By: Marja Brandon, Seattle Girls’ School Founding Head of School
Marja Brandon is Seattle Girls’ School’s founding Head of School, and a central figure in its inception twenty years ago. She believed in the potential of SGS so much that she relocated her and her family from across the country to make our school a reality. Marja shares how SGS was conceptualized and created, and how it grew in its early, formative days.
Twenty-one years ago, I was doing a very narrow job search just looking for a school in the process of being founded. I wanted to combine my passion for neuroscience with teaching to connect what we know about the brain to what and how we teach in a way that wasn't being done at the time, was looking for the school visionary, and innovative enough to see the potential. It was important to me that the school that I was going to be a part of would be supportive of an innovative curriculum where our understanding of the brain could help pave the way to a whole new educational experience and unleash students' potential.
As the parent of three transracially adopted African American children and one biological White child, and as the partner to a person who is Deaf, issues of anti-bias have long been important to me. I don't just bring work home with me, I bring home to work. It mattered deeply to me that any school I led was deeply committed to anti-bias work and that it involved students from the beginning in understanding and caring why anti-bias work mattered. In the early SGS Board, I was impressed and thrilled to have found like-minded individuals who shared these ideals. During my interview for Seattle Girls’ School with them, I was asked to describe my ideal classroom. I said, “an unused Boeing airplane hangar where we could design, build, and do integrated projects, building them as large and as tall as needed.” Everyone’s jaw dropped and my first thought was, “Well, I guess I’ll be sending out more resumes.” But as I was leaving, I spoke with one of the founders, Sharon, and told her, “We can do this. We can make this school work, and it will be an unbelievable success.” Shortly after, I was delighted to find out that I got the job. I moved my family across the country to Seattle and we got started on this journey. The founders and early Board are equally visionary.
When I stepped into this role, we had one year to take these ideas and turn them into reality. We had to find a site and building, recruit a class and faculty, and write an original curriculum all at the same time. We were also fundraising and putting up signs everywhere that read “Seattle Girls’ School. Haven’t heard of it? You will!” And then we were hosting meetings, big and small, with anyone who was interested. After holding two successful open houses, our founding class of 31 incredible students was formed. It was at this point that we could see that all the pieces were coming together and our vision to open this school was coming true.
Right from the start of Seattle Girls’ School we put the students and their voices at the center of all we did. During our first orientation, they wrote up the school’s constitution and signed it. Just as we knew they would if given the opportunity, the students were taking agency in their own education and their voices were showing up in all aspects of the school.
We certainly faced some obstacles along the way, however. Our first official community meeting just after the school’s opening was on 9/11. The room was full of parents and students who were all in tears, and I had to figure out how to explain to these sixth graders what was happening on the other side of the country. I could see the way that the students took what had happened to heart and knew that they had to make a difference in the world. I always tell people that this day was the real birth of our school and the day that I became a real Head.
The truly incredible thing about Seattle Girls’ School is that it has been a place for students to get comfortable in their own skin, find their voice, and realize their unique potential. This is where they find the courage to be themselves and then take that courage to tackle the world. In the big picture, Seattle Girls’ School plays a vital role in the Seattle and greater school’s landscape. It serves as a reminder to everyone that we can all be better versions of ourselves. The SGS mission is about much more than just having pretty words on a website; it’s about living out this mission and following through on these values. Our girls matter and are change agents. They recognize they can and do make a difference from the moment they step through the door, and then they don’t ever stop.
Something else that has been baked into Seattle Girls’ School from the beginning is joy. The most effective learning environments are engaging and joyful and that is what makes learning truly “stick”. It's about learning it and applying it in ways that connect to the real world in real time. And, for these students, it’s not just about absorbing information, but it’s about recognizing the power of joy in everything that they do. This is what makes SGS a school that kids want to run to instead of run away from. And that’s what Seattle Girls’ School is- kids don’t want to leave at the end of the day. You don’t have to teach someone how to learn; that is what we are born doing. Our job is to provide students with the resources and all the ingredients that empower them to use their natural desire to learn and feed their passions, their curiosity, and then they are unstoppable.
I am so excited to see SGS in their new permanent home and cannot wait to see this next chapter unfold. I really hope they continue to be the “sand in the oyster” that questions the way things are, breaks the rules, and innovates. If last year taught us anything, it is that there is always room to grow and move forward. SGS students continue to be needed now, more than ever.
Seattle Girls’ School students are my hope for the world. I stay hopeful knowing that they are going to make a difference and be the innovators that the world needs. I know that middle school can be hard, but it doesn't have to be, it can be joyful. This is a time that can set students up for success for the rest of their lives, and it should. SGS inspires and develops courageous leaders who think independently, work collaboratively, learn joyfully and champion change. Sounds like a place I wish my kids could have gone to middle school…. oh wait, some of them did!