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How this south Seattle high school is 'remixing' education

Alan T. Sugiyama was a civil rights leader in the Asian American community. The school named in his honor is working to give all students a fair chance.

SEATTLE — A high school in south Seattle renamed after a local Asian civil rights leader is aiming to bridge equity gaps for at-risk youth - however, many people don't know the school even exists. 

Alan T. Sugiyama (ATS) High School does education to its own beat. The school was named after a prominent figure from Seattle's Central District. It sits on the corner of Rainier Avenue and South Cloverdale Street. 

The Sugiyama family lived through the Japanese incarceration camps, which helped shape Alan Sugiyama to empower those in need of a second chance. 

“He was always trying to pave the way for Asian Americans,” said one of Sugiyama’s daughters, Alysa Sugiyama.

Sugiyama was the first Asian American elected to the Seattle School Board in 1989.

“Alan Sugiyama set the bar,” said Dr. Joe Powell, the principal of ATS.

The district changed the school’s name from South Lake High School to Alan T. Sugiyama High School during the pandemic, but it didn’t get a lot of attention. “No one even knew for a long time we existed,” said Powell.

Powell said Seattle Public Schools saw a need to ensure racial equality in their classrooms. 

“We can’t keep doing it like we always done it, it’s broken,” said Powell. “The inequalities that historically plagued us as a country.”

He believes coming up with new ways to learn, like the work they are doing at ATS can lead to “educational justice.” 

“We are remixing education, we are correcting what has not been successful for all of our young people,” said Powell.

“Knowing you got people that look like you, it’s like a little bit of a community,” said Genesis Clark, a junior at ATS. He believes the school is a great place for students who have a lot going on at home. 

“They actually care about what you have going on outside of school,” said Clark.

ATS provides a nontraditional educational experience. 

“We all know that, that we have a lot of students that are falling behind, falling through the cracks that we're losing, that are disconnecting from our schools of learning," said Powell.

He believes the school addresses the needs of students furthest from educational justice by providing a diverse faculty, smaller class sizes and a focus on the arts. 

“We got to make it right,” said Dr. Powell. “We got an obligation to fix it.”

Seattle Public Schools estimates on average ATS ranges from 80 to 115 students every year; around 98% of them are students of color and 93% are experiencing poverty. Compared to the Seattle Public School District overall, nearly half of the more than 52,000 students are white.

"If things were all good, right? We wouldn't even need to remix education,” said Powell. “For us to say that. We're all good. That would be a lie. And I'm not going to sit here and lie."

Powell is critical of the district he works for because he knows that education is essential and transformative.

“I grew up in Detroit,” said Powell. “They gave me a diploma and I could barely read.”

After he graduated, Powell enlisted in the navy. At just 20 years old something special happened. He met a teacher that believed in him for the first time. “First teacher. Been married to her but 31 years,” said Powell. “Yup, I've been married 31 years."

Powell said his wife convinced him to apply to Seattle Central College and he initially threw the application in the garbage. However, she dug it up and convinced him to give education another chance.

"The same woman who reached in the garbage is standing by my side while I'm getting my doctorate,” said Powell. “It doesn’t get any better than that. That's real.”

Powell’s story inspires his students. “He tries to make things comfortable, fun and engaged,” said Clark.

Sugiyama’s daughters, Alysa and Mari Sugiyama said ATS is helping to keep their father's legacy alive.

“He was the dad that cooked us breakfast every Sunday,” said Alysa Sugiyama. “He was the fun dad, who wanted to go do everything, ran out to the ice cream truck to get ice cream."

Super Al, as he was known, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014.

“Just to see someone go from Super Al to someone that can’t eat,” said Alysa Sugiyama. “Food was his passion. He said, ‘If I can’t eat then there’s no point in living.’ For him to need help was really hard.”

Alan Sugiyama died in 2017, at just 67-years-old. In his honor, Alysa made a memory of a lifetime at the school named after him.

“I had my wedding there,” said Alysa Sugiyama. “I needed somewhere meaningful because it was COVID."

Even though their father never stepped foot in ATS, both daughters believe he would be proud of what the school brings to the community, as it continues to "remix" what education could look like.

"Our dad never did anything for the glory, but it was always about how can we help others,” said Mari Sugiyama. “Sometimes your legacy is that you helped others who came after you and you didn't even know it.”

    

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