Celebrating Paula Smith:

35 Years of Excellence by Design

Paula Smith designed UCDS with unwavering dedication and visionary leadership. She inherited a lab school in crisis and methodically built the model of early elementary education. In a word, transformative! 

Paula’s influence can be best appreciated through a visual journey. Explore the timeline and photos of Paula’s remarkable contributions, and witness how her legacy has shaped our institution and the educational landscape into what it is today.

Decades of Design: A Timeline of Paula’s Impact on UCDS & Beyond


Paula joins UCDS as a teacher

UCDS was a much different place when Paula arrived as a teacher in 1988. How did that small, quirky UW lab school grow to become a guiding beacon in the early elementary education space? In a word, Paula!

Thematic Curriculum

Paula has driven the systematic development of a curriculum way ahead of its time, anchored in an annual theme that connects everything from the daily Math Vitamins to Read Aloud books to Specialist projects.

Math Vitamin

Conceived at UCDS with Paula’s support, Math Vitamin introduces all students to every critical math concept regardless of their level. Using manipulatives to build out math problems, students focus on problem-solving and hard-wiring the why.

Paula becomes the Head of School

Paula assumed the reins as Head of School in 1996. Said Roger Percy of the Board that named Paula Head, “It was clear early on that Paula stood out from the crowd for her vision of what the school COULD be.”

Resident Teacher Program

To keep student-to-teacher ratios low, Paula instituted the dynamic Resident Program, which infuses energy by slotting emerging educators alongside mentor teachers throughout the curriculum. Over half of UCDS’ senior teachers started as Residents.

The Institute

In 2001, the UCDS Institute (formerly known as the Teacher Education Center) launched as a way to both develop our educators and to institutionalize & share our innovative teaching culture beyond UCDS walls.

The Labyrinth

Under Paula’s vision and leadership, UCDS raised $10 million to build the Labyrinth and unite all of our students on one campus. The Labyrinth was designed to amplify the curriculum through the creative use of space and has done so for 20 years now.

The Studio

Paula played an integral part in adding the Infant-Toddler Education Program (“The Studio”) to both support faculty and staff sustainability; to provide a dynamic learning environment for our youngest students; and to professionalize child care.

Ascend International School (AIS)

AIS (Mumbai, India) approached Paula about replicating both the UCDS curriculum and the creative use of space. UCDS educators helped bring this vision to life. AIS is just one example of UCDS sharing its methods more broadly.


Paula drove the buildout of a $10 million endowment when nobody in early education was doing it. That endowment now kicks off $1.2 million/year in tuition assistance and teacher pay, allowing access to many and keeping UCDS teacher pay competitive.

UCDS Graduate School of Education

This program binds many elements: provides experienced teachers a platform to share and develop; infuses programs with new energy and ideas; attracts standout teachers seeking experience and a Master’s degree, and professionalizes early education.
Our Future
Our Future

The Design Lab

The final piece of Paula Smith’s vision for UCDS: a unified campus that combines UCDS’ unique curriculum with 15,000 square feet of additional space designed expressly to amplify it. To the benefit of all. As green as it gets!

To fully understand the breadth of Paula’s work at UCDS would take more space than this page affords us. Please join us, and all those in her wide sphere of influence, in thanking Paula for the impact she has had on our children, on thousands before them, and on thousands more to come via the incredible educational ecosystem she has designed.

At UCDS, process IS the product.
Paula Smith

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Paula Smith for her unwavering dedication, which has forever enriched the UCDS community. Thank you, Paula, for designing our past and inspiring our future.


Paula’s Final Design Element:

A Unified Campus

Imagine Forever Campaign

The $25 million Imagine Forever Campaign honors Paula Smith, her incredible legacy, and the final piece of her 35-year vision: a unified campus, anchored by a new 15,500 square foot space to be called the Design Lab, situated due south of the Labyrinth building on 9th Ave NE. This three-building campus will be a testament to Paula’s lasting vision.


UCDS has outgrown its home and is bursting at the seams! Over the last 20 years, the Labyrinth taught us that truly unique curricula + thoughtfully designed space yield something much more powerful than the sum of its parts. When you combine that with what we learned during the pandemic about the importance of community and safe spaces, the final piece of Paula’s vision makes even more sense: another campus building, this time wholly-owned, that will ease the current space pressure and allow for future growth. The Design Lab will benefit all current UCDS students and families, and give UCDS the flexibility to continue innovating well into the future.

The Design Lab

This 15,500-square-foot space will feature 3 floors of the greenest space available, even factoring in the carbon footprint of its materials! The space will feature:

  • Space for a larger Infant-Toddler Education Program (the current waitlist is over 100 families!). This custom-designed space will be modeled on the Reggio Emilia concept, which features atelier spaces young minds can return to over and over to revisit ongoing projects
  • New Specialist spaces, including a unique Design Lab with a heavy emphasis on technology
  • New teacher-designed spaces that fuel the collaboratively-designed curriculum
  • A flexible 3rd-floor space that could easily launch a new middle school program should the UCDS Board of Trustees decide to move forward with this smaller, tech-focused middle school program centered around helping students address who they are in the world and how they would like to make a difference in the broader community

Join UCDS in Designing the Future

Many UCDS alum families report that they appreciate UCDS more now than they did when they moved on. Why? Because they see the seeds planted so far back at UCDS blossom into truly unique skill sets in their young adults. They see problem solvers not put off by failure and who can often connect dots others don’t see. They see collaborative leaders comfortable out in front uniting disparate stakeholders. They see young adults at ease presenting and defending their ideas. They see compassionate leaders who are interested and interesting.

Watch the following video of Syndiely Tsoungui ’18, sharing how UCDS cultivated her love of math.

Alumni Stories
The seeds of what I'm doing now, and the mindset of how I approach it, were planted at UCDS and continue to be planted for all the kids that are there now. I have such enormous gratitude for that.
Weston Gaylord '04

If you feel this same awe and gratitude, we invite you to be a part of this extraordinary tribute to Paula and her legacy by contributing to Imagine Forever. Your support will ensure Paula’s legacy lives on, benefiting generations to come.