Seattle Public Schools, 1862-2000: Thurgood Marshall Elementary School

  • Posted 9/12/2013
  • Essay 10598

This People's History of Thurgood Marshall Elementary School is taken from Building for Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000 by Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr. That book, published in 2002 by Seattle Public Schools, compiled profiles of all the public school buildings that had been used by the school district since its formation around 1862. The profiles from the book are being made available as People's Histories on courtesy of Seattle Public Schools. It should be noted that these essays are from 2000. Some of the buildings profiled are historic, some of recent vintage, and many no longer exist (new names and buildings not included in these profiles from 2000 have been added), but each plays or has played an important role in the education of Seattle's youth.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School

The school that is now Thurgood Marshall originated at the turn of the century when immigrants coming to Seattle settled in the Rainier Valley. From 1891, the Rainier Valley community was linked to downtown by an electric railway. With the demolition of South School in the Jackson Street Regrade project in 1909, the Seattle School Board authorized purchase of a tract of land to the east at Atlantic Street and 24th Avenue S for a new school.

The new "fireproof" school followed the nine-room "model school" design of the time but was T-shaped with the addition of an eight-room wing at one end and nearly identical to Adams. Done in the Jacobean style, the new Rainier Valley school was named for James M. Colman, a Seattle engineer who helped develop the waterfront and completed the railroad that carried coal from Newcastle and Renton. Colman was a native of Scotland who came to Seattle in 1869.

Colman School opened to 519 pupils in grades 1-7 for its first year. By 1913-14, the school enrolled 626 students in K-8. The second principal, Anna B. Kane, served the school from 1912 until 1940, one of the longest terms of any principal in the district. Special classes for the handicapped were added in 1925. In 1934-35, enrollment dipped under 400. In September 1939, when it became a K-6 school, enrollment dropped to 230.

In 1940, an addition was made to the Colman building, attaching an auditorium-gymnasium to the southeast corner. This allowed for the closing of Rainier School whose 200 pupils came to Colman. Property to the east of Colman was purchased in 1944, 1945, and 1948 to expand the play area, and the city vacated 24th Avenue S, allowing a direct connection between the school and its new play space.

During World War II, the Stadium Federal Housing Project was constructed in the Colman neighborhood. Five temporary classrooms were added in summer 1943 when the school's population rose to 550. In the late 1960s, the state highway department began purchasing homes in the immediate neighborhood of the school as a right-of-way for the new interstate highway, I-90. Houses to the north were demolished and the school became isolated from its surroundings. During this period, voluntary desegregation was launched, and Colman, with a predominantly African American student body, bused over 250 students to schools in the northern part of the city. From 1968 to 1973, a federal grant brought Teachers Corps interns to assist in the classrooms for half-days.

In 1978-79, Colman became part of a triad with Green Lake and Ravenna. Colman served the K-2 students and emphasized the DISTAR method of teaching in a successful effort to improve academic test scores. DISTAR stands for "Direct Instruction Strategies for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading." The program, which has been available at other schools in the district, is designed to provide students with a firm foundation in basic academic skills, such as reading, mathematics, and language.

Because of impending highway construction, the future of Colman became increasingly uncertain. Colman closed as an elementary school in June 1979. Under the terms of a 1972 agreement, the state highway commission was to provide the Seattle School District with land and funding for a new school at a new location. From 1979-1985, Summit K-12 alternative school was located in the building. In 1984-85, Summit K-12 had 387 students (205 in elementary level, 82 in middle school, and 100 in high school). Highway construction eventually led to Summit's move to Jane Addams in September 1985.

In late November 1985, a group of African-American activists occupied the abandoned Colman building, with visions of turning it into the African-American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. For over a decade, two groups have attempted to turn this dream into a reality, but a series of disagreements has led to near abandonment of the museum plan.

Although many parents wanted to keep Colman's student body intact during this interim period, the district initially transferred them to other area schools. In 1989, Colman pupils reassembled in a temporary site at Seward to await the opening of their new school.

A formal agreement with the state for funding a new school came in 1987, allowing the district to proceed with the design and planning process. Construction began in September 1990 on a two-story building with a detached single-story childcare facility. The site is situated adjacent to the lid that covers the I-90 tunnel, occupying a narrow strip of property along the residential neighborhood.

In December 1990, the district decided to have a new African American Academy share the new Colman School building for one year and then move to another location.

The new facility contains 16 regular classrooms, two kindergartens, two resource rooms, one art/science room, and five classrooms for handicapped students. The playground has both a paved area and adjacent grass field and is located on top of the I-90 lid. In 1996, the school was renamed Thurgood Marshall Elementary in honor of the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice, who fought successfully for desegregation of public schools. Several awards have been bestowed on the new school, including Redbook magazine's "Overall Excellence" and the National Alliance of Black School Educators recognition for commitment to quality education.

The school serves a student population that is over 70 percent minority, with African-American pupils comprising most of that group. Students are required to wear uniforms.


Name: Colman School
Location: 1515 24th Avenue S
Building: 17-room, 3-story brick
Architect: James Stephen
Site: 2.2 acres
1909: Named on April 17
1910: Opened on January 24
1918: Renamed J.M. Colman School on January 29
1940: Addition (Naramore & Brady)
1944-48: Site expanded to 6.2 acres
1979: Closed as elementary school in June
1979-85: Alternative school site
1985-: Occupied by community activists

Name: J.M. Colman Elementary School
Location: 2401 S Irving Street
Building: Steel frame with brick veneer exterior
Architect: Mahlum & Nordfors
Site: 7.4 acres
1991: Opened in September
1996: Renamed Thurgood Marshall Elementary

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in 2000
Enrollment: 337
Address: 2401 S Irving Street
Nickname: none
Configuration: K-5


Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr, Building for Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000 (Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 2002).

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