that mistakes will be made, and that people will iterate accordingly. This is a mindset that we want to embody so that we can model it for our students.

How Do Writers Write?

By Brian Crawford

A year ago I had an epiphany: the way I taught writing vastly differed from the way I wrote.

In Language Arts education, buzz words for writing instruction abound: 6 + 1 traits, free-write, peer editing, writers’ workshop, conferencing, writing rubrics, student-centered instruction, and so on. Teachers embrace these approaches, attending well-run conferences, ordering supplementary materials, and honing their craft. For years, I too embraced these conventional approaches.

But then I realized: As a professional author, I did none of these things. Sure, I planned, drafted, and rewrote, revised, and cut; but never once had I consciously applied the seven traits, used a rubric, or really benefited from critique groups (whose feedback was generally overly polite and all over the map).


Instead, I created a gnarled draft, and my editor and I had lengthy conversations about major content strengths and weaknesses. I re-wrote and re-submitted the entire manuscript, addressing these issues. The next round focused on line-by-line tweaks of sentence structure, clarity, dialogue, diction, and fluency. Enter draft three, which would be sent through three rounds of copy-editing and proofing before going to press.

At The Downtown School, the teachers use a similar approach to all publications: content editing, multiple drafts, and proofing by many eyes.

So if this is the way writing happens professionally, why didn’t I teach that way?

Now I do.

Instead of filling a student’s paper with comments and expecting improvement, I meet with every student to discuss major issues. We exchange ideas, and the student keeps a running document--created by them in Google Docs and shared with me--in which they take notes on all points to address. In subsequent writing, students consult this (ever-growing) bullet-point list prior to drafting. Their goal: to continue in the same vein as before, but now consciously addressing the points. This list becomes the student’s personalized and constantly evolving rubric. And copy-editing? We practice how to identify mechanics problems in others’ and our own writing, and we address these through multiple rounds of shared proofing.

So is this way the best way? I can’t say. But what I can say is that this approach is meant to mirror what happens in professional contexts. And since I have adopted this approach, I have seen more growth than I have with any other writing instructional method. Not that I hope to train future published authors, but I do hope to train writers with the skills to focus on what matters most: clarity of content.

It's Not You; It's Me.

By Ananya Rabeya

“I’m not a math person.”

I frequently take Uber or Lyft, and I cannot tell you how many of my drivers have winced when they found out I am a math teacher, followed by this very statement.

And each of those times, I thought, could it be that we have kept math a secret?

How would you feel if you thought everybody loved mathematics and they just haven’t found out about it yet? You would awaken the possibilities by re-imagining a millennium-old school mathematics curriculum.

Now imagine the light in the eyes of 14-year-olds, listening, understanding and being captivated by the patterns in the US progressive tax structure, so much so that they jump off their seats, rush to the nearest whiteboards to successfully devise a 7-step algorithm for their Federal Individual Income Tax Brackets. Soon, they will be choosing a location for their social entrepreneurial venture in the city, analyzing parameters in the city’s census data, planning ways to generate a retirement fund that can support the self, the local and the global community. If your eyes are shining by now, you will love their fossil fuel and net energy investigation to go along with their economy impact model.


Soon after, they will foray into the airline industry’s database, innovate ways to optimize travel schedules and navigation, studying how travel is affected by weather patterns. Join them as they make their way into restaurant kitchens, culinary institutes, and food banks, studying food distribution, health needs, and nutrition factors. If you have been craving for a creativity jolt, join their expedition to Peacock in the Desert, and the masterclass art that will follow.

Finding inspiration from the beauty and elegance around them, and from mathematicians of the past and present, our Downtown School Students will be getting to do what we never did - deep-dive into thematic mathematics. Financial Literacy, Travel, Food, Census, ArtEast, History, Coding and Ethnomathematics are the themes they are plunging into this year. If you haven’t had a taste of modern mathematical learning expeditions, and would like to see mini mathematicians in the making, we welcome you to the heart of our math campus filled with shining eyes and awakened minds.

As for my Uber, Lyft drivers, this is what I tell them: “It’s not you; it’s me.” That day isn’t far though when my next generation of mathematicians will be bringing them home to Mathematics.

Some Who Wander Are Lost

By George Heinrichs


I walked with two students, Katie and Miles, toward where my phone located the bus stop. I confidently led them onto the #3 bus, flashing our Downtown School Orca cards.

Excellent! In just our second week of classes, I was getting the swing of using the transit system. But something began to seem a Where was the Space Needle? And what were the Cascades doing there, dead ahead? I pulled the students off at the next stop. They gazed at me with dawning realization: their teacher was not their ideal navigator.

