After a prolonged public outcry, the Seattle School Board voted earlier this month to table indefinitely a proposal to move the Pathfinder alternative program to Cooper Elementary School in West Seattle.

After a prolonged public outcry, the Seattle School Board voted earlier this month to table indefinitely a proposal to move the Pathfinder alternative program to Cooper Elementary School in West Seattle. The board has been struggling to close as many as 10 schools by 2008 to save the financially strapped district nearly $3.5 million a year in operating costs.

Cooper had been one of several targets in the second phase of proposed closures and consolidations. Its 250 students use a relatively new building that could hold hundreds more. Superintendent Raj Manhas laid out a plan to move Pathfinder — which draws students from all over the district — into the Cooper building. Pathfinder parents objected, saying the merge would muddle the program’s mission. Cooper families protested, too, saying the change would utterly alter the neighborhood character of their school.

Today, to understand the emotional pull and power of a neighborhood school, we take a long view of Cooper, looking back at the original school building, which served the community for nearly a century. Instructor Judy Bentley of South Seattle Community College provides the window. Bentley collaborated with Philippa Nye of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, SSCC students and community volunteers to compile an oral history of the original school and neighborhood. Today’s piece is based on the interviews of alumni from 1917 to 1989. The project grew with the renovation of the original building and its rebirth as the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center earlier this year.

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ON A SEPTEMBER day in 1906, 70 children, many of them barefoot, walked across pilings and into “Youngstown School.” Borrowed from the Ohio steel city, Youngstown was the name given to the lowlands just south of today’s West Seattle Bridge, a neighborhood where houses perched over the tide flats of Elliott Bay. Two entrepreneurs, William Pigott and Elliott Wilson, had built a steel mill there along the bay, close to railroads and water transportation. The hard physical labor attracted steelworkers from Tacoma, Portland, St. Louis, England, Italy and beyond. Their children needed a school, and the Seattle Steel Company offered a small building.

For the next 80 years, the school centered this ethnically diverse neighborhood of lowlands and ridges between the Duwamish River and Duwamish Head.

To get in touch

The Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association can be reached at For details about events and activities at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, see

The present turmoil over possible school changes and closings raises intense discussions about practical issues such as academic excellence, class and race equity, building suitability. But the intangible value of a school to its neighborhood is often the greater issue and drives much of the opposition when a building or its program is threatened. Schools anchor children, evoking feelings of belonging, loyalty and safety. They also launch children beyond the neighborhood, with competence, independence and a secure sense of where they came from.

Through the years, Youngstown-Cooper School did both. It anchored children in a stable community but helped them change.

A year after those first 70 students arrived, the Seattle School District constructed a wood-frame building a few blocks inland at the base of Pigeon Hill. A handbell rang the start of the school day for four teachers and students in grades one through eight. As population and steel production grew during World War I, a brick building replaced the wooden school in 1917. “We were so thrilled because we were going to get to go into the new building,” recalls Thelma Thornquist, the oldest alumna interviewed for the oral-history project. A lunchroom, gym, library and more classrooms were added in 1929.

In its first decades, the school educated mainly the children of working-class European immigrants. Children from Slavic and Greek families came over the hill from Riverside, a fishing community along the Duwamish River. The children of Scandinavian immigrants came down the hill from Pigeon Point. Italian and Russian children came from the gulch around the mill. A few Japanese-American, African-American and Native-American children joined the mix. In its last three decades, Filipino, Southeast Asian and Samoan children perfected their English in Youngstown-Cooper’s classrooms.

Besides reading, math, social studies, science, music, art and physical education, the school taught civics, patriotism, practical skills and the dominant culture. In 1915, during World War I, the School Board instituted flag saluting, and thereafter the school day always began with the salute. For more than 20 years after the war ended, Armistice Day was celebrated with a moment of silence. Patriotism was taught through Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, Memorial Day and essay assignments like “Why I am proud to be an American.” Students acted the parts of Betsy Ross, Abraham Lincoln and the Statue of Liberty in plays. Christmas pageants with angels and carols continued into the 1960s.

FRANK B. COOPER, a progressive superintendent of the early 1900s, introduced The Seattle Way, which aimed to educate the whole child to his or her greatest potential. The approach included learning by doing, and the early school had a vegetable garden where students worked. At home, their families raised fruit trees, chickens and goats, and fished in the bay. Girls sewed their eighth-grade graduation dresses, often using fabric from hand-me-downs and allowing a generous hem. The school nurse made house calls, evaluating students for poor nutrition and quarantining sick families. On Bank Days, students brought small stashes of cash to class and deposited them in a bank account, thus learning the habit of saving. “I was always so proud to lay a dollar bill down on the desk,” recalls alumna Betty Moe MacKenzie.

Both school and community provided a common ground. Children walked to school, bought ice cream at the neighborhood store, joined Bluebirds, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls and Sunbeams, delivered newspapers, collected string, played soccer and baseball, and roamed the neighborhood. They gathered at the Duwamish River, Longfellow Creek, the West Seattle Golf Course before it was fenced, and the Delridge playfield. “We had a run of the place. It was just everybody knew everybody; everybody went to Cooper that was in that area,” says another alumna, Paula Tortorice.

