Seattle Public Schools, 1862-2000: University Heights School

  • Posted 9/12/2013
  • Essay 10599

This People's History of University Heights 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.

University Heights School

A small community developed on the north shore of Portage Bay. The area, known as Brooklyn, was annexed into the City of Seattle in 1891 and linked to Capitol Hill by the Latona Bridge in 1892. The children of the sparsely settled neighborhood attended the Latona School.

In the early 1890s, the complexion of the Brooklyn neighborhood was forever changed. Growing enrollment at the University of Washington, then situated in downtown Seattle, required the construction of a larger campus, and a 600-acre site in Brooklyn was selected. Construction began in 1894.

At the turn of the century, the citizens of Brooklyn sought to convince the Seattle School District that their community needed its own school. At first they utilized church buildings. In 1900-01, the Brooklyn School, an annex to Latona, held its classes in the basement of the Congregational Church.

The following year, the school moved to the University Methodist Episcopal Church at Brooklyn Avenue and (N)E 42nd Street. The Brooklyn Church Annex, still an annex to Latona, closed in 1902 when construction began on property purchased the previous year.

The site for the new school, northwest of the University of Washington campus, was in a sparsely settled area that held promise of future growth. The name, University Heights School, reflected a change in the neighborhood name, from Brooklyn to the University District. The Mission Revival style building was one of the last of Seattle's monumental wood school buildings.

The students entered the new building in December 1902, coming from Latona and the Latona Church Annex. Students marched into the building to the beat of an iron triangle, and assemblies were held in the second floor hallway.

By 1907, more space was needed as enrollment reached nearly 500. The original eight rooms became the south section of the school as central and north units were added. The building now contained 21 rooms. On rainy days, the girls spent their recess in the basement where they danced on a cement floor. A garden planted and tended by students took up a lot across the street from the school.

For several years, the school grounds encompassed seven houses owned by the school district. The school custodian lived in one, which he protected from stray balls by building a nine-foot fence. The last house was moved off the property in 1927.

During the 1920s, enrollment at University Heights often exceeded 900 students. Even with the additional two wings, the building could not hold so many students, and a total of seven portables were moved onto the site. A cafeteria opened in 1919 and, in 1927, an auditorium was made out of two classrooms on the second floor. In 1927, the 7th and 8th graders left to attend John Marshall Junior High School, bringing enrollment down.

An appreciative Japanese-American father donated Japanese cherry trees to the school on behalf of his children. The seedlings were planted in front of the building.

During the 1940s between 330 and 400 students attended University Heights and two nursery schools operated in the building. In 1943, the students, teachers, and the principal united in requesting that the school, termed "outmoded," be replaced with a new building.

A PTA project in 1944 provided funds for University Heights pupils to purchase a painting by a local artist for their school. An exhibition of original paintings by Pacific Northwest artists was held at the school, with the students voting on their favorite. The winner, a large pastoral scene by Kenneth Callahan, was purchased for $35. Annual exhibits of regional art continued at the school for a several years after.

In September 1955, a program for deaf children began at University Heights, starting with 35 students and increasing to 70 by 1960. This program, together with a sight-saving class, boosted enrollment to approximately 500 children and, once again, portables were needed.

When the Voluntary Racial Transfer Program was initiated in 1965, University Heights was not designated a "receiving school" but sought to desegregate by accepting transfers and developing a multiethnic curriculum.

Several innovative programs developed at the school with active community participation during the 1970s. A program for individualized instruction and continuous progress for each child was launched in 1971. Because of its proximity to the university, numerous joint educational projects, such as the Study for Teaching and Learning, were formulated. In 1972, the school lunchroom was decorated with students' paintings.

An alternative school program, first called the University Heights Alternative Program and later Alternative Elementary School #2, grew out of planning sessions between community members, staff, and regional administrators. It opened in 1974 with 212 pupils using two-thirds of the building. The other third continued with a traditional organization. The alternative school caused enrollment to grow by 100 students. The program was based on the philosophy that children would respond with curiosity, exploration, and responsibility in a more open environment. Students could choose from a variety of learning areas. Emphasis was placed on individualized and small, multiage group instruction. Parents and other volunteers contributed many hours to help make the alternative school program a success.

In 1988, University Heights was placed on a list of north end schools to be considered for closure by the school district. The school's October 1988 enrollment was 138 in the regular K-5 program and 213 in the K-6 Alternative Elementary School #2 program. On April 20, 1988, hundreds of parents, students, staff, and supporters protested plans to close the school by joining hands and forming a circle around the historic building, chanting "Be cool, save our school." District officials cited the high costs of maintaining the 82-year-old structure, while supporters cited the advantages of a multiethnic, urban environment and the quality of academic programs.

A lawsuit was filed, challenging the district's decision to close the school and, in January 1989, the King County Superior Court ruled the closure could proceed. The following year the alternative program moved to Decatur.

After University Heights was closed, many of the activists who tried to save the school worked to establish a neighborhood facility there. The building is now leased and serves as the University Heights Community Center. The University District Farmer's Market operates on the playground every Saturday from May 30 to October 31.

When University Heights closed in 1989, the district loaned the Callahan painting to the University Branch of Seattle Public Library. In 2000, Roosevelt High School parents, students, and alumni successfully lobbied to have it permanently installed at their school.


Name: University Heights School
Location: 5031 University Way
Building: 8-room, 2-story wood
Architect: Bebb & Mendel
Site: 2.52 acres
1902: Opened December 8
1903: Renamed Morse on March 7; returned to University Heights on September 1
1907: Addition (James Stephen)
1977: Exteriors designated city landmark
1989: Closed
1990: Leased on May 1

Use of University Heights School site in 2000
University Heights Community Center


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

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