A dream deferred: Showdown nears over Seattle's long-delayed World School

The Seattle district may soon revive its commitment to a central multilingual high school -- or send refugee students and their teachers bouncing across the city again.

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Mamedova breaks down actors' inhibitions with some hallway exercises.

The Seattle district may soon revive its commitment to a central multilingual high school -- or send refugee students and their teachers bouncing across the city again.

It’s nearing the end of the school day, when teachers and kids alike tend to be winding down, but Svetlana Mamedova’s drama class is going double-time. Not in the classroom; Mamedova has marched the kids out into the hall to do some warm-up, ice-breaking exercises. They’re passing an imaginary something around in a circle when the school’s principal, Martin O’Callaghan, and I stroll by, taking the tour. She invites us to join in. We walk on, but I duck back as soon as I can.

By then the class has returned to its room and plunged into rehearsal. The students are preparing their very first performances, which they have selected from an international collection of one-page micro-plays. Desale Wendie from Eritrea and Cristina Puric from Moldova are doing a read-through of “The Contrary Woman,” which seems to be set in the part of the world he comes from. They play husband and wife. Desale, who’s newer to the English language, must repeat many of his lines to get the pronunciation right. Christina seems more poised and familiar with the language, but it is she who balks at the end, shrinking shyly when the reconciled couple are supposed to take each other’s hands.

Mamedova is used to cajoling kids out of the double shells of adolescence and incapacity in English. “Remember,” she says with a flourish, “it’s drama!” One of the Vietnamese girls in the class chimes in: “It’s okay, it’s not real.” Christina and Desale clasp hands — one more little triumph on the road to English proficiency, and into the strange multinational mix that is America today.

Mamedova, tireless and ebullient, is an irresistible mama diva. Her main gig is as an ELL (“English language learning,” formerly “English as a second language”) teacher, and she clearly revels in the cosmopolitan milieu that comes with it: “I’m from Tajikistan, but my family was Russian and Turkoman, as multinational as you can get,” she say proudly. But her great passion is clearly the theater component of that learning. From modest beginnings, she will work these kids up to performing a Shakespeare play in June, as her classes do twice each year, each time with a suitably cross-cultural twist. This year it’s As You Like It. Before it was Twelfth Night, set in 18th century Vietnam and performed around Têt, with costumes ordered from Vietnam. French students — descendants of the former colonial power — played Viola and the “Duke of Hue,” and a Chinese student played the pirate Antonio. Mamedova shows photos. They are spectacular.

She and her students kept A Midsummer Night’s Dream in old Greece, but made the fairies Chinese and used Greek and classical Chinese music as accompaniment. They set Romeo and Juliet in Seattle, with Mexican Capulets and Somali “Mohameds” for the Montagues, a Vietnamese Mercutio, a Belarussian Juliet with Iranian father, and a Muslim marriage ceremony. “The students really related to that,” she says. After performing nearly all the comedies, she’s contemplating another tragedy. “Maybe Macbeth – they all know about witchcraft. Or Othello. It’s so close for them.” Will Desane and Christina be ready?

Svetlana Mamedova’s polyglot theater class is a classroom refuge to warm the heart of even the most jaded educational scrooge. But that refuge is a precarious one, thanks to the chronic uncertainty hanging over the school that contains it.

Over the past three decades, the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC), recently rechristened the Seattle World School, has been a refugee itself, bouncing around the district’s surplus buildings — an afterthought for a district beset by many other, seemingly larger and more urgent issues and interests. It was founded in 1980 at the old John Hay Elementary building on Queen Anne, in response to a flood of refugees arriving from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It moved the next year to the Sharples (now Aki Kurose Middle School) building in the Rainier Valley, which it shared with a last-resort program for students who had washed out of other high schools. In 2000 it moved back to the crumbling “Old Hay.”

"It has been frustrating that the district hasn’t been more decisive about [assuring the SBOC a permanent home]," says Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who lives across the street from Hay and remains an avid supporter of the program. "It’s been difficult for stability, and the natural growth and evolution of that program has been hampered by the uncertainty about space and leadership and curriculum."