In my defense, we weren’t that lost. Not like Davy Crockett, who once said, “I have never been lost, but will admit to being confused for several weeks.” Besides, being lost is not always a bad thing. I should know; I’m kind of an expert at it.  

The first time was when I was four years old. The Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine, went through our backyard. I decided to follow it. My parents found me sometime later, sitting in the woods.

That’s when my dad taught me the art of being lost. I teach it to students today. It couldn’t be more simple:

When lost, immediately sit down and have a snack. Don’t fret; don’t struggle. Definitely avoid running around or trying to backtrack. You’ll just get more lost, and become harder to find. Now, do your best to enjoy your surroundings. Maybe you were meant to be there all along.

My dad and I have been lost countless times--never for very long, and we’ve never regretted the experience. In fact, these days we get a little nervous when something doesn’t go awry. That’s what makes an adventure. Besides, finding your way back gives a magnificent feeling of accomplishment. And so we stride with confidence into the unknown.

I believe this attitude--knowing that no route is perfect, welcoming the serendipity of unexpected places--helps make us truly aware. This is true whether we’re on the wrong bus, or navigating rocky intellectual shores in a classroom. I plan on teaching our students to trust their instincts and themselves, while developing a healthy skepticism toward those who claim to have the knowledge.

We’ll get lost. We’ll sit down, have a snack, and take stock. And then I’ll nod when a student says, “I’d like to lead for a while.”

Building Community!

By Sumeya B., Class of 2022

I am a person who really values community and the strength that it brings us.

In fact, a big part of why I initially wanted to come to The Downtown School is the aspect of creating the culture of a school. During lunch today I overheard our teacher Brian talking to the student council about how we are working to create the culture of The Downtown School for years to come--an environment many students will walk into someday.

Hearing those words, I thought about how much this school has already developed and grown in its first three weeks (12 days to be exact) Since day one, The Downtown School has nothing but encouraged us to lead...including having about 20 students joining student council and creating a loving environment and community for everyone. And starting a debate team and having students write blog posts about their school experience. When you walk into the freshly painted Commons, new ideas and friendly chatter bounce around the room walls.


Just last Tuesday, we shared about our student-made clubs and the fun activities we will engage in during community time. Drama Club was blasting Hairspray and other musicals while dancing with microphones boasting more than 17 new members. Friendship Bracelet Club had strings out for making bracelets, and Drawing Club had papers to channel the creative flow. Then there is my personal favorite: Debate Club! Me and a fellow leader made a really cool poster and a presentation on the benefits of debate. Our second Debate meeting was today, and I am a little nervous. But it excites me that already we the students have begun to take action and cultivate our environment.  Yesterday we started making the official student Downtown School policy implementing what we want for our learning, community, and peers.

What makes our school different is having the freedom to create and use our ideas to make a learning community we love and are a part of. Whether that is taking a trip to the Pacific Science Center, joining new clubs, or making our own tests based on the information we learned last week. The Downtown School has already become a place created by the teachers and us the students. A place where our community is the school and the city is our classroom.

Re-thinking Learning

By Kelsey Van Dalfsen, Ph.D.

You’ve seen the phrase on our website, and you’ve noticed the #cityaslab posts on Twitter - but what does using the City as a Lab actually look like in the 9th grade intensive? Investigating how one learns best is a pretty tall order for a 14-year-old, but luckily our impressive 9th graders have been aided by visits to and from community partners in our neighborhood.

In week one, a neuroscientist from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Dr. Gabe Murphy, visited our class and led us in a variety of hands-on activities to explore individual differences in how we experience the external world. Students participated in an activity to demonstrate how we learn simple motor tasks, and Gabe explained some of the important aspects of more complex learning, such as language acquisition. The highlight was when students designed their own experiment to investigate visual perception!


Our connection with Gabe has also been extremely helpful as students conduct independent research to prepare video tutorials on topics such as how memories are encoded and how our brains physically change when we learn. Gabe served as a “research consultant,” allowing each group to schedule time during his visit to pick his brain. We’re anxious to see students’ final products as they finish filming and editing their videos this week.

In week two, students made use of their Pacific Science Center memberships, heading next door to learn through play. Groups took video footage for documentaries they produced that highlighted how their time at PacSci demonstrated an aspect of learning investigated during the intensive. Everyone is excited to see these mini-documentaries in an upcoming student-led assembly!

Additionally, our neighbors at Koru visited the 9th grade intensive to explore the development of non-cognitive skills. Koru helps companies hire based on a complex set of soft-skills that are highly correlated with success. Students had a chance to see how the “Koru7” impact skills map to our five core competencies, and importantly, spent time reflecting on their top impact skills and how to further develop the skills they identified as needing more work. This experience will dovetail nicely with the learning portfolios students started building last week, which they will use throughout their four years of high school to track their growth towards the five core competencies.

