Yeicelin Castillo arrived at John Marshall Alternative School four years ago looking for a fight. She didn't say hi to anyone. She didn't believe in...

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Yeicelin Castillo arrived at John Marshall Alternative School four years ago looking for a fight. She didn’t say hi to anyone. She didn’t believe in friends.

“My face was all scrunched up all day,” she said. “It was just like, if I go to another school and somebody disrespects me again, I’m going to do it again.”

Castillo transferred to John Marshall after being expelled by another district for fighting. Now, she is the school’s student-body president, emerging as a John Marshall success story.

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The Seattle School Board voted in 2006 to close the school, which serves fewer than 100 students in grades 6-12; a school-district task force is to make a recommendation today about the fate of John Marshall’s programs.

At stake are students like Castillo, for whom the strong, personalized support at John Marshall proved crucial.

The school is under-enrolled and, by some accounts, has long failed to serve the vulnerable students it is charged with educating. In August, an outside consultant’s report called the school unsafe and ineffective. While evaluators praised John Marshall teachers for being committed, qualified and caring, they said the school lacked rigor and described a chaotic environment with insufficient security and “punitive and heavy-handed” discipline.

As a result, the district forced out John Marshall’s longtime principal and appointed Stacey McCrath-Smith to head the school.

McCrath-Smith’s rapport with the students is obvious as she strides through the hallways, stopping for hugs and to talk about the weekend, football, upcoming school events. When district evaluators visited the school, students gave them tours. She organized a student government, a basketball team, a back-to-school night for parents. Student artwork and photos fill the school’s entryway, and this month a group of students took a field trip on one of the Lake Union tall ships.

McCrath-Smith praised Castillo’s determination.

“She came in and was having issues and was getting involved in a lot of the drama, and what she represents is someone who’s taking advantage of what Marshall really has to offer, which is a more personalized, supportive environment,” she said.


Former John Marshall teacher Audra Gallegos said stories like Castillo’s are commonplace at the school. Students come from homes broken by violence. Their parents get evicted or are in trouble with the law. The students are truant for weeks at a time and fall even further behind in school.

Barbara Moore is on special assignment from her job as principal of a similar high school in the South End — South Lake High School — to chair the task force that will help determine the future of John Marshall’s programs. She said she took the job with students like Castillo in mind. Many students at so-called “safety-net” alternative schools depend on school for stability.

“For most of the students, school is the only stabilized factor for them,” she said. “They can count on the staff at the school, and they always look to have their needs met through the individuals who work in those buildings. That sometimes becomes their home away from home, becomes their parents, their counselors, their support system all wrapped up in that school.”

Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno appointed Moore’s task force in August after the National Dropout Prevention Center delivered a blistering evaluation of the school and its leadership.

The 13-member task force of district teachers, administrators and community members will recommend to Santorno where the district should place John Marshall’s five programs and whether they should stay together. District leaders haven’t decided what to do with John Marshall’s Green Lake building after the school moves out.

McCrath-Smith is a former Meany Middle School assistant principal who has a master’s degree in special education and served as principal of a school similar to John Marshall in Los Angeles. She said the question of whether programs will be split up has the school’s staff anxious. “It’s nervewracking,” she said.

Brightens day with smile

Castillo entered the school as an eighth-grader and worked her way into the regular high school through two behavior-modification classes. Since 2004, she has been through four of John Marshall’s five programs, all of which serve at-risk teenagers. Teachers became her friends and support system. They coaxed her to stay in school, to come back after her daughter was born when she was only 16.

“I probably, most likely would have dropped out, if it wasn’t for Marshall,” she said.

It sounds weird, Castillo said, but after her daughter was born 19 months ago she finally figured out the point of life.

“I don’t have all eternity to get my life together,” she said.

Teachers at John Marshall, she noticed, could brighten her day with a smile. So when her baby was crying, she tried the same strategy. It worked, so she decided to start smiling at everyone.

“You can’t be in fistfights when you’re a mom,” Gallegos said. “I think she just sort of realized that she had to do something for herself and for her daughter.”

At 18, Castillo is a senior this year, living on her own in a government-supported home for young mothers. In this life, there’s not much time for friends. She is home by 5 on weeknights, playing with her daughter before bedtime.

It’s not what she imagined, but, she said, “I feel hopeful.”

She has plans to go into a vocational program next year and hopefully on to community college. She wants to be a police officer.

At a recent ASB meeting in the school’s library, the students were working through a typical student-government agenda: Halloween decorations, spirit week, a holiday coat drive. At one point, the students passed around a behavior contract — requiring student representatives to stay out of trouble. When Castillo was momentarily confused about where to sign, another student laughed at her.

“Uh, oh,” the student said, “We’ve got a slow president.”

The temper that landed Castillo in John Marshall five years ago did not even flicker across her face. She laughed easily, then signed on the line.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or

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