Love & Wisdom
Where Innovation Meets Education
Seattle Girls School empowers girls to change the world
By Nat Rubiolicht October 16, 2023
An innovative experiment at a small school in Seattle’s Central District may hold the key to the future of education.
The Seattle Girls School serves students that identify as female or gender nonconforming. Rather than abiding by a traditional grading system for every assignment, students at the private middle school get letter grades only at the end of a unit or term. The rest of the time, students receive “formative feedback” on their work, such as teacher comments and conversations that help them understand their strengths and weaknesses.
In some cases, students are required to deliver presentations to professionals in their field, such as doctors for health science classes, court justices for mock trials, or business professionals for a Shark Tank pitching competition. In others, the school brings in elementary-aged kids and requires students to teach concepts that they learned throughout the year. The school calls these intensive presentations “culminations.”
“Our demonstrations of knowledge look a lot different than a lot of our peers,” says Brenda Leaks, a career educator who has served as head of school for the past seven years. “We call these ‘stand and deliver’ moments for our kids. This is the time in kids’ lives where it’s all about identity development.”
With a population of roughly 140 fifth through eighth graders and a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-1, the school focuses on “leadership development” through learning experiences. The campus is filled with open “collaboration space” for students to spread out and work together. One wall of each classroom lifts up, creating a “free flow” between the two spaces.
“One of the realities of educational spaces is that they can sometimes center on the needs of adults more than the needs of kids,” Leaks says, adding that the goal is to make learning a “joyful” experience. That doesn’t mean it’s a comfortable one. “We help students feel that sense of pride that comes from doing something big.”
For Hannah Saraf, a 2019 Seattle Girls School alumna who graduated from The Bush School in 2023, the experience was both enriching and challenging. She recalls doing mock board exams in front of real doctors, and acting as a trial lawyer before Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu.
“Those are really special events that were so challenging and so stressful,” said Saraf. “I remember being so anxious, but in the end, they were just so meaningful. I’m always going to remember them.”
As much as anything, Saraf says she “learned how to learn” by becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. This gave her the courage to advocate for herself, speak up in male-dominated spaces, and to take her first data science class in high school. Saraf is now attending Yale University and studying data science.
“When you take a class like data science when you’re the only person who doesn’t know how to code, long-term discomfort is a really important skill to develop,” she adds.
The idea for Seattle Girls School came from a group of parents of young girls about to enter their teen years, says Rosetta Lee, the school’s outreach specialist. At the time, no Seattle school, either public or private, was teaching empowerment, body image, and confidence to young girls. The school was launched with a $500,000 grant from the late Bill Gates Sr. in 2000. Lee was one of the first teachers hired at the school to teach its initial class of 32 students.
“(The Seattle Girls School) was doing what I thought schools were capable of,” Lee says. “It honored the capability of middle school kids, the needs and possibilities, and the importance of keeping doors open for middle school girls in particular.”
Though tuition runs around $35,000, the school commits 21% of its annual tuition revenue toward financial aid, double the 10% to 12% average that other local independent schools offer. On average, students get need-based grants of around $22,000.
The school represents students from 30 different zip codes across Seattle, and has a population of 41% students of color. Around half of the students at Seattle Girls School come from public elementary schools, and go on to public high schools.
“Our kids go to the large public schools, they go to smaller ones, they go to independent schools,” Leaks says. “They’re going all over the place and they’re finding success, both from an academic perspective and a leadership perspective. That, in and of itself, we see as a measure of success.”
More than two decades after its founding, the school’s focus remains unusual when measured against both public and private institutions. Public schools are products of their neighborhoods and often vary in quality according to the demographics of the surrounding community. Many parents opt for private schools because of the smaller class sizes and individualized instruction, but the (schools) can often be cost-prohibitive if socioeconomic equity isn’t prioritized, Lee says, leading to a “certain level of homogeneity.”
One benefit, however, is that they’re “not bound to the same sort of testing requirements or mandated curriculum,” she adds. “We can (create) a unique learning environment that’s a good match for the child.”
Despite its success, Seattle Girls School finds itself grappling with a disturbing national narrative: an impending shortage of teachers. According to analysis from the Calder Center, the teacher turnover rate in Washington state reached a near-record high in 2022 at nearly 20% for public schools. Leaks notes that hiring qualified people has become more competitive. As a smaller institution, Seattle Girls School can’t offer high bonuses, extra perks, or the ability to work from home the same way many private schools can.
“We don’t have enough people who want to be teachers,” she says. “That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night. Who’s going to stand in front of our kids and really care about them? That’s the biggest challenge the world of education is facing across the board.”
She adds, however, that the school’s ethos of flexibility gives it a distinct advantage over more traditional approaches: “We’re going to adjust.”