Choosing a School: Alternative Schools

When my daughters were in preschool, I spent hours talking with other parents about elementary schools. For the open enrollment period, I would like to provide the same opportunity to readers of this blog. Each day (until all schools are covered) I will post a thread about choosing a school, divided by level (Elementary, Middle, High) and cluster. Because Alternative Schools often cross levels and, in some cases, draw from several clusters, I'm grouping them all together on this thread.

Remember, however, that a school which is great for you and your children might be a nightmare for someone else, and vice versa. So read and learn from others opinions, but definitely explore the schools and reach conclusions on your own. Take part in as many school tours as possible, and visit the Enrollment Services page on the SPS website for enrollment guides and other information.

I'll start this discussion, since I have toured six alternative schools in Seattle anad currently have two children in Pathfinder, an alternative K-8 school in West Seattle. Pathfinder is one of the best schools in Seattle according to my criteria, which are:

  1. Clear educational focus --- All the teachers understand the educational approach being used at the school (expeditionary, theme-based, hands-on learning) and have chosen to teach at the school because they believe in the approach and enjoy teaching that way.
  2. High quality teachers --- Parents say to me, with awe in their voices, that there are truly no bad teachers at Pathfinder. Several teachers, including my daughters' teachers this year, are so awesome they practically have a fan club of parents, students, and former students. (see Giving Thanks for the Good Things in Seattle Public Schools and Teachers Excel; District Fails)
  3. Fun, welcoming, environment --- Pathfinder will not kill the joy of learning that almost every child brings to school. Kids like going to Pathfinder because they are encouraged to have fun while learning. Kids also have a voice in what they want to learn and how they learn, which makes learning more relevant and enjoyable.

I could go on and on about Pathfinder. The community of parents and staff are wonderful. The looping (K and 1) and multi-grade classrooms (2/3 and 4/5), mean teachers really know the kids in their classes and can help them all be successful. My children are thriving intellectually, socially, and emotionally, and I am incredibly grateful that we found the school.

If you live in West Seattle, you need to visit this school and see for yourself. If you live outside of West Seattle, you can still attend Pathfinder, but will not get transportation. However, that didn't stop several families in south Seattle, including mine, from chosing Pathfinder.


My kids did not attend alternative schools. I did tour some but, at the time, did not feel like the focus of certain schools was made clear and/or that it was a good fit for my son. In retrospective, I wish I had done more research or revisited a couple of schools. Not to say he didn't do well but the fit wasn't good all the way through.

My experience on the CAC opened my eyes about alternatives. We have a myriad of options about alternatives in this district and it is a good thing. We have many parents who believe alternative schools are for kids who can't get along in other schools and/or for hippie parents. It's not about getting along in a school; it's about finding the right fit. One size fits all doesn't and shouldn't describe education. Many parents believe it is robbing the district of resources to have alternative schools. I think it makes a district stronger and more diverse.

Alternative schools in this district, I believe, don't get fairly treated by district staff and district leaders. They generally have the worst buildings and stay in them the longest. Alternative school parents and teachers/principals are wildly enthused about their programs and pretty much put up with this because they want their program to exist. It's sad and unfair.

This is one reason I am against Prop 1 - the Capital Bond measure. I had expected to see a very different list of schools and I had really expected to see Pathfinder. It had been buffeted around by the closure and consolidation process and is in an old, tired building (and portables). I would go along with Beth and say don't let that scare you away because they have a great community. But Pathfinder has been in that building long enough and when a new home couldn't be identified for them through closure and consolidation, they should have had a renovation.

There is an Alternative Schools report at the district website (, then type alternative schools report into Search) for more information.
Anonymous said…
Question for Beth or anyone else who can comment: Any experience with someone coming out of Spectrum elementary school transitioning to an alternative middle school such as Pathfinder for 6th grade? Does the alternative atmosphere offer enough challenge? Is there enough flexibility for such children to continue to work a bit ahead in the subjects that were accelerated in Spectrum?
Charlie Mas said…
Any time you are looking for acceleration - at any school, not just at alternative schools - the only way to be sure is to ask them directly.

It isn't enough to ask "Do you support work beyond grade level expectations?", I think every school claims that they do. You need to ask them HOW they do it.

You first clue will be if they hesitate in responding. Your second clue will be if they talk about assignments IN ADDITION TO the regular assignments. You should be looking for assignments INSTEAD OF the regular assignments. Additional worksheets or "challenge" or "honors" assignments are not as good.

Many alternative schools put a special focus on social justice. This social justice focus is sometimes expressed through inclusive classrooms that don't always serve advanced learners very well.
Beth Bakeman said…
I can't speak to the middle school question. I'll get someone from Pathfinder to respond.

However, in my daughters' classes (2nd/3rd grade)at Pathfinder, I think advanced learners are accommodated extremely well. For example, for reading, learners work at their own levels. Teachers spend time helping learners select books -- a "just right" book, an "easy" book, and a "challenging" book. This means reading levels are based on skill levels, not grade levels.

For spelling in one class, the teacher provides different lists depending upon her knowledge of the kids and how they do on a pre-test. She makes sure every student is challenged.

For math, the students do "fabulous equations" where the goal is to have a certain number for an answer --- for example "52" -- and then every student writes different equations to get to that number. Some create simple two digit addition and subtraction equations. Some create very complicated equations including large numbers, square roots, exponents, etc.

These strategies carry over to all topic areas. Students write and publish their own books --- a great activity for allowing students to work at their own level. Students prepare and perform skits and monologues, etc.