Up until 1952, students could spend eight or nine years at Youngstown with teachers who taught many brothers and sisters, and even three generations of one family. “We started in kindergarten together and we went all the way through high school together. Same kids,” says Pat Schille. “On our block where we lived, no one moved or sold a house . . . You had that consistency in a neighborhood that makes kids behave and do well in school.”

“The school was never closed,” says Gloria Mayer Coyle, who attended in the early 1950s. “I mean, you were maybe not inside, but you were shooting baskets outside and playing on the playground.” Coyle remembers the school as a safe place. “It felt good every day, which changed when I went to junior high. You belonged, there was a warmth.”

The school was more than a haven, however. It provided upward mobility. Sons and daughters of the working class often wanted to move up and out to West Seattle, which White Center poet Richard Hugo called a middle-class citadel on the hill. Mary Alice Fort Willi agrees. “It was everybody’s dream, I think, to eventually get to West Seattle.”

“This was always considered a lower-class neighborhood,” says Fred Hansen, whose family moved in during World War II. “But then we began to take pride in the fact that this was our neighborhood, a tough neighborhood. . . . Even at the high school we hung around together at the radiator. . . . We were the Youngstown or Cooper Radiator Gang. But it was fun because no one gave you any trouble.”

Parents organized to improve the neighborhood’s image, beginning with the school’s name. In 1939 the PTA successfully petitioned the Seattle School Board to change it from Youngstown, with its industrial connotations, to the Frank B. Cooper School, in honor of the visionary superintendent. Leading citizens built a community center for theater, dances and dinners. Parents pushed the city to have 24th Avenue paved and renamed Delridge Way; the neighborhood became Delridge, with its green connotations.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL issues expanded the horizons of the classroom. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a classmate and friend threw rocks at Sakaeru (Grace) Susumi Suyematsu on the playground, and someone slashed her coat. Thereafter, Grace and her sister, Lillian, were accompanied to and from school by the principal or a teacher. When the Susumi family left for the camps that interned families of Japanese descent, a teacher directed classmates to write the girls letters.

Cooper began welcoming the children of workers streaming to Puget Sound defense jobs. After the war, the first African-American elementary school teacher in Seattle, Thelma Dewitty, was assigned to Cooper at the request of the principal, Lester Roblee. Although there were a few rough spots, Dewitty was supported by Roblee and remembered fondly by students. “She was so calm and so organized and so thorough about everything that you just learned,” recalls Patty Schille.

During the Cold War in the 1950s, students practiced duck-and-cover drills in preparation for a nuclear attack. Polio and smallpox vaccinations were administered wholesale in the auditorium. In the late 1970s, Cooper hosted the city’s bilingual programs for Samoan immigrants.

For many graduates, the school launched successful careers in the arts, business, government administration and the sciences. For Fred Hansen, his experience of diversity at Cooper led him to create a registered nursing training program for low-paid, primarily minority nursing assistants. The creativity Cooper encouraged fostered a career as an artist and medical illustrator for Iris Nichols.

“I still get called as a consultant for the Polaris missile program,” says graduate John Hendron. “Those teachers gave me the ability to be useful at age 83. . . . That school was regarded in other places in the city as underprivileged. And I think they made a special effort to make it a fine school.”

“We learned to work hard, to be responsible for our actions,” recalls Aurora Valentinetti, class of 1935, teacher and founder of the Aurora Valentinetti Puppetry Museum in Bremerton. “I think a lot of it had to do because we were such a mixed ethnic group there. These were all people who had come from dire poverty. They came here to get a better life. They really were patriotic. . . . .They wanted to succeed.”

Dale Corliss, whose singing career took him around the world, remembers a teacher, Annette Rustad, who told him, “Never feel that you’re beneath anyone just because they have a higher position in life. You can do anything.” Once when he had dinner with a friend in the White House, he found it unbelievable to be sitting there from Youngstown.

IN 1989, THE Seattle School District closed Youngstown-Cooper, saying it was overcrowded, had a small playground too close to busy streets and wasn’t accessible or earthquake-safe. It sat vacant for years, used only for storing outdated books, desks and an occasional piano. Kids with little attachment to the school graffitied its walls.

Cooper students moved temporarily to the Louisa Boren School. Sanislo Elementary opened south of Cooper and drew some students away for good. Finally, in 1999, a new school building opened at the top of the hill, on Puget Ridge. The Lions mascot, a mural from the wall and longtime teachers went with it. Once again, Cooper began gathering and graduating the neighborhood’s children.

Through it all, the neighborhood never forgot its ties to the brick building at the foot of the hill. The nonprofit Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association raised millions of dollars to renovate it. With re-pointed bricks, repainted cornices and reappointed classrooms, the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center turned on the lights again this past February, reclaiming the school’s original name as well as the neighborhood’s history. More than 2,000 alumni, friends and neighbors returned on one night to celebrate the opening.

Now, instead of helping students with reading, writing and learning how to save, the building has become home to artists on the top floors, and classes in hip-hop dance, trapeze, gospel music and the spoken word as well as movies, art shows and plays. A hundred years after its birth, the building remains at the heart of this community, still an expression of its vitality and an opening to so many worlds beyond.

Judy Bentley, who teaches composition, literature and Pacific Northwest history at South Seattle Community College, is the author of numerous magazine articles as well as several books for young adults, including “Brides, Midwives, and Widows.” She can be reached at