The 9th grade intensive is flying by, which is surely in part due to all of the fun we’ve had learning through using the City as a Lab! Teaching and learning in a place where we have such incredible experts who are enthusiastic about working closely with our students and access to institutions we can explore meaningfully is energizing.

Lunch, anyone?

By Eleanor C. '22


At 12:15 pm on September 5, 2018, a group of high schoolers left The Downtown School campus for the most vital mission of the day: lunch. I know what you are thinking...freshman and sophomores... leaving campus? Shocking, I know, coming from a school where we couldn’t even cross the street alone. Where we ate lunch in our classrooms.

Suddenly, I was leaving campus with nothing but a rumpled twenty dollar bill and two friends.

My stomach was churning -- from hunger and nerves. Sweat beaded on my forehead (hey don’t judge; I’m a teenager) and bravely, I entered a Seattle institution: the Armory.

Upon entrance, my heart stopped with the threat of indecision. At the time, it seemed there were upwards of eight billion choices; so I shamefully reverted to my fallback: I texted my mother. Turns out, she was no help; so I gathered my last shreds of dignity and walked towards the nearest restaurant. Once I reached the counter, I decided I could not possibly leave since it had taken that much willpower to choose a restaurant in the first place. I bravely ordered.

I find it necessary to interject here for clarity’s sake: I am extremely Type A. I love to plan, organize, and I always strive for perfection, so you can imagine my distress at not knowing what to do next. I found myself staring at the smiling face of a person eager to take my order. At what was certainly not my finest moment of the day, I glanced at the menu and ordered the first thing I saw: french fries. Quickly, I was presented with a gargantuan platter of fries and trotted back to my friends who stared at me with shock and hunger. Their surprise faded as they helped me chip away at the fries.

After some thought, I have decided that what my classmates and I are doing by venturing into the city is practicing independence and decision-making -- both key aspects of a well rounded person. I admit that I may have failed day one of our independence practice; however, I have recently been taught that failure is imperative for growth. While I promise never to order french fries for lunch again, I cannot make any promises about getting ice cream from the Molly Moon's vending machine at the KEXP listening lounge.

From Vision to Reality

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By Sue Belcher

The Downtown School students explored various Seattle Center landmarks this week as part of student orientation. While embarking on a scavenger hunt, advisory teams received photos of various places in the neighborhood and were tasked with taking a group selfie at each. It was fun to hear the competitive banter among advisors, see the students' curiosity piqued as they explored their new City as Lab campus, and observe friendships emerge among the founding cohort. During the event, I was struck by the fact that these students truly embody the school’s vision.

Change equals growth. Starting high school can be scary, especially if you don’t know any other students. Our forty-five founders hail from thirty-two sending schools, yet these students were quick to engage with each other. Change is a natural and joyful part of life, when we adapt and evolve along with it. It is clear that our students have embraced this!

School doesn’t define you; you define the school. Among the members of our founding class we have athletes, makers, musicians, entrepreneurs, photographers, actors, singers, and programmers. I overheard conversations about new business launch ideas, decorating the meditation room, and coordinating an Ultimate Frisbee team. Our academic program allows and encourages students to pursue their passions outside of school while also inviting them to bring those parts of their identity to school to enrich the learning environment.

Learning is joyful. The founding students dove into the scavenger hunt, embracing it with a spirit of inquiry and a sense of adventure. As they ran from place to place, students were buzzing with ideas in anticipation of working with community partners like the Pacific Science Center, KEXP, and The Vera Project. At what other school can you see a live concert at lunch, learn about history through virtual reality or be a part of the next generation of arts leaders in the Seattle?

I can’t wait for the first day of school!





Adventures in Commuting

By Lupe Fisch

Working at The Downtown School turned out to be a great opportunity to explore a car-less commute from Kenmore. Apart from a brisk, 30-minute walk from the heart of downtown, I discovered two other options to get to school.

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The first was an adventure: a LimeBike! I downloaded the app, entered my info and watched the tutorial videos. It was a little scary to fumble with a new process out in the open, where everybody could see me mess it up; but I ask my students to step out of their comfort zone as they learn to communicate in a language they don’t already master. What’s good for the goose... Dusty helmet in tow, I found a bike on 2nd Avenue, next to the great bike lane the city built there. The bike lane is separated by a curb and a row of parked cars, and it has dedicated traffic signals to keep cars from turning into moving bicycles. As an infrequent rider unfamiliar with biking on busy city streets, I found that reassuring. After a few awkward minutes, I figured out how to lower the seat and off I went! It was a gentle, mostly flat ride; and 10 minutes later I arrived at my destination.

