The New Thornton Creek School

The new Thornton Creek School at 7712 40th Ave NE in Wedgwood.

Decatur School was built in 1961 at 7711 43rd Ave NE on the former site of a Navy housing complex called Shearwater.

In 1967 Decatur became a “program school” with a specific educational approach.  Over the years it had another name, Alternative Education #2, and then in 2008 the name Thornton Creek was chosen.  This program name was meant to characterize the emphasis on awareness of the environment, because northeast Seattle is in the Thornton Creek Watershed.

In the year 2016 the Thornton Creek program moved into a new building.  The Decatur School building is still occupied and has a program called Accelerated Education.

A new school building in the year 2016:

Thornton Creek School opened at 7712 40th Ave NE in September 2016, the first new public school building in the Wedgwood neighborhood in more than fifty years.

The school building is not on or adjacent to the actual creek but was named in recognition of the Thornton Creek Watershed which encompasses northeast Seattle.  Branches of the creek system converge at Meadowbrook Pond at NE 107th Street and flow out to Lake Washington at Matthews Beach.

There are now two different public schools on the same site, something which has never happened before in Wedgwood.  The Thornton Creek School building is on a ten-acre block which it shares with Decatur School, 7711 43rd Ave NE.  Each school operates separately with its own program.

Thornton Creek School at 7712 40th Ave NE opened in September 2016. Before construction, consultants evaluated the site for environmental and historical concerns.

How the new building came to be:

Seattle has always had boom-and-bust population cycles.  Many Seattle residents can remember, in our lifetimes, when economic recessions caused the population of Seattle to decrease instead of increase.  Public school programs suffered from this contraction of economic resources as well as population.  Some buildings were closed and then later upgraded for renewed use, such as Lincoln High School which re-opened in September 2019.

Since passage of the Capital Projects School Levy in February 2013, planning, designing and building came to completion at the new Thornton Creek School.  The design of the building supports the Thornton Creek School learning environment which engages students through exploration and discovery.  The program is called Expeditionary Learning through projects and cooperative work in small groups and across grade levels.

To support small-group work, the design of the building includes gathering spaces.  The large Commons area, also used as the lunchroom, can host several classrooms to see and hear project presentations.

The central commons at Thornton Creek School is designed for multiple uses. It is a lunchroom but can also host classes to hear presentations.

School population:

Thornton Creek had an enrollment of 465 students in the 2016-2017 school year in grades kindergarten through fifth grade, with most grades having four classrooms, and additional students in two preschool classrooms.  There is capacity for the school to grow to 660 students.

The main entrance of Thornton Creek School faces 40th Ave NE. The office is at left, with a foyer where office personnel can see and speak to visitors. Here are school district representatives and community visitors at the open house before the school year began in September 2016.

Access and traffic patterns:

The front door to the new school building faces 40th Ave NE, a few feet north of the corner of NE 77th Street.  There is a drive-up and a canopied main entrance.  The drive-up will be used by special education buses and can also be used by parents when visiting the school.  An additional parking lot is located at the northeast corner of the block at NE 80th Street and 43rd Ave NE.

Morning arrival of students is divided with lower grades entering the school building at the corner of NE 77th, and upper grades from the NE 80th Street side.

The school has an outdoor covered play court on the north side of the building adjacent to the fields and playground.  There is an interior courtyard which leads to a preschool building.

Thornton Creek School has a preschool building accessed from an interior courtyard.

Access and security:

Doors to the school lock automatically when the school day begins.  After that time visitors to the building must come in through the main entrance foyer and check in with the front office.

The classrooms at Thornton Creek School are filled with natural light from the exterior windows. They also receive light through the interior windows into the hallway. Each classroom has built-in energy controls, projection equipment and light sensors.

Energy efficiency:

The new building has a geothermal system with heat pumps and use of LED light fixtures with “smart” lighting controls which will dim when no one is in the room or when natural light is sufficient.  Each classroom has an exterior wall of windows and on the interior side along the hallway, there are windows which help let in light.

Alcoves between classrooms let in natural light. These spaces are for collaborative work.  This view shows that the alcove is in a setback of the exterior wall, which was created to preserve the Western Red Cedar trees along the NE 77th Street side of the school.  Photo by Valarie.

Classroom and common space design:

Between each classroom there is an alcove for project work and breakout into small groups.  Teachers can see and supervise students at all times because of the glass-partitioned rooms.  For large-group meetings of multiple classrooms, the core facilities of the dining commons, the library, gym and art/music rooms can be used.

An alcove between classrooms for collaborative work. This space on the NE 77th Street side views one of the large Western Red Cedar trees which were preserved.  Photo by Valarie.

In the Expeditionary Learning model, students typically do presentations to communicate what they have learned.  A presentation might be a written or visual report, or could include writing and presenting a play about the subject they have studied, or by doing a painting or other arts such as music.  Several classrooms can gather in the Commons to hear presentations.

Exterior site development:

The school playfields were restored with pre-germinated grass so that the fields were ready for use when the school year began.  There is a walking track, playground, covered play structure, and a garden with raised planter beds.  A rain garden on the NE 77th Street side is part of the landscaping and new sidewalks have been put in along NE 77th and 80th Streets.

Rain garden on the NE 77th Street side of Thornton Creek School, looking westward towards 40th Ave NE.  Photo by Valarie.

Curb cuts and bike lane markings have been put in on 40th Ave NE at the corners of NE 77th and 80th Streets and there will be flashing crosswalk lights.  Students are encouraged to walk or bike to school via the Greenway on 39th Avenue NE, and a sidewalk has been installed on NE 77th Street between 39th to 40th Avenues NE to aid pedestrians.

Looking eastward along NE 77th Street at the newly built Thornton Creek School. Photo by Valarie.


Information for this article was gathered from the Seattle Public Schools info page, progress updates and attendance at community meetings during the process of building the new school.  I’ve written other articles about how Decatur School was first built, and how the name was chosen for Thornton Creek School.

The ten-acre block containing the two school buildings was once a Navy housing site called Shearwater.

Decatur School, built in 1961, became a “program school” in 1967 and over the years its program name was of Alternative Education.  After renaming itself Thornton Creek, that program has moved into its own building as pictured in this article.

The Decatur School building closed for a year, 2016-2017, to be repaired and upgraded.  Decatur re-opened in 2017 as  a program school for accelerated education.

Another example of an Alternative Education program was at the Pinehurst School, located at the corner of NE 115th Street and Roosevelt Way NE.  That building was torn down in 2015.  A new building opened on the Pinehurst site in September 2016 and was re-named Hazel Wolf K through 8 (name of a noted environmentalist).

The next northeast Seattle school to be torn down and rebuilt will be John Rogers, projected to be finished in the year 2025.

Seattle School Histories were compiled in the year 2000 and are in alphabetical order in this on-line list.

Thornton Creek School looking west along NE 77th Street. We see one of the large Western Red Cedar trees which was preserved. Windows of the hallway alcoves look out to see these trees. Photo by Valarie.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
This entry was posted in School histories and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The New Thornton Creek School

  1. wildninja says:

    I feel like I need to go get some glue sticks and construction paper and make something now.

  2. So glad you are inspired! This beautiful new school will get the credit for inspiration.

What would you like to know about Seattle neighborhoods?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s