Finally, in 2009, to the great relief of staff and supporters, the bilingual center moved to a central and location, the former Meany Middle School on the backside of Capitol Hill, that was supposed to be permanent. Then the legs fell out under that plan as well.

Underlying the quest for a permanent home is another long-deferred goal: to replace what has been a bilingual halfway house with a full multilingual high school. The Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, like the elementary BOCs scattered around the district, is intended to speedily transition newly arrived immigrants into the mainstream. Students attend a maximum of three semesters, getting English and dual-language instruction but no course credits, and then move on to the general middle and high schools. That’s easier done with elementary pupils, who learn new languages more readily and face less complex coursework and narrower disparities in educational background. The hurdles get higher in later years, and the results in Seattle are stark: Only about half the students transitioning through the SBOC eventually graduate.

The previous superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, recognized the problem and commissioned an audit of the district’s bilingual programs by the Council of the Great City Schools,  an organization of large urban districts. The findings, delivered in summer 2008, were devastating: “The [Great Cities] team found the Seattle schools’ strategic approach to teaching English language learners to be ad hoc, incoherent, and directionless. [The program] consists largely of a series of disconnected activities pulled together under the heading of ‘bilingual education’ that are actually the by-products of the school system’s long-standing site-based management approach to reform, its student assignment program, its collective bargaining agreement, its desegregation strategy, its generally low-expectations for English language learners, and the state’s requirements for testing in English.” Staffing was “skeletal,” training weak, and services widely scattered. Seattle’s was “one of the weakest such programs” the council had ever seen. "In some ways, the school district does not have a program at all."

Meanwhile, the need was growing: a new wave of refugees had begun arriving in the country, following the easing of post-9/11 restrictions, and the Seattle area was a magnet for them. This article is not the place to rehash the perennial argument over whether bilingual programs or English immersion serve immigrant kids better (though some commenters will likely choose to do so). The answer may depend on age, on individual students and their exposure outside of school, and on the quality of instruction. “How would you do if you were suddenly dropped in the middle of a classroom in China?” O’Callaghan likes to ask. “There’s all kinds of research that supports one and the other approach. Finding good, reliable, consistent research is a challenge.”

Much research of late points toward the “world school” model — a full-credit, graduation-granting school combining rigorous academics with native-language support. In theory, world schools can become magnets, attracting nonnative speakers who want to learn the languages they employ. At the least, continuity through the high school years means that those who’ve learned more English can help those just starting out.

And so, among many organizational, pedagogical, and evaluative reforms, Great City Schools recommended that the SBOC be “transformed into an international high school” — a “stand alone program with dedicated space” and rigorous academics where students would earn credits and graduate. In other words, a school, not a way station.

Funny thing is, the district had already committed to do pretty much the same thing, seven years earlier. In 2001, pressed by immigrant parents and advocates, it included $14 million for a world school in its Building Excellence (BEX) Phase II levy, which voters passed. Years of pushing, pulling, and foot-dragging followed. The district considered instead dispersing secondary bilingual services to various schools, on the elementary school model. The parents and advocates got lawyers and pushed back. The district relented. But it then shuffled the world-school levy funds over to the over-budget Garfield High renovation, with assurances that another site would appear in the upcoming school closures.

That site appeared in 2009, right in the middle of the district, in the form of Meany. But Meany had another claimant: the alternative high school Nova, which had been displaced from its longtime quarters on Cherry Street. Nova, another all-city draw, likewise wanted a central location. The solution: It and the World School would share Meany, each occupying one wing, with gym, library, cafeteria, and arts facilities in common.

Hopes ran high on both sides for synergy and collaboration between the cohabiting schools. Though they’re very different, they’re both exceptions to the standard model. Nova’s program has a big service component: Its students could tutor those just learning English. Its students also work on extended, self-directed projects; perhaps they’d find resources among their counterparts from around the world, just down the hall.

