5 most influential teachers in Seattle history

Crosscut archive image.

Who is your hero from Seattle’s educational history? For thousands of Seattle students, it’s probably the teacher who helped light a fire of inspiration, or opened a door to new ideas. But a few local teachers have had an impact that reaches well beyond the classroom, even if their names are sometimes lost in history.

Here are five public school educators whose lasting legacies changed the history of Seattle schools, and shaped the larger community in the process. This is just the beginning: What hero would you add?

Crosscut archive image.Elizabeth “Lizzie” Ordway

Recruited to frontier Seattle as a “Mercer Girl” in 1864, Ordway opened the first school ever constructed by the Seattle School District. Central School was an all-ages affair, and attracted more than 100 students on the very first day (a surprising number in an age before compulsory education), with Ordway serving as the sole teacher.

Both a disciplinarian and an advocate for women’s rights, Ordway eventually was elected superintendent of Kitsap County schools (a stunning achievement for a woman at the time) and worked with Susan B. Anthony to establish a women’s suffrage league in Seattle in the 1870s.

Image credit: Museum of History and Industry

Crosscut archive image.Frank Cooper

A builder as much as an educator, Cooper served as Seattle school superintendent for nearly a quarter century (1901 to 1922), during which time he built Seattle’s infrastructure of school buildings, playfields and educational programs which transformed the district into one of the finest urban school systems in the country.

A protégé of progressive theorist John Dewey, Cooper designed spacious, well lighted buildings; recruited teachers from across the nation (and not incidentally raised their pay); and insisted on small class sizes — a formula that Seattle citizens supported at the ballot box time and again during the boom period of Cooper’s tenure.

Image credit: Museum of History and Industry

Crosscut archive image.Thelma Dewitty

When she greeted her first class of young students in 1947, Thelma Dewitty made instant history as Seattle’s first African American teacher. A seasoned educator, her appointment was a major milestone in the post-war city, and laid the groundwork for a markedly more diverse district in the ensuing decades.

Dewitty taught at Cooper, Sand Point, John Hay and Laurelhurst elementary schools as well as Meany Junior High, in a career that spanned more than 25 years. Her work breaking barriers went beyond the classroom: In the late 1950s she led the Seattle NAACP chapter, challenging Seattle’s restrictive housing codes.

Image credit: The Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry.

Crosscut archive image.Aki Kurose

As a survivor of the Japanese internment during World War II, Kurose brought a keen appreciation of the importance of social justice to her work in the classroom. Honored throughout her career as a great educator (she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Education, among many other honors), she infused her classroom work with a spirit of cultural inclusion.

"If we are to teach real peace in the world, we will have to begin with children,” she said. After her death in 1998, Aki Kurose Middle School was named in her honor. The school’s motto: “Peace, United and Soaring Together.”

Image credit: The Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry.

Crosscut archive image.Robert Eaglestaff

Eaglestaff, the principal of the American Indian Heritage School in Seattle from 1989-1996, is credited with transforming the school into a program that successfully promoted academic achievement while being rooted in cultural heritage.

Under his leadership in the 1990s, the school graduated 100 percent of its students. Better yet, every graduate went on to college, and the school was hailed as a national model for urban Native American education. Eaglestaff died at age 43 in 1996, but Seattle educators and Native leaders continue to cite his legacy as an inspiration for ensuring the best for Native learners.

Image credit: The Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Leonard Garfield

Leonard Garfield

Leonard Garfield is the Executive Director of the Museum of History and Industry.