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Wednesday, November 20, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Six Notable Schools -- They Shine With Creative, Unique Approaches

If there's one thing to be learned in a comprehensive review of nearly 100 high schools, it's that there's no such thing as one or two "best" schools. They come in too many shapes and sizes, with too many individual strengths, weaknesses and quirks.

There are certainly those that stand out purely for academic excellence: Schools such as Mercer Island and Newport, Lakeside and Bush, Bainbridge Island and University Prep top many people's lists.

On these pages, we're featuring six schools that stand out in some way other than traditional academic excellence (although several of them also appear high on those lists). These exemplify a range of schools that are doing a particularly creative job of educating young people, in a variety of situations - some quite challenging.

There's the International School, with its family-like style - and high expectations. Seattle's Nathan Hale, alive with computers, yet equally driven to intensely personalize the relationship between teacher and student. Holy Names Academy, one of the few remaining same-sex schools, and a case study of an institution that doesn't rest on its laurels. Shorewood High, a bright spot in public education where they skip the glitz and concentrate on respect. Kent-Meridian, with a standout vocational program and a creative way of focusing students' studies. And the Northwest School, where even taking out the garbage is educational.

Public or private, city or suburban, there's something to be learned from each.

------------------------------------------------- Bellevue's International School: public, rigorous -------------------------------------------------

As one parent observed: What the International School offers is somewhat like a private-school education, except that it's free, and the student body is economically diverse.

The 425 students in grades 6-12 take a program notable for its emphasis on internationalism, hard work and original thinking.

The International School, founded in the Bellevue School District in 1991 with a grant from Washington state's Schools for the 21st Century program, works hard to offer cutting-edge education.

Housed in an old elementary school in a residential neighborhood, it feels family-like and safe. Classes are relatively small and students call teachers and the principal by first name.

Admission is by lottery. This year, 300 students from around the district applied for 75 spaces.

Every student is considered capable of producing high-quality work through effort. Consequently, every student is required to master the same tough academic program regardless of learning disabilities or lack of interest in college. That includes seven years each of humanities, international studies, math, science, foreign language, fine arts and physical education.

Much of the teaching at the high-school level is highly integrated - meaning art can be linked with science, or language with history. One U.S. history class, for example, is taught in French by the students - who also develop the curriculum, since there is no textbook.

Readiness to move on is measured by subject mastery rather than seat time. So nobody fails, but somebody might rewrite a paper half a dozen times or retake a course more than once or twice. Students also can advance to the next level in a subject at any point in the year. Numerical grading, as opposed to pass-fail, is optional.

For the last three academic years, International students have outperformed both Bellevue School District and state averages on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills given to eighth-graders every fall.

- Marsha King

---------------------------------------------- Seattle's Nathan Hale: innovative and personal ----------------------------------------------

With 1,125 students this year, Seattle's Nathan Hale High is a medium-sized school that would like to be smaller, said Principal Eric Benson.

That's because Benson and his teachers want to "personalize the school," he said. "There should not be any kid who is unknown in this school." The principal walks the talk: On a tour through the school, he appears to know nearly everyone's name.

And two days a week, Hale has every student in "mentorship class," groups of 15 to 25 students who meet with a teacher or administrator (including Benson) who's responsible for their success.

Nor is the effort lost on students. "Since we're a small school, it's a tighter community," said Karmisha Hines, a junior.

Over the past few years, Hale has become known for its print shop and radio station, KNHC, which is staffed by students and broadcasts daily. There's also a full classroom of computers for graphic-design classes.

Indeed, the school bristles with computers. There are more than 300, 250 of which are networked within the school and have Internet access. And Hale makes sure every student knows the basics about the machines.

Hale's innovations are deliberate, part of its strategic plan and its designation four years ago as a state Vanguard School. That's provided extra money through Vanguard grants - and also an easing of some of the normal regulations. More than other schools, "We have the ability to interview and select the people who work here," said Benson.

Following the leadership of Benson and numerous teachers, Hale has also become part of the national Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by education guru Ted Sizer.

Coalition schools follow nine principles geared toward helping adolescents take responsibility for learning how to use their minds well, and toward personalizing education for students. Nathan Hale is in the early stages of putting these principles into practice, but they are already visible in Hale's challenge to its students and its trust in their abilities. "We're encouraging kids to show us they can do things," said Benson.

"We try things here," he said, summing up the school's philosophy.

- Dick Lilly

------------------------------------------ Holy Names: quality, tradition, high goals ------------------------------------------

The three-story brick structure that houses Holy Names Academy commands an entire block on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Topped by a dome and a yellow cross, it looks like the 116-year-old institution it is.

Yet for all its tradition and history, Holy Names is an institution that embraces change.

