Community Post

As Mann takes new, improved shape, Nova students wonder if they got raw deal

How is Nova Alternative High School doing in their “new” location, a year and a half after their move?

“The people you should be asking are the students,” said Dr. Mark Perry, Principal at Nova.  And so we did. 

When the Seattle School Board voted to close numerous schools two years ago Meany Middle School, one of the smallest middle schools in the district, was slated to close.  At the same time Horace Mann School, once an elementary school which had housed Nova Alternative High School for decades, was deemed unsafe and unsound.  The district used this opportunity to move the Nova school from the Mann School building to the Meany School building, which it would share with the Secondary Bilingual School.  Mann was left vacant, its fate undecided. 

Now, just as Nova is midway through their second year at the old Meany Middle School building, a nonprofit group has arranged to lease the Horace Mann School from the Seattle School District to start a school for at-risk youth, focusing on 16 to 21-year-olds who have dropped out of high school and would like to earn their diplomas and get their lives straightened out – and they’re using a $100,000 Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Grant to do it.  Volunteers joined forces with BEAN Seattle and the Work it Out project to make repairs to the building, and it is slated to open in January 2011.

But wait a minute… didn’t the district say the building was unsafe and unsound?

“They said it was not restorable, that it had not been maintained so it wasn’t safe. But who was it that didn’t maintain it? The school district.  They were the ones who were supposed to be taking care of it, and they didn’t.”  That’s the opinion of Nova High School student Carter Allen, who attended Nova school for two years at the the Mann building and is now in his senior year at the Meany building.  

Though the Nova school was moved ostensibly to provide a safer school environment for its students, Allen said that wasn’t the case.  The Meany building also had structural and safety issues.  “The walls were not attached to the floors or the ceilings,” said Allen.  Additional safety concerns popped up, including chemistry labs with no running water – that meant no water for eye flushes, no water in the sinks, and no water in the emergency shower.  

Those structural and plumbing issues were eventually addressed, but Allen said that there were many small inconveniences that made the transition from Mann to Meany difficult for Nova students.  For example, Meany was designed as a middle school, so Allen said that things were simply smaller than the high schoolers were used to – chairs, desks, lockers, restrooms.  Additionally, even with running water the chemistry lab equipment does not meet the technological standards of a high school curriculum, says Allen, because it wasn’t designed to.  Though Horace Mann had been originally designed as an elementary school, Nova had been housed there for so long that things like desks and lab equipment had been retrofitted for high schoolers. 

Then there were the bells.  “We asked for them [the district] to separate the bell systems in the building” because Nova does not use bells to signify the end of classes, but the Secondary Bilingual School does.  Allen said that though they were assured the bell system would be adjusted for them before the school opened in September 2009 it was not, and though the district fixed it quickly in most of the classrooms some of them still had bells ringing months into the school year, which was a big distraction for teachers and students.

The architectural differences between the buildings has also affected the school dynamics.  Allen said that at the nearly 100-year old Mann school people were up or downstairs, but always easy to find and interact with.  In the Meany building its mid-century design means Nova’s approximately 300 students are housed in 13 classrooms in one long hallway. For Allen, it feels less connected.

Students we talked with say it was the sense of community that Nova faculty and students missed the most and are working hard to rebuild in their new home.  Students had painted murals and created art installations all around the Horace Mann building, and losing those was painful for students and teachers – but they are creating new art.  Nova students and faculty are doing whatever they can to stay positive and look forward instead of backward.  Allen said they didn’t want incoming freshmen and transfer students to feel like they missed out on anything by not attending school in the Mann building.  The first year it was discussed a lot more in terms like “old” and “new” because it was all so fresh, but now in their second school year in the Meany building, it comes up a lot less often.

Tammy Do, a senior at Nova, transfered from West Seattle High School after her sophomore year.  She never attended Nova at the Mann building, but said that she still senses anger from the other students and some teachers regarding the school’s move.  “It was a great loss in our community here at Nova,” she said. 

