Seattle's Interagency Academy is a unique and little-known slice of the city's public-school system for students who were expelled from or otherwise not making it in regular schools.
Marquise Scott sat down to write, and the words poured out.
“H hall, cell six, that’s where I was,” he began. “No way out, no one to call, no one to get me out … “
Scotty, as the Rainier Valley 18-year-old is called, was describing a night he’d spent in juvenile detention after a gang fight.
He was writing in a rundown Beacon Hill building that serves as the orientation center of an unusual, inconspicuous and occasionally volatile program within Seattle’s public-school system.
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Called the Interagency Academy, its dozen locations function as a high school for some 500 of the city’s toughest to teach — students who have been jailed or expelled, homeless or pregnant, gang-involved or learning disabled.
It is, in many ways, Seattle’s last-chance school.
The few who thrive in the program’s small classes will earn regular high-school diplomas, but those who don’t make it may not get another shot at graduating.
For Scotty, who arrived in mid-September, the chance came in the form of a choice.
Quiet and with a sheepish smile that belies his street reputation, he transferred out of Rainier Beach High after three years of failures and fights, including the one he wrote about, which ended in an assault conviction.
Yet through all the chaos, Scotty knew he was eligible for a state-funded College Bound Scholarship, which he had signed up for in eighth grade and which could give him free college tuition if he graduated from high school.
To do that, he would have to leave his gang ties behind.
The day of Scotty’s orientation was just another Monday for Interagency Principal Kaaren Andrews.
A former Princeton University basketball star, 6 feet tall and rail-thin but bursting with breathless energy, her intensity made her a natural fit for the demanding job.
And like the students, she came to the program after struggling at a regular school — Madrona K-8, where her fanatical focus on low-achieving minority students angered many parents and ultimately led to her reassignment.
It was the second week of Andrews’ second year running the four-decades-old Interagency, which operates essentially like a sub-school district within Seattle Public Schools.
The students, referred by parole officers, school counselors and social workers, are spread across sites housed in facilities run by community-based organizations, from the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center to the King County Juvenile Detention Center. Each site of 30 to 70 students and four staffers offers math and reading classes, electives administered online and counseling services.
The $3 million annual budget is based on how many students the program serves. It awards its own regular diplomas, although it also helps steer willing and able students back into their previous schools.
Much like the students it enrolls, Interagency has its share of turmoil. The program’s loose structure, mixed with its unstable student population, can lead to inconsistency and drama.
Andrews has worked to address those issues since she started the job.
Among the changes, she created a weeklong intake process in which all students write essays, complete a questionnaire and interview with staffers about which site would best fit them.
The information serves as valuable intelligence in the program’s daily fight for the attention of students with a lot on their minds.
The staff assigned Scotty to Opportunity Skyway.
Run out of a hangar at Boeing Field, the site is one of Interagency’s most popular, for obvious reasons: Between regular classes, students work with drill presses and band saws, make wooden boxes and even help build an airplane.
OppSky is also Interagency’s southernmost site and the go-to spot for students such as Scotty who are in South End gangs and likely to run into rivals in other parts of the city.
On his first day, Scotty took a bus to Georgetown and found the hangar, a wide-open room of long tables bearing vices and sanders, walls decorated with photographs of World War II planes, and an actual, half-completed, camouflage Zenair 701. Across the tables from the plane sat a row of computers, a bench press and a kitchen full of boxes of Cup Noodles.
Scotty thought he was in the wrong place.
He was shooed inside by Rickie Malone, an affable and thrice-retired former principal now at OppSky.
Malone and the other staffers quickly became role models to Scotty, whose dad died eight years earlier and mom works full-time at Goodwill.
Another positive presence at OppSky was Pedro Padilla, a friend and fellow senior.
Pedro, a big kid with a thick mane of black hair, came to OppSky that month after getting expelled from Ingraham High for fighting. He, too, was trying to graduate, even though he was reading at a second-grade level.
Pedro’s girlfriend, Gabriel Price, joined the site a few weeks later.
