Last fall, Seattle’s Puget Sound Community School was brought into the public eye for incorporating one of the first gender-neutral bathrooms for adolescent student use. The student-led initiative, reported on by The New York Times, seemed radical for many. But for the school’s co-founder, Andy Smallman ’88, this was a natural step in the self-discovery process for teens.
“Gender identity is one of those discoveries,” he says. “Do we as an administration say to students, ‘You don’t know yourself well enough?’ We did the opposite. We reduced it to two basic things—self-awareness and community-awareness. It’s being respectful, aware, and responsive to the experience young people are having.”
Smallman is no stranger to spreading the word about his work. He was featured in a Newsweek article highlighting Puget Sound Community School’s telecommuting capabilities, and he regularly contributes to his personal project, Kind Living, a website and blog devoted to positivity and kindness. He co-founded both ventures with his wife, Melinda Shaw.
Founded in 1994, and serving students in grades 6-12, Puget Sound Community School is what Smallman refers to as “Evergreen for adolescents.”
Puget Sound Community School started as a nomadic school, meeting in public places such as churches and community centers, while holding activities at nearby locations. Soon after, it progressed to a state-approved private school, with Smallman and Shaw advocating for independent learning, accessibility, and kindness along the way.
To create the philosophy for the school, Smallman drew from his own life experience as a student, both in the traditional classroom setting, and his transformative college years at Evergreen.
When he was in high school, Smallman says he knew how to “play the game without much effort.” He could pull off high marks and talk the talk teachers wanted to hear, he recalls. “I was a good student by external measurements,” he says, “but teachers weren’t interested in whether I was happy or connected.”
A restless and somewhat rebellious spirit propelled Smallman into a series of different jobs—from waiting tables in Seattle to disc-jockeying in Alaska, and back to Washington to participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of King County program. He discovered he loved being in a mentor role, and was named Big Brother of the Year in 1984.
His thirst for authentic learning brought him to Evergreen. In February of ’85, he stepped foot on campus for the first time and knew the openhearted community was just where he wanted to be.
“I walked onto campus and knew I was home,” he says. “I brought my brother and his wife and they looked at me and said, ‘These are your people.’ It was a feeling—you could feel it all around.”
He describes his first program, Human Development, as a tremendous achievement. “It was brilliant and it was challenging. The maturity levels in the program varied—some fresh out of high school, but also 35-year-olds. I loved it!”
Smallman credits that program—and the instructional methods of his faculty and advising team, Greg Stuewe-Portnoff, Helena Knapp, and Sandra Simon—as the pillar of his vision for Puget Sound Community School.
“I was kind of stopped in my tracks,” he says. “I asked myself why I wasn’t respected for my opinion in a traditional educational setting. It made me think, ‘How would it have been if I could have been a partner in my earlier education?’”
Other Evergreen programs and faculty also supported and shaped Smallman in a myriad of ways. He recalls one conversation about dyslexia, and how a faculty member opened his eyes to the idea that it may not be a learning disability at all, that it could in fact be an advanced way of thinking.
He remembers another faculty member, Barbara Cooley, who encouraged students to try independent studies because they can benefit from learning away from campus.
Armed with an independent-study contract, a fresh eye on childhood development and learning capabilities, and a love of teaching, Smallman moved into another pivotal role—he was matched with an autistic 18-year-old and hired by the Shelton School District to be the young man’s chief therapist.
Special-needs awareness and brain development studies became another pillar of the school, says Smallman.
After Evergreen, Smallman earned his teaching credentials at Pacific Oaks College (this was before Evergreen’s Master in Teaching program) and began his teaching career. True to his own high school experience, Smallman found himself feeling unsatisfied in a traditional school setting. He found an elementary school where he could do the type of teaching he aspired to do, and proposed a middle school program. However, the school was too small to support his vison.
So, he and his wife pitched the idea to a group of parents, and together, co-founded Puget Sound Community School. “The basic idea was to capture what my experience at Evergreen was, except for 13-year-olds,” says Smallman. The program has grown to support high school students.
Now the school is nearly 25 years strong, and continues to produce happy, healthy, connected graduates, many of whom have made their way to Evergreen, the place that helped start it all.