Do chose to attend Nova when she realized that what she was learning in a traditional high school wasn’t being applied in her life outside of the classroom.  While the opportunity to shape her own education and “stretch [her] mind beyond what is just needed to graduate” really appealed to Do, she admits that her first year at Nova was challenging because it was so different.  Students are not forced to attend specific classes or do standard homework, but rather work with education coordinators to create a curriculum for themselves.  They have to be self-starters. She said, “motivation is very hard” for some teenagers, but that help was always available to her when she asked for it and she always knew she had a support network there to go to, and so she did.  Do is very happy with her decision to attend Nova.

For Carter Allen, news that the district would be leasing out the building his school had been forced to vacate was upsetting.  He said even now there are rumors circulating at Nova that the district plans to move the school again, which he hopes are false.  While it is wonderful to see the Mann building used for education again, it does make Allen feel as though Nova may have been cheated out of something.  Certainly this turn of events is bittersweet. 

0 thoughts on “As Mann takes new, improved shape, Nova students wonder if they got raw deal

  1. I just wanted to add, on a personal note, that I was very impressed when talking to Tammy and Carter. These are two very mature, articulate young people and interviewing them was a pleasure. They were wonderful examples of the young people Nova is helping to shape. Thank you, Principal Perry, for putting me in touch with them, and thank you, Tammy and Carter, for your honesty and input.

  2. Thank you for doing this story.

    I am wondering what they have heard about the possibility of moving the school again. I once heard that Kay Smith-Blum was interested in getting the Mann building back for Nova. The message I got was that being moved again was not necessarily something that Nova students felt was in their best interest.

    The District’s role here is very disheartening.

  3. Joanna, I am going to guess at this point that another move is just hearsay, but it does speak volumes to the fact that the students (and possibly faculty and parents) feel that the future of the school is uncertain. Carter definitely did not think that moving the school again would be positive for anyone involved – they are finally just getting settled. It is all very disheartening.

  4. I am a junior at Nova who spent a year of school at Horace Mann and don’t feel this article completely explores the absurdity and lack of foresight in the district’s actions. There were both district and state audits of the Mann building to determine its safety, and the district used only its own data in describing the condition of the building in order to justify moving our program. I don’t have the numbers at the moment, but the Meany building is an FAR worse condition than the Mann and requires more than ten times as much money in repairs to bring up to standard. When you look at it that way, it seems completely unjust to move a program that is at home and comfortable in the space its in when it is so strongly opposed to being moved.

    I can say from experience that while the chemistry lab now has running water in two sinks, its other sinks, which only work when plugged into outlets in the ceiling, still only receive water from tanks beneath the counters which need to be filled and emptied by hand. Neither the lab nor the hallway outside the lab have smoke detectors. I spend quite a bit of my time in the lab so I feel rather strongly about its condition.

    When I first came to Nova, it was a fun space and I felt invited and welcomed. The Mann building is like a house, built with minimal halls and designed to bring people closer together. The new building, as my coordinator once said, is exactly what she would build if she wanted to keep people apart. The atmosphere in the Meany building is far less pleasant. One of my teachers commented that she has never seen school spirits so low, and that students and staff who fought the district and experienced the move feel simply crushed at the process and results. I feel personally hurt by the move, and the fact that the district is now going to lease the Mann building without making any efforts to repair it only adds insult to injury.

  5. Oh man I totally forgot about the lack of smoke detectors. if it wasn’t so sad it could be a sit-com about school kids adapting to a dysfunctional building. Thanks for bringing that up as well as your other points. I’m sure it would teach the district a lesson if, when another earthquake hit, the Meany building fell and the Mann building emerged safe and standing.

    On another note I would like to thank Liz for writing this article, I’m not sure I remembered to do that in the interview. Liz did a great job with the final product. I don’t feel misrepresented at all.

