By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
West Seattle’s only parochial high school is closing after 44 years.
Seattle Lutheran High School, at 4100 SW Genesee on the north edge of The Junction, announced the closure to its community on Thursday, including an assembly for students.
“Lots of tears were shed,” says Hamilton Gardiner, an SLHS graduate who is president of its board of directors. We spoke with him this morning after receiving the school’s announcement, which says this wasn’t a decision made in haste:
The Board of Directors reached this decision at the end of a two-year effort with Hope Lutheran Church and School, focused on creating a viable pathway forward for the high school – a pathway leading to sustainable enrollment levels, appropriate compensation for faculty and staff, and the kind of educational experience that our students so much deserved. After considering all available information for the 2022 / 2023 academic year, including enrollment, financing, and recruitment and retention of key faculty and staff, we did not see a way forward that could safely and responsibly accomplish these objectives.
(Added) Current SLHS enrollment is 66, with 18 staff members.
Gardiner says a variety of factors contributed to the school’s situation – including the West Seattle Bridge closure, which made the school less of a draw for students from elsewhere in the city/elsewhere. A different challenge contributed as well – he says a change in the visa process for international students cost them some students starting in 2019. And of course the operational challenges of the COVID pandemic contributed as well.
One historical factor: The announcement notes that “Seattle Lutheran High School was chartered in 1976 by an association of over 30 Lutheran churches in greater Seattle and opened its doors on September 17, 1978.” Of those 30+ churches, Gardiner says, only five remain, including nearby Hope Lutheran, which has been managing SLHS since last year. That means not only far fewer “feeder” churches for the high school, but also far fewer churches donating to its operations.
SLHS won’t close until after the end of the school year, says the announcement:
Our immediate priority … is to our students and families – to finish off this year like any other, to graduate the 2022 senior class, and to assist the underclass students in transitioning to other schools. Some staff will remain employed over the next year to facilitate an orderly and thoughtful closure process.
As for what happens to the school’s 2/3-acre site, zoned for potential residential development, Gardiner says there are no plans for selling/redeveloping it. Its nonprofit ownership, the Lutheran High School Association, is tasked with utilizing the site “to further Christian education,” and he says the board will work over the next year to determine how that could be done post-SLHS. They also intend to continue to collaborate with Hope Lutheran.
SLHS isn’t just unique in being West Seattle’s only parochial high school. It’s offered innovative programs, too, such as J-Term, a period after the winter holidays in which students explore alternative learning opportunities, sometimes including travel (here’s WSB coverage from 2020).
But this year brings a lesson in loss. “This decision was incredibly, incredibly hard,” says Gardiner. Now families are looking for new schools for next year, and staff members are looking for new jobs. The last day of school at SLHS will be June 10th, with its final graduating class, the Class of 2022, closing a chapter of West Seattle education history as they accept their diplomas that night.