Three Things You Didn’t Know About The Downtown School

Despite being a Lakeside subsidiary, The Downtown School (DTS) does things a little differently. This didn’t necessarily come as a surprise: prior to spending the day interviewing students, teachers and administrators (who — as I would come to learn — operate in the same capacity), I had a certain level of familiarity with The Downtown School. I knew it was in the middle of the city, right next to Climate Pledge Arena. I knew it was incredibly small, both in class and campus size. I knew that it was a new school, with its first graduating class leaving  in 2021. I also knew that it was created as “a Lakeside School” (as reported on their website). 

But truthfully, I didn’t really know what any of this meant. Fortunately, The Downtown School’s modest size meant that it didn’t take me long to find out. As a follow up to the  piece in our December issue by Reagan R. ’25, “An Uptown Girl at a Downtown School,” here are three additional things you didn’t know about our sister school:

1. The city is the lab. The campus is situated directly in the middle of the Seattle Center. Two notable attractions — Climate Pledge Arena and the Space Needle — can be spotted from multiple classrooms. 

DTS’s experiential learning approach is arguably what distinguishes it most from other independent schools in the area. Known as “City as Lab”, this core tenet of the DTS curriculum is made possible by the school’s location. DTS encourages students to enhance their learning by utilizing their urban setting and working with local businesses and researchers.

Kelsey van Dalfsen, the Director of Admissions and one of two Science teachers in the school, emphasized the significance of the school’s location for the school’s educational philosophy. “We’re next-door to the Science Center and all of our students get free memberships. So they can go during lunch, but also we can go as a class… we can do our science class period at the Pacific Science Center instead of in our classroom.”

DTS is also heavily involved with esteemed local research organizations. “Our biology classes actually have a collaboration with a lab at the University of Washington, so we are involved in actual research where students are doing stuff in the lab to collect data that UW scientists also help analyze and provide materials for,” van Dalfsen said.

Junior students in biology explained to me how yeast from one of their labs was sent to UW researchers for further analysis. Biology students also find themselves treated to a tour of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, which is only a few blocks away from DTS’s campus: “They’re going to get to do a lab actually on-site at Seattle Children’s, which is really cool, and that’s really only made possible by the fact that we can walk there.” 

2. Teachers are administrators and administrators are teachers. No, this isn’t some strange, convoluted metaphor of the reflexive property. There are only 13 adults under contract at DTS. And with such a small staff, it would make sense that teachers must  also operate in an administrative capacity. In fact, every teacher I interviewed had an administrative title as well — Brian Crawford, English teacher and director of communications. Lupe Fisch, Spanish teacher and Global Online Academy site coordinator. Kelsey van Dalfsen, science teacher and co-director of Admissions. The list continues. 

Van Dalfsen reflected on how the duality of roles fosters a sense of community at the school: “It really feels like we’re all in everything together. Sometimes at schools there are the people who make decisions and they are separate from the people who are in the classrooms. That can make, sometimes, a little bit of tension, I think. That’s not how it is here. The people who make decisions are the ones in the classroom feeling the impact of what those decisions are.”

She also added how the students know that their teachers can enact change more easily. She commented on how students have trusting relationships with their teachers and ultimately know that they are the ones “making decisions that we feel are going to serve them best. There is no middle person.”

3. Seniors don’t write college essays. And freshmen don’t take P.E. Well, this isn’t entirely true. 

Rather, The Downtown School has crafted what they lovingly refer to as “intensives.”. These happen at the beginning and end of each school year. They are three weeks long, and their purposes vary for each grade level. For ninth graders, a freshmen retreat is structured into these three weeks. In addition to ensuring that students have dedicated time to connect with their new classmates, DTS also requires its newest high school members to utilize this time to fulfill all of their physical education requirements. So after that initial period, a DTS freshman will never have to take a P.E. class again. 

DTS doesn’t overlook art education either. The 10th grade fall intensive is centered around digital media, and as such, sophomores use their three weeks to fulfill their required arts credits. 

Freja J. ’24 explained how the juniors’ fall intensive — a lab at Seattle City Hall — served as an appetizer for the abundance of City As Lab projects to come in their 11th grade curriculum.

During senior year, DTS students use their fall intensive for college applications. Students from the class of 2023 reported that they were able to entirely finish their college essays within this three-week time frame. Luca M.-K. ’23 was a student who benefited significantly from this designated time for college applications — he found comfort in the fact that all of his peers were, quite literally, in the trenches with him. It was a supportive environment, coupled with essay-writing workshops to further bolster their application and writing skills.