  6. I remember that we looked at what it would take for the Mann building to be safe for children when Carter was still there. The district was adamant in its assertion that it would have been WAY more than 100K to earthquake retrofit it. The district was talking millions in repairs to make it safe. I hope that the program that is going to be using this building can get an independent inspector in there to give an objective diagnosis. BUYER BEWARE!

    We had always figured that the district kicked out the kids in order to sell a 100 year old building to a McMenamins or some outfit to help its bottom line.

    And why did the district never even look at Mann as an option to deal with the many extra hundreds of students that showed up at Garfield at the beginning of the year? MAYBE BECAUSE THE BUILDING IS UNSAFE AND WOULD TAKE MILLIONS TO REPAIR?? Good luck with the 100K – hopefully you have a lot of sweat equity to go with it!

  7. school in the District then that had not been satisfactorily seismically updated and still housed students. Mann might have needed some paint, but it was and is a perfectly safe building. It had been retrofitted for earthquakes by the District and certainly fared better than Garfield did during the Nisqually earthquake before Garfield was restored. The Garfield library broke through the ceiling onto the stage, large pieces of plaster on the inside and outside fell. I don’t believe that Mann suffered any damage.

  8. Thanks, Ukiah, for your feedback. The background of the district’s decision making was not supposed to be the focus of the article, but rather how you guys are doing now. If I do any further articles about it I would be happy to talk to you as well, but unfortunately I had a deadline and with the schools closed for snow and the holiday I didn’t have a lot of time to reach people.

    I am really sorry that you are still fighting with the functionality of the labs and the frustrations you are feeling about the poor condition of your school. I have a daughter at Garfield and it angers me to see her beautiful new school and know that the district is ignoring so many students and sweeping really big issues under the rug. I have a preschooler as well, and I am genuinely frightened for the future of the district.

  9. Chris, I never doubted that it needed more than $100k. It seems you can’t do anything for that little these days. My hunch was that the district has stricter guidelines on what condition the school has to be in than the nonprofit who is leasing the building, so $100k was enough to make it ‘livable’ for them, but not for the district. However, with the current condition of Meany that really doesn’t make any sense. I am sure with all the press this move got originally the group knows that Mann needs a lot more work than what they’re able to put into it right now. The really interesting part will be if, as a landlord, SPS is asked/required to do improvements to the school out of their pocket to keep the lessee safe. Wouldn’t that be a sad turn of events?

  10. Thanks, Carter, for your comments. It was really great to talk to you and I thank you for your honesty and maturity. I’m really glad you felt well represented – that means I did my job.

  11. Yep. Mann was old, but was seismically sound, had working science labs, had a new fire alarm system… The district eval of the bldg had crazy findings- such as the hardwood floors are 100 yrs old, so “unusable”. The metrics to measure the soundness of the building were flawed, not inline with state audit findings. Add to that the fact that Meany was not structurally sound and the criteria for the closure/move process was ill informed at best, and possibly intentionally deceptive.

    Don’t even get me started on the broken commitment of science labs, loss of garden/green house and kitchen facilities, further program disruption caused by necessary safety-related summer construction AND the utter disregard for budget and building commitments made to SBOC…

  12. Thanks for the story Liz. Plenty more could be said, has been said. It doesn’t take an architect or designer to know that physical environment impacts tone/mood/productivity and such. It doesn’t take a social worker to recognize that eviction will raise feelings of loss, questions of worth.

    The move was hard. No doubt. Nova students, staff and families did what they could to make the most of it, and are working to make Meany home. The CD News community can help support the school, learn more about the program by joining us next week for our craft fair.

