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Whitworth School History

Project with students at Orca K-8 at Whitworth to research history of Whitworth School.

Tieran at work


Our Whitworth history project began in May with Mikala teaching an elective class for a dozen 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at Orca School, which moved from the Columbia building to Whitworth in 2007. Several of the students said they had signed up for the class because they thought learning about Whitworth’s history would help them feel more connected to their new home.

We started off the class by listing some questions the kids had about Whitworth, and brainstorming possible sources of information that might help us answer them. We talked about the difference between primary and secondary sources, and the varying reliability and usefulness of different kinds of information. For instance: people’s first-hand memories can give a vivid picture of an event or an era, but they’re often wrong about details like dates. Official school records are pretty reliable about such details, but may leave out crucial aspects of a particular event or situation. Newspaper articles often focus on dramatic moments of triumph or failure, without really explaining the millions of smaller events that led up to the crisis, or following up on what happened afterwards.  Historians have to put all these clues together to create a coherent narrative, while balancing different perspectives and acknowledging that sometimes you just don’t know exactly what really happened.

For example, one of our favorite Whitworth stories emerged from a single paragraph in the Seattle School Board minutes from April 1913:

Whitworth School Principal. The Superintendent having indicated on the monthly pay-roll that the Principal of the Whitworth school closed said school for two days on account of diphtheria, without authority from the office, the matter of allowing said Principal full salary for the month, was considered. On motion it was determined to allow the full salary for the month, the Superintendent to caution against the closing of any schools without proper authority.

This intriguing tidbit sent us scurrying to find out more. One student researched diphtheria on the internet and came back with some gruesome pictures to share. Another student checked the District’s School Record and found out that the principal in question was Emma Hart, who had the job from 1908 to 1938. We managed to dig up Emma Hart’s obituary from 1942, which said she never married and lived with her sister Alice. Bernice Sisson, who went to Whitworth in the 1930s, came in to be interviewed and told the kids that Emma Hart was "short, nice, and strict." She didn’t think Miss Hart was the kind of person who would defy the "proper authority" without a very good reason, and suspected that there must have been some kind of misunderstanding. We scanned the newspaper headlines from the spring of 1913 but didn’t find anything about a widespread diphtheria epidemic. We did find one sentence, buried in the back pages of the Rainier Valley Record among the social announcements and poultry advice, that said "After being thoroughly fumigated, the Whitworth school was opened the latter part of last week." And we discovered that in 1940 the school district started vaccinating kids against diphtheria – we found several photographs of nurses in crisp white uniforms wielding sharp needles upon miserable-looking children.

The students uncovered half a dozen such stories, and delved deeply into three or four of them. Unfortunately, time ran out before we could produce an exhibit or publication about Whitworth history with the elective class. But we were able to engage one of the students – the indefatigable Tieran Sweeny – as a summer intern for a couple of weeks in June. Tieran sorted through the piles of photographs, newspaper clippings, and oral history notes and produced an elegant window display for our office. The display was up through the summer of 2008 and in the hall at Orca in the fall.  

We have created a slide show to share the photos and stories from this project.