Gabbie, then 16, small, stubborn and determined, had just been kicked out of her mother’s house and was living with Pedro. She initially resisted Interagency, but then realized it would provide flexibility she hadn’t gotten at Chief Sealth High, where she had fallen behind after missing classes due to recently diagnosed Type 1 diabetes.
She hoped to catch up on credits with Interagency’s online classes, then move back to Chief Sealth the next year and become the first in her family to graduate high school.
But a life-changing surprise was about to complicate those plans.
At the Beacon Hill headquarters, Andrews received a Facebook message from Brandyn King, a former Madrona K-8 student she hadn’t seen since he was sent to the Echo Glen juvenile facility in Snoqualmie a year earlier for robbing a gas station.
The then-14-year-old was out and wanted to enroll at Interagency. Andrews sent him to intake, where staff assigned him to OppSky.
Brandyn also asked Andrews to come to an upcoming court hearing on a burglary charge, a common request for a principal whose students often can’t or won’t rely on other adults.
At the same time, Andrews had to deal with the typical responsibilities of a principal, such as logistics.
School-district officials were considering kicking OppSky out of its hangar to make room for a districtwide career and technical-education program in aviation — the latest threat to a program that has endured many.
The threats come from administrators concerned about the program’s cost (at $8,966 per student, it’s the district’s fourth-costliest school), test scores (39.4 percent of its 10th-graders passed the state reading test last year) and potential for fights and other embarrassing incidents.
There are more problems, too: The partnerships with community groups can lead to varying academic standards, a disregard of district mandates and, sometimes, a sense that the goal is only to keep the students off the street, not to educate them.
Those types of concerns prompted the San Francisco school district to shut down a similar program in the late 1990s. The San Francisco program was replaced with a model centered on district-run special schools for individual groups of students — the pregnant students at one school, the troublemakers at another — which is common in urban districts.
Andrews was determined to prevent that from happening in Seattle.
She believed in the support students got from the community groups, and saw her program as an imperfect but invaluable safety net for young people too often forgotten by the system.
If her students did not get a high-school diploma, she knew, they would end up on the streets or in jail.
Her job was to get them to finish the graduation requirements, no matter how.
In late January, Gabbie missed her period.
She assumed that it was related to her diabetes, figuring she couldn’t be pregnant because she’d been using birth control. But she took a test anyway.
Gabbie had spent her life helping her single mom take care of her four younger siblings, but wasn’t prepared to become a mother herself.
Surprisingly, Gabbie’s mom took the news well. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll get it taken care of.”
But Gabbie wasn’t sure. She thought about it for several days and consulted Gina Cassinelli, the head teacher at OppSky, before reaching a decision.
Gabbie called her mom at the U-Haul store where she works.
Then she called Cassinelli.
“This happened for a reason,” Gabbie said.
Pedro, the baby’s father, told Gabbie he wanted to raise the child with her. She said he needed to graduate to stay in her life.
He redoubled his efforts.
Here was an unlikely use of the high-powered tools in the back of the OppSky hangar: Gabbie, a checkered headscarf wrapped over her black hair, was making a wooden sign demanding freedom for two classmates.
She knew they were guilty of robbing a pawnshop, but she thought they were being punished too harshly.
“They were broke,” she explained.
“Nobody was hurt,” another student added.
Then Scotty piped up from the next table over.
“They deserve a second chance,” he said. “I got one.”
Indeed, Scotty appeared to be taking advantage of his.
In a few months, he’d become one of OppSky’s most regular attendees. He loved the hands-on learning, was passing his online classes and had started to really think about college.
Unlike classmates who were progressing slowly (Pedro) or struggling even to show up (Brandyn), Scotty appeared poised to graduate.
But his gang ties remained difficult to sever.
He still sometimes ran into old rivals and got into fights with them.
It was a cool Thursday morning in mid-March, and the Interagency staff was deciding where to assign the week’s arrivals
They sat scattered around the intake center’s cluttered administrative office, debating placements based on academic skills, discipline history, gang ties and a dozen other factors.
