UPDATED: Frank Cooper, the man who shaped Seattle's neighborhoods

Cooper Elementary, a West Seattle school rich in history, shifted its mission last week, with scant mention of Frank Cooper, one of the most influential figures in Seattle history. Here's his story.
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The old Cooper Elementary, now Youngstown Art Center

Cooper Elementary, a West Seattle school rich in history, shifted its mission last week, with scant mention of Frank Cooper, one of the most influential figures in Seattle history. Here's his story.

Seattle closed more schools and programs last week, one program being 103-year-old Cooper Elementary with deep roots in blue collar Seattle, on the eastern edge of West Seattle. (The newer building, which opened in 1999, will remain, as will the name "Cooper School," but it will no longer be a general elementary school but instead the new home for an alternative program, Pathfinder K-8.)

Cooper? Who he? All The Seattle Times' story had to say was: "In 1939, the school was renamed Cooper, honoring a progressive district superintendent of the early 1900s."

His full name was Frank B. Cooper, and he was one of the most influential figures in Seattle history, though now obviously forgotten. His story is admirably told in a book by Bryce Nelson, Good Schools (University of Washington Press, 1988). In many ways, Cooper made Seattle the city it is today, rich in urban neighborhoods.

Cooper arrived in Seattle around 1900, recruited from New York where he was a protege of John Dewey, the great progressive education reformer. He came here at a time when Progressivism was in flower, Seattle was exploding in growth, and the city was changing from a disreputable port city into a very proper town with its own symphony, Olmsted-designed parks, and other signs of middle class respectability. Chief among these was to be its public school system, and the leadership of the town, in hiring Cooper, set on a course of building the finest system in the nation.

Among the lofty goals: high-windowed, architecturally distinguished, masonry schools to replace wooden ones, highly paid teachers recruited nationally, very small classroom size, and up-to-date instruction methods. Cooper almost achieved all of these goals. For a time, Seattle schools had the second best teacher-student ratio in the nation, and pay for teachers was so good that the system attracted nearly 90 percent of its faculty from the national market.

Cooper also imposed some lasting patterns on building new schools, ideas that helped shaped Seattle neighborhoods. He wanted schools to be the anchors of neighborhoods, normally siting them on high ground, watering the lawns and gardens all summer as living horticulture lessons, and keeping them open in the evening for adult instruction. As church steeples were for New England greens, Cooper's handsome schools were for secular Seattle.

Cooper was a believer in small schools, both for educational reasons and also to make them walkable for the neighborhoods: small schools are more numerous, hence closer to the customers. It's one reason we have so many school buildings (and a need, perhaps, for closures). And it's why schools came to define the distinctive character of Seattle's neighborhoods, creating a city of cohesive neighborhoods that is still one of Seattle's great attractions.

UPDATED: Cooper Elementary was opened amid the steel mills in 1906 and moved in 1917 into a handsome brick building, designed by Edgar Blair, at 4408 Delridge Way, and first called Youngstown School. It was later named for Frank B. Cooper, as some residents wanted to avoid the industrial connotations of Youngstown. That building was recently sold and converted into the Youngstown Arts Center, a flourishing community center that admirably preserves a Cooper-era building and adjoins one of the city's largest nature corridors, the Duwamish Wildlife Preserve.

Cooper Elementary shifted in 1999 to a new building at 1901 S.W. Genessee St., carrying along the name. Next year, the Cooper elementary students will be dispersed, but Cooper School will continue on, the new home of Pathfinder K-8. For the full story about Cooper Elementary, the School District has an admirable website with each school's history, 1862-2000.

The Frank Cooper story has a sad ending. A reaction and red scare set in across the nation in 1919 as soldiers came home to a tough economy and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Seattle's General Strike of 1919 backfired and the city became a leader in the reaction against progressive values and big spending. Cooper was bounced from his post, in 1922, though his legacy in buildings and urban planning remains.

Curiously, the Cooper saga — high, progressive goals, followed by a political reaction — was to be echoed a generation later at the University of Washington. In 1915, the university hired as its president another Dewey protege, Henry Suzzallo, who set about transforming the institution. But he incurred the displeasure of Gov. Roland Hartley, who disliked Suzzallo's pro-labor politics and feared him as a political rival. Hartley packed the U.W. Regents with his loyalists, who dismissed Suzzallo in 1926. Thus Seattle's boom-and-bust economy was echoed by its severe political swings.


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