Interview with PSCS co-founder Andy Smallman

Puget Sound Community School (PSCS) was founded in fall of 1994, by Andy Smallman and Melinda Shaw, along with a group of 11 families interested in their educational vision. As PSCS celebrates 30 years, our intern, Lucy Ingram, started a retrospective process into how it this all began. On Friday last week, Lucy had the opportunity to chat with Andy about his perspective on this little school’s creation and early foundations.

How it all began: Celebrating 30 Years of PSCS

by Lucy Ingram

It’s no secret around here that Andy Smallman was disappointed with his own high school education experience in the early 1980s. He says now he could tell, even at that time, education was something being done to students, rather than something students participated in. After he graduated high school, he spent time in Alaska working as a radio DJ. He sold records in Seattle and even worked for the Daily Racing Form. After a time, Andy started volunteering with young people through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Youth Mentorship Program and worked with a particular young man who helped him to realize he was called to education.

In 1985, Andy applied to and was accepted to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and “found his people.” There, he studied Human Development in their Block Program format and he realized that was what was missing from most schools at that time: education geared towards immersion, experience, and exploration. After graduating from TESC in ‘88, Andy went on to earn a Masters at Pacific Oaks College and started working with the elementary age students and families at The Little School in Bellevue (which is not so little—TLS sit’s on 12.5 acres in the woods!).

Andy believes, through his perspective and experience, that the purpose of public schools was too often not focused first and foremost on education. To him, it was often a lot of box checking and bureaucracy, not enough focus on practical application for life after high school and certainly not on prioritizing teacher health and interests.

Andy saw (sees?), we allow kids to explore and learn on their own, but as they get older, more and more restrictions are placed on their freedom to learn how and what they want to – essentially, we stop trusting them. As such, adolescence is a time in life where many people end up feeling lost and disconnected from the outside world. They don’t interact often with people outside of their own age group, except for in a hierarchical relationship, and they often find themselves reaching for paths that they perceive adults want them to take.

Andy wanted to create a space where older kids would be trusted with their education, rather than being given a structure that would really restrict their ability to explore their interests and abilities. He also wanted to create an environment that was mobile, not confining them to a space in which they would be segregated from the rest of their community. As such, PSCS began as a nomadic school – meeting in churches, parks, and other public community spaces.

Andy is quick to note this work couldn’t have been done without Melinda Shaw. “A visionary at heart, Melinda is interested in design and always looking to create something new. She was responsible for a lot of the back-end development of PSCS that allowed it to literally exist and function. Andy describes himself and Melinda as a team where 1+1 = 3.” Andy’s educational vision and Melinda’s desire to create are both powerful in their own right, together they opened up opportunities for a lot of educators and families.

According to Andy, since inception, PSCS has evolved in many ways, a process that hasn’t been simple. While having a building has facilitated the school’s movement from being classified as a “supplementary education program” to an “approved private school,” it also brought an increase in tuition and conflict with the school’s nomadic conception. Despite this, past and current staff worked hard to ensure the flexibility and community engagement that PSCS offers has not been compromised in the process. PSCS education in 1994 included Independent Study Projects, Advising, commitment to compassion, community and self-advocacy, as well as responsive and relational teaching—just some of the legacies that have lasted through today.

Another important legacy from Andy and Melinda’s time is the PSCS logo. Created by Melinda and Scobie in the early aughts, the logo is an evolution of the Möbius Strip: a surface formed by attaching the ends of a piece of paper together with a half-twist. It’s a surface which, unlike a circle, has no “in”-side or “out”-side. As Andy explains, in many school environments, there is a separation between your “outer” and “inner” self – the “you” that you show to others, versus the real “you.”

There is also often separation between a school community and a young person’s outside world – one which means that students often don’t have the chance to interact with the “real” world because they feel corralled with other students their own age for 7 hours of the day. PSCS is a place where no student should feel like they can’t be their real, authentic selves around their peers. It’s also a place where students are given the opportunity to interact with the world around them, with different age groups and lived experiences, rather than confined to the same space every minute of every day. Melinda wanted a logo that would symbolize a lack of “inside” and “outside” boundaries, so she came up with the idea of the double Möbius Strip. As opposed to a usual strip, the PSCS logo has two twists in it – one to represent the harmony between self, and one to represent the harmony between community.

Andy says that in the early days of PSCS, he wasn’t concerned with how long into the future the school might run. However, he also says that the fact that we’re still here 30 years later is indicative of the fact that what they started, for reasons he can’t even see every day, continues to serve young people and educators well.

Ultimately, he believes that love, commitment, and support are what keep communities sustainable – all things which PSCS staff work hard to foster now, and hopes to continue for future generations.


Lucy ingram is a senior majoring in Communications at the University of Washington. She is working as an Administrative Intern for PSCS through the UW’s Undergraduate Community Based Internships program. She is an artist, a writer, and a birder!