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Monday, May 5, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inside An Urban School -- Makeover At Sealth High Starting To Reap Rewards

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Today, reporter Marc Ramirez, who spent much of the last 3 months observing and interviewing at Seattle's Chief Sealth High School, looks beyond the troubling academic statistics to examine the mix of hope and concern that characterizes education in the state's largest school district.

Chief Sealth is not the school it used to be.

It faces modern, urban challenges that include low grades and test scores, apathy, kids just learning to speak English and others who had nothing but a bag of Doritos for dinner the night before.

It also faces universal questions in a climate of reform: How can it make school more meaningful? How can it inspire students - and teachers - to do better when circumstances often get in the way? How should success be measured?

Amid fresh leadership, change is happening. Sealth boasts an award-winning performing-arts program, a warm social atmosphere and a perennially successful girls' basketball team that produced this year's Metro League player, junior Sheila Lambert, and coach of the year, Carmen Martinez. There are also sterling examples of innovative teaching - such as English instructor Lucretia Robinson, whose old-fashioned, brass-button professionalism belies a talent for reaching youth at their level.

Some old-timers scoff; they've seen changes come and go. But it has been a renaissance for Robinson, who is seeing her practices spread schoolwide, gradually altering Sealth's character - and her own.

There is, for instance, the senior project, a program she appropriated several years ago from Oregon, and which last year became mandatory for all Sealth 12th-graders.

"It's a chore and a half," says social-studies chair John Overmier. "A lot of them have never been asked to write an 8-to-10-page paper. Out of a class of 30 kids, maybe three have a computer at home. But we wanted to make the senior year count, to show the kids they learned something."

And next fall, double-length class periods will become part of the school's regular schedule despite continued opposition and debate. Since she came to Sealth 14 years ago, Robinson has used the lengthened class periods with ninth-graders, and the school has built its schedule around her.

She says: "People think, `My God - how am I going to lecture for 60 minutes?' You're not. You shouldn't be lecturing for 15 minutes. If you're going to do what you always did, you're going to get what you always got."

Her honors English students are an attentive sampling of Sealth's multiethnic potpourri. In one exercise, they use Delphi decision-making - designed to tap individual ideas and a group's collective wisdom - to hammer out a high-school curriculum for their future kids. The Rand Corp. developed the process, named for the ancient Greek oracle, during the Kennedy administration for use in reaching military decisions during crisis situations.

Robinson's students can earn college credit. They'll write seven essays, revising and submitting three in a portfolio for most of the final grade. No late papers, no more than five absences. Like their peers and elders, the students sometimes go into what Robinson calls BMW mode, meaning they bitch and moan and whine.

These students are some of Sealth's highest achievers. Yet many are initially stunned by the demands of Robinson's class. Which says something about how far Sealth has to go in its push to expect more from teachers and students.

Senior Alejandra Calderon and her classmates have been feeling the pressure since the semester began. "I never had a class like this," Calderon says. "Even though sometimes I tell myself, `Oh, I don't want to go today,' I like learning so much, so fast."

"We lost the middle class"

Horns signal the start of classes, and Sealth's 40-year-old hallways are transformed into a sleepy desert of spare movement and sound.

A boy with red, puffy eyes dawdles in through the back door, having missed an appointment with the assistant principal and probably facing a suspension.

A girl leaves the nurse's office with a makeshift eye patch. "This boy pushed chemicals in my eye in photography class," she grumbles.

In Room 129, former Seattle Education Association President Bruce Colwell tries to convince his world-history students that a reading assignment isn't so bad, noting John F. Kennedy could read 1,200 words a minute. Comments one: "You know he gots a boring life."

In Joe Marshall's hospitality and tourism class, students in ties and blazers earn extra points for professional attire. If they get 1,000 points, they get community-college credit which they can use toward tourism-related careers.

In the activity center, student-body officers review their visit to a suburban high school so populous that they had to eat sitting on the floor of an immense, crowded lunchroom, longing for home.

