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History of Chief Sealth

In June 1954, the growing population in southwest Seattle led the Seattle School District to plan for its first new high school in some 30 years. The school board selected a site in the Westwood neighborhood near White Center, across the street from Denny Junior High School.

Aerial view of Chief Sealth, taken in 1963

The school was named for Noah Sealth, the most prominent American Indian leader in the region at the time of the city’s settlement. Chief Sealth was regarded as an influential friend by the founding fathers who named their town, Seattle, after him.

The construction of the new school was unique for the region, although it had been used extensively in other countries. It was selected because of its ability to withstand earthquakes. Known as a “thin-shell” type of building, the structure’s construction consisted of all concrete with three-inch walls and a roof constructed of a concrete base with a built-up roofing finish. This large “barrel” roof, which covers the gymnasium and auditorium, was built on the grounds, and then eased into place in a mere four hours by a team of 26 men. At the time, it was the largest roof in the Pacific Northwest.

Chief Sealth High School opened with 900 students in grades 9–11. Construction continued into 1958. The school’s spacious gymnasium, which could seat 2,000, auditorium, seating 1,150, and activities area were made available to community activities.

View of Auditorium, taken 1973

The first graduates were the Class of 1959. Enrollment grew and, by 1960–61, there were 13 portables on the grounds. Enrollment peaked at 2,206 in 1962–63. An addition in 1969 gave the school a learning resource center and a business education area.

In 1988, West Seattle parents debated a proposal to create a “mega-Sealth.” In the plan, West Seattle High School would close and its students consolidated at Sealth. Sealth, in turn, would expand into Denny Middle School, whose students would be sent to Boren and Madison. The value of the larger school would have been in providing students a larger number of classes from which to choose. This plan did not become reality, however.

By the turn of the century, it was apparent to all that used the school that, after 50 years of use, Chief Sealth was in need of significant renovations. Beyond the years of wear and tear on floors, walls, furniture and equipment, single-paned windows created regular drafts and the occasional broken window. An aging boiler often ran too hot or not at all leaving students hot or cold while trying to study. The auditorium, while spacious, was a near circus behind the scenes with a precarious catwalk that few students dared to use. The gymnasium suffered water damage in 2007, forcing the basketball teams to play the rest of that season in a temporary home. Broken pavement in many locations caused a hazard and seismic (earthquake) safety upgrades were needed throughout. A renovated entry way and library provided students and staff with some access to newer technology; however, access to the latest technology for the student body as a whole remained few and far between.

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Friends of Sealth is a non-profit corporation supporting Chief Sealth International High School’s Academics, Arts, Activities, Athletics and Alumni.