Another option was to walk a block and hop on that iconic Seattle transport: the Monorail. And riding the Monorail with a commuter’s sense of purpose was a treat! I zipped smoothly over traffic, looking down each street we passed at tree level, seeing the city I’m so familiar with from a different vantage. If only the ride lasted longer! It is a little pricey and the Orca card doesn’t work there, but I loved it: diving headlong into the bulbous curves of Frank Gehry’s MoPop building and being deposited in the heart of the Seattle Center. I’m thinking of it as my treat transport, taking it once or twice a week. School is two blocks away, and even early in the morning the Seattle Center is full of activity.

I’ve had to drive a few days this month and I missed my commuting time, particularly the 45 minutes of reading on the bus and the adventure of the last leg. With this new journey, I’m walking more, I start and end my days more mindfully, and I feel more grounded and connected to place. I’m looking forward to putting less mileage on my car and more steps on my pedometer. I’d love to hear about our students’ adventures in commuting when they start coming to school.

What is identity? How do stories help?

By Brian Crawford

As an author, I see stories as a chance to explore What Ifs: What if a boy wizard faced down the incarnation of evil? What if a girl were thrown into a life-or-death, televised game show? What if a prince suspected his uncle of having killed his own father? More and more research shows that one of stories’ purposes is that they allow us to practice problem-solving. By vicariously experiencing a character’s struggles, our brain rehearses what to do in similar situations. We know from other research that stories trigger the same portions of the brain as actual experience. So, stories are not just entertainment; they allow us to practice problem-solving and, in the process, become better humans. In the case of identity formation, literature can help us grapple with what identity is, what forms it, and what challenges it. 


This year’s ninth-grade theme is Identity and Learning. As I was exploring texts, I found so many books dealing with identity; but how could I choose? Which stories would best allow students windows into different ways of seeing the world and mirrors to their own experience? Also, how could I do this in a way that allows them to grow as readers and writers, while being exposed to a variety of genres?

As a prerequisite, all of our works feature teenagers facing challenges to identity: a Burundian boy with a French father and Rwandan mother; an Iranian girl struggling under the Shah; a Chinese-American boy stuck between two worlds; an autistic boy searching for answers; two teenagers in love with their sworn enemy; and four sisters pinned under a dictatorship. With the mirror of a teen character in place, the next step is to focus on themes that define adolescence: Where do I belong? How do others’ notions of my identity influence how they interact with me? And finally, each book needed to feature everyday teen activities: hanging out with friends; playing games; gossiping; going to school; trying to understand adults’ strange ways; and bickering with siblings.

Hopefully, these qualities will resonate with our students. The next step is to use our texts this year as a jumping-off point--not only into the wealth of literature that makes up our world, but also into what it means to be a teenager in Seattle.

Looking forward to our summer of learning

As you might have seen from some of our recent pictures, we are moving into our building and settling in. Teachers won’t officially start until Aug. 1, but we have already started planning out the summer.


The Downtown School is part of an innovative wave in education, redefining what an excellent high school education looks like for young people today. Just like a startup, every person who works at (and attends!) the school will have a significant impact on the design and success of the institution. In hiring teachers, I looked for curious, passionate educators with curriculum design experience who are eager to take on this challenge. Part of what our team will do this summer is learning from educators who are engaged in similarly forward-thinking work.

Spanish teacher Lupe Fisch and I will be attending PBL World - a conference focused on project based learning (PBL). Lupe, an experienced PBL practitioner, will be working with other expert teachers on designing, assessing, and managing PBL projects; I’ll be attending the leadership academy where I’ll work with other administrators on implementing and supporting PBL at an institutional level. At the same time, other teachers will be at the coLearn Conference at Winchester Thurston School, whose City as Our Campus program is an inspiration for our approach using the city of Seattle as a lab. Our teachers will be working alongside educators, administrators, and community partners from around the country, learning best practices, program implementation models, and methods of measuring impact.

Finally, all six of us - Ananya, Brian, George, Kelsey, Lupe, and I - will come together on Bainbridge Island in July for the Learning Design Summit organized by Global Online Academy (GOA). I’ve been working with colleagues at GOA for years, and their engagement with a variety of innovative schools keeps them on the cutting edge of educational best practices. Their annual summit draws educators from around the world for four days of talking about designing curriculum and learning experiences for students. The theme of the summit this year is particularly appropriate for us: Modern Learners, Modern Schools. What do they say are the elements of modern learning? Promoting student agency. Reimagining space and time (like our schedule!). Fostering new ways of assessment that promote learning. Cultivating a love of learning. And allowing learners to explore their interests and passions.

Reading that list, talking with our teachers, and reflecting on the vision of The Downtown School, I know we are on the right path. I can’t wait for all of our teachers to get here this summer!