Founded by the Sisters of the Holy Names in 1880 and housed in its current building since 1908, this Catholic girls' school continually evaluates and refines its programs. As a result, it is one of only a few schools in the nation that have won the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon award three times - in 1985, 1991 and 1996.

A school can win the award more than once, but only if it shows significant improvement since the last time.

Past its massive front door and formal parlors - left over from its boarding-school days - Holy Names is a lively place where discussion is encouraged, respect for others is demanded, and teachers share their home phone numbers in case students need help nights or weekends.

Students are encouraged to air their views, and many views are taught. Literature classes have long included works by non-Western authors. Theology includes the origins of many faiths. "In every course, we look beyond our own culture," says Principal Elizabeth Swift.

Other hallmarks of the school are a sense of community, built through social activities for students, and the school's longtime commitment to diversity. About a third of its roughly 400 students are ethnic minorities.

It's also a place where academic achievement is cool. Three-quarters of the students take at least one advanced-placement course.

"Here, if you have straight A's, that's good. It's nothing to hide," says junior Mia Villanueva.

- Linda Shaw

------------------------------------------------ Shorewood: respectful students in `gentle place' ------------------------------------------------

A few minutes ago, they were eating pizza and laughing. Now they lift bows to strings to coax "Greensleeves" from their violins.

"You're emerging from the water," orchestra director Don Wing advises his musicians. "And when you get to the surface, you're just glowing."

A few doors away, students in a government class debates Initiative 671, the bid to bring electronic gaming to tribal casinos.

In ceramics class, several students are making coffee mugs. And in physics class - it was ever thus - they hunch silently, taking mid-terms.

In short, things are humming at Shorewood High School.

With more than 1,600 students this year in nine buildings and numerous portables on a campus stretching several blocks, Shorewood High School is an unexpected bright spot in public secondary education.

Many things have burnished the Shoreline District school's reputation of solid and well-rounded programs. It's the test scores, which have remained above average as the school has grown more ethnically diverse. It's the sophisticated culinary classes, and the myriad music programs in which almost 30 percent of students participate, and the winning girls' gymnastics team. It's also extras like the philosophy course taught by Principal Rick Robbins, who handles his leadership role with enough approachability for students to cadge $2 from him for lunch.

"We don't have superficially glamorous things. We don't have glitzy programs," Robbins said. "But that gives space and permission for other things. This is a gentle place where we treat kids with respect, and we expect them to be respectful and gentle with each other."

- Nancy Montgomery

--------------------------------------------- Kent-Meridian: Students specialize their work ---------------------------------------------

In many ways, Kent-Meridian Senior High School is four schools under one roof, and many of its teachers and students like it that way.

The student body is split into four different areas of study, or teams. Though students take many of the same basic classes, students in each team are required to focus on a particular discipline, similar to a college major.

The teams are applied science and technology, health science and human studies, international business, and arts and humanities.

One of the system's big benefits is that it allows teachers - also assigned to teams - to get to know students better, officials say.

While the Kent District school has about 1,400 students, many say it feels much smaller. Counselors say the arrangement makes discipline more manageable.

Kent-Meridian also has one of the strongest vocational-technical programs in the area. Students in the applied science and technology team are immersed in a wide range of classes, including welding, automotive care and wood shop.

Dan Aragon, who has won numerous teaching awards, said that every year demand for his welding classes increases, in part because the school's team system encourages total immersion in vocational programs.

"We work with every student at their own level," he said. "Kids here know that they will be treated as an individual."

- E.J. Gong Jr.

----------------------------------------------- Northwest School: They sweep, dust, learn, grow -----------------------------------------------

A quarter to 10 this morning brings a commotion inside the Northwest School on First Hill in Seattle.

Three times a week, students and teachers drop their lessons and pick up their dust rags, sweepers and vacuum cleaners. They do everything, from lawn raking to toilet scrubbing.

Northwest looks like school, for sure, but it feels like home.

Founded in 1978 by public-school teachers, the combined middle- and high-school strives for a nurturing atmosphere where intensive learning can occur, says head of school and co-founder Ellen Taussig.

This year, Northwest won a Blue Ribbon School award for excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.

Inside the 91-year-old building, where duct-taped carpets hide creaky floors, robust discussions abound. And the 250 or so upper-school students who study here for $11,375 a year need energy for the college-prep pace.

All students must take three years each of math, science and a second language, plus a humanities sequence that integrates history, literature and the culture.

The humanities lectures are accompanied by small-group discussions and conferences with teachers.

Students also must take dance, theater, visual arts and music, all taught by outside professionals.

But no one slips through the cracks, co-founder Mark Terry insists.

The cleaning and recycling are an important function, instilling respect for one's surroundings, said upper-school Director Glen Sterr: "They come to feel like they own the space here."

- Tyrone Beason

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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