The social justice focus at Pathfinder comes out in ways that serve advanced learners very well. For example, 4th/5th grade classes have done a Rosa Parks expedition where, after small group research, the kids went out on buses around the city to interview people about their knowledge of Rosa Parks and their opinions on racial issues. Students then created charts and graphs of the responses and presented their findings to the whole school.
Anonymous said…
I have been continuously impressed with Pathfinder - both due to what I have read and through conversations I have had with parents and teachers from the school. However, Pathfinder would be a bit of a trek for us, and I would prefer that my child attend a local school in our own community. Orca seems to have some interesting projects going on - the social justice piece is there, as well as a wonderful garden and a move to a better building in a safer location - but I don't know any parents who have sent their children there.

Any thoughts on Orca out there? Any thoughts on how to get the "real" story on this or any other school? Much appreciated!
Anonymous said…
My children have attended AE2 and Salmon Bay. Both my older children are identified gifted and participated in gifted programming in another state prior to moving to Seattle. Our experience has been that personalization at the alternative schools has enabled them to be more challenged and take deeper personal responsibility for their work than their previous gifted programming did. One of the greatest gifts of project-based learning is the ability to have children work at the depth that is appropriate for their skills and the teachers that my children had at these schools have been excellent at discerning the abilities and needs of individual children and pushing them to go deeper. My second child is a sixth grader this year and we considered moving her to the APP program at Washington, but together with her we chose Salmon Bay and she is thriving and trying new things. In addition, we found that the alternative school experience has helped both of our children to see different kinds of giftedness in other children.

In the state in which we previously lived, as well as in many other states (but not WA), gifted children are required to be served with IEPs, which recognizes that along with other special needs children, they benefit from working with typically developing children, particularly in social skill development. One of the other benefits we found at the middle school level at Salmon Bay was the intentional focus on the whole child, intellectual, social and emotional. This is common in elementary school, but with the bigger campuses in middle school becomes more difficult at an age where my experience has been that the children need just as much, if not more support as they enter adolescence.

This is just the experience of our family - one of the biggest gifts of the diversity of schools in SPS is that there are more opportunities to match the needs of your individual child with the culture of a particular school. One size does not fit all!
I don't know much about Orca except that they have a big gardening emphasis and a greenhouse.

I only chime in because Orca is moving to Whitworth and the Whitworth students are probably largely going to Emerson (this due to school closures; Orca's building is in poor condition and Whitworth was not filled).

So that is a location change to know about and also that Orca is going K-8. I spoke to the principal about modifications to the building for middle schoolers. There will be some but they will be modest (probably installation of lockers and some bathroom modifications). If I had been doing the BEX III list, I would have put Orca on it to support its move and its goal in being a K-8.
Beth Bakeman said…
I think the Whitworth students are mostly going to Dearborn Park. At least that is what was stated in the closure and consolidation plan.
Beth's right; I was confusing the two.
Anonymous said…
Great Blog! Thank you!!
Any suggestions of public schools in the Northwest cluster? I am very familiar with the alternative schools, but I don't know much about the public schools. Looking at Adams elementary and Loyal Heights..other suggestions? Also what are the chances of getting into Salmon Bay?
Anonymous said…
my daughter got into Salmon Bay- for 6th gd- but she chose to stay at Summit- which in retrospect was a good decision socially, but bad academically.

I don't know much recent info about many of the elem schools, but our local school West Woodland has a strong PTA, new build & very involved community.
Beth Bakeman said…
I'm starting a North Seattle elementary schools thread today. Check out that one for comments on schools in the Northwest, North and Northeast clusters.
Beth Bakeman said…
Regarding the question about the chances of getting into Salmon Bay (or any school), the probability varies every year.

But, it is important to remember it doesn't matter what the chances are. Why? Well, it's convoluted and difficult to understand the enrollment system, but if you just list all the schools you would like your child to attend in your true order of preference, it works out.

You are not penalized in any way by listing many schools. And, if you don't get into your top choices, you still have just as good a chance of getting into the other schools on your list.

For example, if you really want Salmon Bay first and Adams second and Loyal Heights third, then list them that way. If your child doesn't get into Salmon Bay, then you have the same priority for Adams as if you put that one first. If your child doesn't get into Adams, then you have the same priority for Loyal Heights as if you had put that one first, and so on.

See pages 40 & 41 of the Elementary Enrollment Guide,for details on assignment tiebreakers.
Anonymous said…
Is Pathfinder School in West Seattle? I see that the address is SW Genesse Street, which looks like it would be south. I'm new to Seattle and I wanted to be sure it's the same school you are referencing in the blog.

Beth Bakeman said…
Yes, Pathfinder is in West Seattle on Genesee. See Pathfinder's website for more details.
Anonymous said…
ORCA is a great option for families who are in the South. Ben Ostrum is very passionate (be prepared, when he starts talking about something hes cares about, he puts the Gilmore Girls to shame on word speed) and, in my opinion, the school really does embrace all comers.
Anonymous said…
Great Blog - thank you! Hope I'm not too late to write. I see that no one has offered comments about TOPS, yet I hear good things about it through the grape vine. Can anyone add some insight? It seems like a fantastic school from what I've seen/heard. (I went on a tour this year, but it was my first and, unfortunately, I didn't know all the right questions to ask.) Thanks.
Anonymous said…
I'd be happy to answer questions about TOPS. It is a great school. We feel lucky to be there (going on 8 years now!).


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