Chief Sealth High opened in fall 1957, and though the packaging is still the same, its contents have undergone a complete makeover.

In 1962, it bulged twice its current size - more than 2,000 students, 97 percent of them white. Today that figure is only 31 percent.

The school's two hallways, white and bright and connected by several breezeways, are each as wide as a minivan and as long as two football fields. Just left of the main office, the facility billows outward under the huge barrel roof that covers the auditorium.

"I'm not biased or anything, but we're one of the better structured," says Mike Siva, a gentle giant with beefy forearms who has worked security at Sealth since 1984. At away games, he finds himself obsessed with architecture, with all the corners kids can hide behind. "Here, if you can look 200 yards and don't see any kids, you can just go to the other hallway," he says.

The hallways belong to Siva, who, in many ways, is the heart of the school. He usually patrols them with a jacket draped over one big shoulder and a respectful camaraderie with students that keeps mischief at bay.

Siva graduated from Franklin High in 1972. There were 500 students in his graduating class. PTA meetings were well-attended. "Everything was big," he says.

High schools had two or three music teachers and powerhouse marching bands. Then came the district's notorious double-levy failure of 1974. Over the coming years, band rosters fell from more than 100 to 40 with only part-time teachers for guidance.

Busing followed, as the district struggled to comply with federal desegregation requirements and increasing social crises at schools like Garfield High. Many of Sealth's kids were put on buses to Rainier Beach High. The exodus to private schools and the suburbs began. With room to spare, Sealth and other schools were called upon to house new programs serving bilingual and special-education students.

"Busing gutted the schools," Robinson says. "We lost the middle class. People have put their kids in private schools - even teachers and administrators."

After Joan Butterworth arrived at Sealth as principal in 1988, she envisioned an expanded performing-arts department as the rock on which to rebuild the school, and recruited accordingly. As a result, the school now has an honors choir, a jazz ensemble, a string orchestra, an award-winning marching band and drama classes that are no longer after-school add-ons.

"It was a risk," says Butterworth, now the district's high-school coordinator. "But it produced results. We drew kids we wouldn't have before."

Today, Sealth has its own home page on the World Wide Web. Soon, nearly every classroom will have access to the Internet. But old traditions are gone. Student-body officers no longer wash the Denny Avenue statue of the school's namesake, and the band no longer learns "Tequila" every year, meaning graduated band members can't play along at games.

The community has fragmented, offering up a multicultural jambalaya of kids, many of whom work after school or come from troubled or indifferent families. School is no longer the central event in students' lives.

"You never know who's going to blow up," Siva says. "My heart goes out to them."

"People bounce back"

The frustrations of growing up poor, compounded by the pressures of a crumbling family, can beat down talent and spirit.

Still, students survive and flourish. Sealth's classrooms have been the source of many inspiring stories:

-- The Vietnamese immigrant who came to honors English daily with a dictionary, succeeding where it was hard enough for native English speakers to thrive;

-- The band student who lived with his grandmother after his parents disappeared, then moved in with neighbors when his grandmother died, and who now has a full scholarship to the University of Washington, where he plays with the symphonic orchestra;

-- The promising young student who left school for the streets, got a wake-up call when she was nearly knifed and realized, "I'm probably too smart to die like this." She returned to Sealth spreading the gospel of safe sex and now attends medical school.

It might be too early to add senior Alex Osorio to that list, but in a way, he embodies the daily struggles and triumphs common to Chief Sealth High.

For Osorio, success has been about as sure as a coin flip. Several years ago, rather than pull ahead of a good friend who wasn't doing well in school, he pulled back. Way back. Both kids left school.

Osorio landed in a high-school re-entry program where he learned to free his mind on paper. Eventually, he came to Sealth, where he now wields enviable powers in instructor Chris Crosby's creative-writing class.

He has come a long way. A few years ago, it seemed like his friends were all gangsters; now they're soccer players. Some get all A's. He wonders whether he could have done the same with more encouragement.