    Nova Winter Craft Fair!
    Tuesday, Dec 7, 6-8:30pm
    @ Nova, 300 20th Ave E
    Free admission, Everyone welcome
    Crafts for all interests and ages; starting at $1
    Proceeds benefit Nova, a Seattle public high school

    Nova’s craft fair features pre-made and make’n’take crafts by students, parents and staff.Join us for cider, inspiration and the sweet sounds of Nova’s A Cappella choir.
    Learn more at:

  13. A small point: The comment writer may have inferred that the 100k mentioned in the story as the amount “Work it Out” received from the Department of Neighborhoods is for renovation or improvements to the Mann Building. However, that amount is for rent and utility payments and salaries. I think that whatever renovation or maintenance of the building that takes place is happening through volunteer labor and fundraising by the “Work it Out” organizers.

  14. Here’s an article from the Daily Journal of Commerce about an alternative school that a district celebrates instead of ignores:

    December 3, 2010
    Former warehouse remodeled into an alternative high school
    Journal Staff Reporter

    A warehouse is an unlikely place for a school, but that’s where the Secondary Academy for Success opened this fall.

    Northshore School District renovated a 45,000-square-foot warehouse at Canyon Park Business Park in Bothell to house the alternative high school.

    Studio Meng Strazzara designed the project, which is at 22107 23rd Drive S.E., and also provided civil engineering for the two-story building. Kirtley-Cole Associates was the contractor.

    The space accommodates 200 students in grades 9 to 12, and 150 more students in after-school clubs, activities and classes.

    The former school district warehouse has 28-foot ceilings. Designers used the central core for a social commons, stage, dining, and assembly area, with large movable panels and spaces for group gathering. A library is right off the core.

    An activity area in the core with sealed concrete floors is perfect for student projects, said Project Manager Steven Lee with Studio Meng Strazzara. “They can get messy and all that because it’s not a high level of finishes.”

    The team took advantage of the big openings, skylights and large garage doors, some of which it replaced with 12- by 15-foot windows. The complex also has an outdoor plaza.

    Sustainable features include recycled materials, daylight controls, high-performance glazing, low-VOC materials and paints, and insulation beyond what is required by code. New utilities and mechanical systems were installed to make the building usable as a school.

    Holly Call, school principal and director of alternative education for the district, said the building is “everything that we hoped it would be.”

    The large movable panels make it easy to teach groups and are great to display art, she said. The library is highly visible, the color scheme is vibrant and there’s lots of light and air, she said.

    “You can see learning going on everywhere here,” Call said.

    The school has a room for some physical education, but “one drawback is we don’t have an outdoor field,” she said. Students must be bused to a nearby district field.

    Ideas on how to morph a warehouse into a school came from students, Call said.

    “The kids wanted things designed in a unique and different way,” she said. “They did not want it to look institutional, so the idea of converting a warehouse was intriguing. Plus, I knew it would cost less.”

    Lee said the adaptive reuse was less expensive than a new space. It cost $6.4 million, or $142 per square foot, while new schools currently cost $240 to $260 per foot, he said.

    Call said there was some concern about having buses in the business park, but there have been no complaints since the school opened.

    The school is looking to form relationships with nearby businesses, and some students are interning at the school district’s support services department in the park, she said.

    It already has a relationship with McKinstry, which provides help for students such as mock interviews, resume tips and speakers who talk about green-collar jobs, she said. The Seattle-based firm also is paying for solar panels at the school.

    Evan Ujiiye, the district’s director of capital projects, said before Northshore acquired the warehouse it hired an outside architect to determine if it would fit the academic program of the Secondary Academy for Success.

    The old school was in downtown Bothell with other school district administrative and support operations. The district decided it was cheaper to relocate them than to update the buildings, Ujiiye said.

    Earlier this year, the district sold that land to the city of Bothell for downtown redevelopment, he said.

    The district will usually either build a new school or modernize an existing one, he said, adding that he thinks the SAS warehouse project is the first adaptive reuse of a district building to house a school.

    “It was basically a square box, it had quite a bit of flexibility,” he said. “We really couldn’t find any reason not to pursue that.”

    Other team members are PCS Structural Solutions, structural engineer; Tres West Engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers; Thomas Rengstorf Associates, landscape architect; and BRC Acoustics, acoustics.