An Homage to Columbia School
It's hard for anyone, even the most pessimistic of pessimists, to spend more than a few minutes in Central Park without feeling that he or she is experiencing some tense in addition to the present."
-- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Okay, so Central Park’s got a few years on Columbia School, but I do feel this way when I walk through the halls at Orca @ Columbia. The future tense might be a little hazy right now, with the District considering closing the building. But the place is saturated with the past, reaching back through more than a century of teachers, students, and community.
It helps that I know the basic facts, a framework for my past tense imaginings. I know, for instance, that Columbia School started as a classroom in Columbia Town Hall in 1891, just a year after the Rainier Valley streetcar line (now Rainier Avenue) was completed. I know that Columbia’s citizens, recognizing the importance of a school to their community, donated their labor to build the original Columbia School building at the east end of the current site, facing Rainier. I know that two teachers taught 85 kids on the ground floor of that building while the second storey was being completed – just take a moment to imagine that.
The school went up to 8th grade. I don’t know exactly what the students learned in their rows of bolted-down desks, but I imagine the curriculum was heavy on the three ‘R’s.
Many kids rode the streetcar to school – some even came by boat from Renton to Rainier Beach and then rode the trolley to Columbia. Columbia School District #18 – which eventually included Brighton, Dunlap, Van Asselt, Emerson, and Muir – paid the streetcar fare.
The little town of Columbia – and its school – grew steadily through the turn of the century. The town was annexed to Seattle in 1907, and Columbia School became part of Seattle’s School District. In 1922 the current school building was constructed, and the old building was torn down. The bell from the old bell tower was is now in the custody of the Rainier Valley Historical Society.
The school’s enrollment stayed at about 400 through the Depression, even with the addition of a kindergarten in 1936. During World War Two it rose again, as nearby wartime housing at Rainier Vista filled with families, come to Seattle from all over the country for war jobs. The District dealt with the overcrowding first by sending 8th graders to Franklin High, then by opening a temporary Columbia Annex at Rainier Vista.
One day in 1942 all the Japanese kids at Columbia School suddenly vanished, sent to internment camps for the duration of the war. Many of those children never came back. The Noji family was a happy exception: Mrs. Noji had been the PTA president at Columbia School before she and her family were declared national security risks. Theo Nassar, who was 3 at the time, remembers her father carrying her on his shoulders over the hill to the Noji family’s nursery on Orcas St., telling her over and over, “They had to go away. They had to go away.” Nassar recalls that sympathetic neighbors held the Nojis’ property on their behalf; it is now the Noji Gardens housing development.
Post-war economic prosperity and the baby boom transformed Columbia City and with it Columbia School. Enrollment skyrocketed. In 1958 there were 882 students attending Columbia School, taught by 21 teachers. (For the record, that’s an average class size of 42.) There were 10 portable classrooms lined up along Edmonds Street. Overcrowding was finally relieved when Dearborn Park Elementary opened in 1971.
The 1970s and ‘80s were not kind to Seattle’s economy, and Columbia City suffered from a combination of economic decline, increased crime, and white flight. Columbia School’s enrollment dropped, and the District’s 1978 desegregation plan didn’t help matters. Under the plan, Columbia was paired with Olympic View Elementary in Northgate. Columbia students went to kindergarten at Columbia, then attended Olympic View for 1-3rd grade, then came back to Columbia along with Olympic View students for 4th and 5th grade. At least that’s how it was supposed to work. Actually, very few Olympic View 4th and 5th graders signed on for the long bus ride south.
In 1989 the Orca alternative program moved to Columbia School from B.F. Day in Fremont. Orca had been sharing the building with traditional classes, and B.F. Day was slated for major renovations. Orca was offered the Columbia building – a long drive for most of Orca’s families. The decision to accept the move was fraught, but in the end the community was excited by the prospect of bringing alternative education to a diverse population.
Over the years Orca has made its mark on Columbia School, creating the dance room, the playground, and the Garden, among other improvements. The Garden harbors many stories of its own: it has been the site of much planting and harvesting, cider pressing, chicken chasing, and at least one funeral for a class hamster. It contains solar panels and weathervanes, a giant sundial, and a memorial grove for a former Orca student.
Orca has made its mark on the neighborhood as well. Many would argue that Orca’s presence contributed to the flavor of Columbia City’s revitalization in the 1990s. The process continues – with each annual Orca Garden Plant Sale, the school sends out countless seedlings into the yards of its neighbors and friends. With colorful murals broadcasting its joyful spirit to passersby, Orca has become an integral part of the life of Columbia City, just like the original Columbia School way back in 1892. Whatever happens to the site in the future, these stories from the past will remain.
by Mikala Woodward