"I trip out sometimes," he says. "Like, why is my mom never asking me how I'm doing in school? There's a lot of things stressing me out. I sit there in class and teachers are just talking to me. I need to start concentrating more."

Now a voice is talking to him, to the entire class: "Whenever you get stuck in a creative-writing project, think of the five senses," advises Kimberly Lasher. As the school's new assistant principal, Lasher folds instructional leadership into what is typically a disciplinary job. At 28, she is also two decades younger than the average Seattle School District teacher.

The homework assignment Lasher has provided as a guest teacher was to fill in the blanks after a series of phrases that begin, "I am," "I see," "I wish," "I hear," "I love," and so on.

Osorio says writing is a release for him, especially when things go wrong outside of school. After several others are shanghaied into recitation, he volunteers, reading in a smooth, slightly rushed tone:

I am the softness that surrounds you every day.

I see a feather floating lifelessly in the country's blue skies.

I wish I could take your broken heart and fix it with my sweetness.

I hear your voice even when sleeping, so soft, like the wind lightly rubbing the branches of the trees.

I love it when you show signs of happiness.

I am your man. . . .

When he is done, there is nothing but the breathy sighs of teenage girls.

Later, he says: "I never knew I had that in me."

"These are good kids in bad situations," Lasher says. "But I think people are resilient. If we expect a lot, and the school culture follows, people bounce back."

Traps on the road to success

Principal Tom Bailey has been unapologetic about what instructors call "teaching to the test." In staff meeting after staff meeting, he repeats the mantra: "We have one report card out there in the general public, and that is our test scores," he says.

Around the district, principals say amen. Seattle schools Superintendent John Stanford wants to raise standardized-test scores, and the push is on to ensure that the curricula reflect the material on tests, which measure reading, language arts and math skills.

"I get angry using those as the sole measure of a school," says Overmier, Sealth's social-studies chair. "A school has a heart, a soul. Test scores don't necessarily show what's going on. We're teaching kids how to grow up."

But to raise scores, and to address Sealth's high drop-out rate, Bailey is aiming first for those at the bottom. He asked teachers to each focus on several students from that group; he figures those kids just need the extra attention. Other kids, the ones who seem determined to tear down the atmosphere he's trying to build, are targeted as soon as possible for placement in other schools or in re-entry programs.

The state is cooking up new tests it says will be more meaningful. In the meantime, teachers fear "teaching to the test" is too restrictive. But they also know their evaluations will ride largely on how their students do, and under Stanford's principals-as-CEOs philosophy, which gives principals control over school budgets and policies, they expect the district to stand behind the judgment of school leaders.

Bailey knows higher education isn't for everyone. But he figures higher expectations should be. And that doesn't mean asking kids to read twice as many pages or memorize twice as many tables.

Finding teachers who can effectively motivate students isn't easy, but sometimes, it's even harder to keep them.

After stints that have included principal of Rainier Beach High and coordinator of West Seattle schools, Bailey has a knack for making smart hiring choices. But first-year teachers are likely to be laid off every spring when the district declares its annual $10 million funding shortage. They might be bright, young and energetic, qualities the district sorely needs, yet they are the first to go.

"It's a bureaucracy that works against itself," Bailey says. "And it doesn't matter how good you are."

A truer funding picture emerges by late summer. Hires are usually approved, but by then, the best teachers have been snapped up by other districts.

Some say Bailey's real ability is finding and nurturing the talents of others. "I see that as Tom's great strength," says English teacher Robinson, whom Bailey pegged to lead the schoolwide move toward extended class periods next year.

Though Robinson worries that being held up as a leader might draw resentment from other teachers, she is grateful for what it has taught her about herself.

"I worry about Tom," she says one morning before class. "That he might leave."

"Dare to dream"

Sealth freshman Robin Reineke plays the viola. As a middle-school student, she and her parents, Bob and Toni, figured she was bound for Garfield, whose music program borders on legendary. What they experienced at Sealth during last year's Choices Night for eighth-graders convinced them otherwise.