One student was particularly vexing: He needed intense academic support best provided by Interagency’s smallest site, but that location was stocked with students in a rival gang.
The staff discussed the case for 20 minutes, unable to resolve it.
“We need another site,” Andrews exclaimed after the meeting.
That was due in part to increased attendance, which Andrews attributed to the student-centric intake process and the staff’s monthly door-to-door trips to round up students who had drifted out of the program. But the need was also driven by increasing gang violence around the city, which was complicating site assignments and straining Interagency in many ways.
A few weeks earlier, Andrews had to sneak a student out of intake when she heard that another one, in a rival gang, was trying to round up friends to beat him up.
But the staff could do only so much to stop the fighting.
Every week, it seemed, Andrews received a text message with the news a student was in the hospital or in jail.
Down at OppSky, violence was hitting closer to home. As spring wore on, recaps of recent shootings increasingly dominated conversations during breaks.
“What is this world coming to?” Gabbie blurted out one morning. “Everybody’s got guns, so everybody’s acting crazy. Everybody.”
The students distracted themselves with activities, which are a big part of OppSky’s project-based model.
Scotty and Pedro’s favorite was an indoor rock-climbing group.
Gabbie’s was The Giving Room, a student-run donation center for teen parents. But increasingly her time was taken up in preparing for her own baby.
She took a bus an hour and a half to the University of Washington Medical Center every other week, and she met with a public-health nurse at OppSky every week. The nurse often brought videos about pregnancy.
They would sit in the back of one of the hangar’s makeshift classrooms, watching labor while a math lesson took place around them and power tools rumbled in the background.
Gabbie insisted Pedro watch, too.
Late spring brought a string of good news.
The district backed off on its plan to evict OppSky from its hangar, Andrews successfully negotiated a partnership for a new South End site, and Interagency found out it got a major Families and Education Levy grant, which would increase its budget by 10 percent.
But not everything was going well.
Brandyn King, the former Madrona student, kept getting in trouble for leaving OppSky without permission. One day he announced he was moving to a foster home out of town.
The move was not entirely unexpected, but the announcement was: At Interagency, the ones who don’t make it usually drift away slowly.
Even the students who keep attending are not guaranteed to graduate.
The day before the ceremony, Andrews had to tell seven seniors they hadn’t successfully finished their requirements and wouldn’t get diplomas.
The friends and family of the Interagency Academy Class of 2012 came to Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall on Tuesday, setting gang allegiances aside for a night of celebrating academic achievement.
“I know by the very virtue that you’re here that it hasn’t been the regular path,” Andrews said in her welcoming remarks.
“And that is why I think it means all the more.”
Then 78 in bright blue gowns lined up to receive their diplomas.
When his name was called, Pedro broke into a wide smile and bounded up the stairs of the makeshift stage.
Scotty was more subdued, striding up the stairs, hugging Andrews and posing for a picture.
Both students had worked hard over the last few weeks, finishing online classes and preparing senior projects. Scotty made a presentation comparing Trayvon Martin to Rodney King, while Pedro created an informational brochure for teen fathers.
He would soon become one himself, a realization that helped spur him to advance four grade levels in reading and, just barely, graduate.
From the front row of the audience, Gabbie beamed.
Dressed in a long green and yellow dress, she still wore a hospital bracelet from the day before, when she was rushed from OppSky to the University of Washington Medical Center after experiencing frequent contractions. It was two months before her due date and, fortunately, a false alarm.
She planned to spend the summer taking online classes.
Pedro would soon start working at a Seattle construction company.
And Scotty wanted to enroll in South Seattle Community College in the fall, maybe to study carpentry.
Sitting in a metal folding chair in the emptying Exhibition Hall, Andrews reflected on a happy night.
Her face lit up as she recounted the grins on the graduates’ faces.
They still faced fragile futures, Andrews acknowledged.
But the moment meant something, she said. It proved that no matter the obstacle, success is possible.
Just then, Andrews received a text message:
One of her students, an 11th-grader, was in the hospital, in critical condition. He had been stabbed seven times by another student.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.