So far, those hopes have gone largely unfulfilled. Nova students have done some tutoring, but not as much as volunteers from the local universities. There hasn’t been visible hostility between the two student bodies — neither is the type for that — but not a great deal of collaboration either. “We’re not against doing more,” says Nova principal Mark Perry. “It’s just that we’re so pressed. We got thrown into the space and haven’t gotten the resources we need, and neither have they.”

Cohabiting has its trials, as innumerable roommates have discovered. Nova's students and teachers were jarred by the unfamiliar sound of bells ringing between class periods, contrary to all that it stands for. (Those in its wing were eventually silenced.) After using the tiny stage at the Old Hay buidling, Svetlana Mamedova revels in Meany’s bigger one, but chafes at having to share it with Nova: “They’re not good at sharing,” she huffs. As we talk, her counterpart from Nova pops in to discuss the latest scheduling arrangement.

“If we were together permanently, there would be more [collaboration],” says Nova principal Perry; the World School students wouldn’t cycle through so quickly, giving time to build relationships. But no sooner had the two high school programs moved in than the district stopped working on plans to upgrade Meany to accommodate them (including adding a second story to give the World School enough space). A new wave rocked the arrangement: An unanticipated surge in enrollment had left Washington Middle School bursting at the seams. The district began looking at making Meany as a middle school again.

That’s set off rounds of rumors, recriminations, and frantic organizing on the part of World School supporters, who range from academics to ethnic associations. The rumors at least should end this Wednesday (March 28), when the district administration presents its recommendations for a BEX IV facilities plan to the School Board. It seemed to be inclining toward returning Nova to the old Mann building (previously judged unsalvageable, when the need was less) and sending the World School back to Southeast Seattle — perhaps to the Van Asselt complex on Beacon Hill, or the old Columbia Elementary, current home of the African American Academy.

One school board member cheers this idea. Kay Smith-Blum, who represents the central/Capitol Hill district (which includes the Meany site and wants to get a middle school reinstated there), says the World School should move back to Southeast Seattle because that’s where most of its students are. She even suggests the Rainier Beach High School campus, at the district’s far southeast corner, as a possible site.

But a district scatter map reveals that World School students are rather more widely distributed than that. About half do live south of I-90, but a third of those live close-in — in Judkins, Mount Baker, and North Beacon Hill. For them, busing to Rainier Beach would be a longer and probably slower slog than going to Meany. Another sixth live in the far North End; they would be out of luck. Similar numbers live between I-90 and the Ship Canal and in lower West Seattle — a tough commute, given Seattle’s chokepoint-tortured terrain, whether they bus to Beacon Hill or further north.

Bob Hughes, an education professor at Seattle University who co-led the redesign of the World School's program several years ago, says the school’s potential students — those who lack English skills and aren’t on track to graduate — are much more numerous than the map suggests, and equally distributed between the city’s north, southwest, southeast, and (including the Franklin High area) central quadrants. The current, underenrolled SBOC/World School attracts only a small share of them. Others have been dissuaded by its limited offerings, past remoteness on Queen Anne, or peripatetic instability; many fall between the cracks. A central, permanent site, Hughes and other advocates insist, is essential to overcome all these handicaps. And a central location confers another advantage: access to volunteers, cultural offerings, and other resources at the universities. Meany sits smack dab between UW and Seattle U.

District administrators seem be hearing, perhaps even conceding, these arguments. One World School booster, Vietnamese Friendship Association director Vu Le, reports that top managers told him last week that they’ll recommend keeping the World School at Meany. The catch: They’ll replace Nova with a middle school program, “with some physical separation between the two.” You wouldn’t want 11-year-old sixth graders mixing with high schoolers who may be as old as 21.

If so, the bilingual discussion might finally turn to other issues, such as programs and resources and, of course, keeping longtime commitments to provide a long-term site.

“I’m just worried they might move us again,” says drama teacher Mamedova, who’s followed the bilingual center from the Rainier Valley to Queen Anne to Meany, Shakespeare collection in hand. But she’s resigned to whatever fate it faces. “If they go to the moon, I will go with them.”

Correction: This story was changed on March 28, 2012 to say that Bob Hughes was a co-leader rather than co-author of the redesign of the World School's program. That effort had many authors.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.