Sealth is not the school it used to be, but it is on its way to being the school it should be. Its familylike atmosphere already places it ahead of most high schools, anywhere. Still, atmosphere is one thing. Achievement, and the kind of teaching that inspires it, is another.

In an essay she wrote about "The Ideal Teacher," Reineke compared one type of teacher to bubble gum - the one who says to put on your "happy face" when you're having the worst day of your teenage life. Bubble gum is nice at first, but eventually loses its flavor.

The better choice, she said, was the teacher who made learning a joy, not a task. For her, that was choir teacher Patricia Costa Kim.

One April morning, the lyrics emanating from Room 103 sing of dreams: "Dare to dream," they say, "and you can become; dreams are the place where miracles start."

First, though, the tenors will have to sing a little louder. "I'm not hearing you," says Costa Kim, who heads Sealth's performing-arts department with her husband, band director David Kim.

The class is Costa Kim's most rigorous. Its 50 students deal with everything from acne to muscular dystrophy; they range from high achievers to the detention prone. There is tenor Fred Leiataua, a sophomore whose smile is nearly as big as the burst of hair on his head, who has spent lunchtime detention gigs being delightfully incorrigible, wielding insightful satire and flinging wads of paper at passing students when he thinks no one is looking.

But the boy can sing, and Costa Kim, coaxed away from Cleveland High by Sealth's commitment to performing arts, has harnessed that energy. Rosy-cheeked and radiant, with short-cropped hair and a raised hand guiding the rhythm, she leads them on piano through another song, this one in Latin, which is being rehearsed for an upcoming competition.

They also hone their vocals to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and senior Seattle Tuitoelau urges Costa Kim to sing it solo. To everyone's delight, she complies.

The Kims, both of whom have won A+ awards from the Alliance for Education, are proud of the inclusiveness of their programs. Kids don't have to mope around saying, "I didn't make the orchestra." And some who did elsewhere transferred here.

Unlike music students in more exclusive programs, most kids haven't had the opportunity for regular lessons outside of school. The band plays second-hand flutes. Some of the choir robes are handmade; others were donated by a West Seattle church. While other high-school music groups go off to Europe, Sealth is just hoping to fund a Memorial Day trip to Disneyland.

"Here, renting an instrument is in direct competition with eating lunch, or having a coat," Costa Kim says.

That's the one thing she would change if she had a magic wand, because it's more than the Seattle school system can handle all by itself. "It's a bigger issue than just the schools," she says. "It's about us, as a city. What kind of city do we want to be? And how do we want our kids to grow up?"

In a perfect world, all students would come to school well-clothed and fed, and go back to healthy homes with nurturing families. But the world is not perfect, and achievement can't always be measured by test scores.

If there is any symbol of what Seattle schools can become, and what Seattle can make them, it's this performing-arts program, in which students dare to dream and people like the Kims spin magic from raw material in baggy pants and high-topped sneakers.

Earlier this year, Toni Reineke, a part-time music teacher herself, attended a Seattle high-school solo-and-ensemble contest with her daughter. The scene she and her family remember now in their West Seattle living room is of Sealth's choir, on its way to the event's highest-possible rating, taking the stage after Lakeside School, a prestigious, private college-prep school in North Seattle.

As Sealth's scruffy, gangly teenagers prepared to sing, Toni Reineke thought: "Oh, those poor kids." Lakeside's choir had come on stage with matching outfits and wowed the crowd with impeccable diction and perfect posture.

"Polished," is how Bob Reineke describes them. But they also had sung a standard type of music, he says. Mainstream, European American, classical music. "Which I love," Toni Reineke says. "But the Sealth group, they kind of straggled on, you know, they didn't have stage presence. And they stood up to sing, and it was just like, this electricity went through the room. The kids don't have all the trappings of looking like they're polished, but boy, did they sound polished."

And what their daughter Robin remembers is this: That as the group sang a South African trilogy dedicated to Nelson Mandela and she looked around the audience, people looked pleased, marveled by what they were seeing. And up on the stage, too, were all these confident smiles, harmony with visual discordance, everyone having a good time.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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