Pastimes at Garfield High

At Seattle's most famous school, racial tension, achievement anxiety, and resistance to discipline send another principal packing.

A few weeks ago, Garfield High School senior Tyler Adams found himself picked up in a "hall sweep," a procedure newly instituted by principal Susan Dersé to catch kids who are cutting class. Along with about a dozen other students, Adams was brought to the lunchroom, where Dersé herself was overseeing calls made to the students' parents.

Far from cowering, Adams recalls, the students were incensed; cutting class has long been considered a student right at Garfield. Within earshot of the principal, the students said things like, "What is this fucking bullshit?" Then they'd get on the phone to their moms and ask, "Can you believe this crap?"

Adams, who despite being caught out of class is a thoughtful student taking Advanced Placement courses, wondered at the disrespect shown the principal. "I was just thinking to myself, man, I don't know how much longer I could put up with this."

Not much longer for the principal, it turned out. Two weeks ago, Dersé asked her bosses for a transfer from Garfield. Her likely departure—the sixth time a principal will have left Garfield in 10 years—caps a tumultuous three-year tenure in which Dersé faced an out-of-control student culture, accusatory racial politics, and an investigation into an incident purportedly involving a noose, swastikas, and a dead ferret. "Garfield seems to have just been under siege," says Laura Strentz, a language arts teacher there. As tensions mounted at a school that mixes many of the Seattle School District's highest achieving students with some of its lowest, the district has seemed unable or unwilling to help, according to a number of staff members there and parents. Now the district's new head of high schools, Ammon McWashington, says he wants to tackle Garfield's problems in part by luring more top students to other high schools as well, suggesting, without explicitly saying so, a rethinking of Garfield's status.

Garfield is an unusual breed of school that seems tailor-made for racially tinged resentment. Since the early 1980s, the Central District school has been the designated locus for students who have been in the Accelerated Progress Program (APP), which runs from first through eighth grades and caters to students scoring in the top 1 percentile on intelligence and achievement tests. Those students, most of whom are white and come from all over the city, have helped lead Garfield to a position of regional and national prominence. The school consistently leads the state in the number of National Merit Scholars and has, by some measures, both the best jazz band and orchestra in the country. The school also offers an exceptionally wide range of college-level Advanced Placement courses.

At the same time, Garfield is a neighborhood school. Because of where it is, it has always had a sizable African American contingent, though much smaller now than it used to be; 30 percent of students are black. The students drawn from the surrounding area demonstrate a wide range of ability, but a noticeable number of them come in performing well below grade average. Among 75 students in a remedial reading program at Garfield recently, the average reading level was the eighth month of second grade.

Such a dramatic difference in the level of achievement between groups at the same school is bound to create tension, and it has for some time at Garfield, with little district intervention. Gary Thomas, an African-American teacher at the school who has been involved in trying to raise the performance of black students, shakes his head at the people who "set this up," thinking that everybody would get along harmoniously. "And this was all going to happen by osmosis," Thomas says, "because there is no strategy."

On top of this long-simmering problem, Garfield had in recent years suffered from a leadership vacuum that a spirited, rebellious student culture seized upon, and free rein ensued. "You can walk down the halls and people are freestyling," says Advanced Placement student Mae Chevrette, referring to a kind of improvisational rapping. "You can go to class, or you can do this other thing." She's listing the things she loves about the school.

This was the situation that Dersé walked into in the fall of 2001. She had been a principal for more than 20 years, most recently in the Kent and Shoreline districts. "I came here to establish some structure and to help stabilize the school," says the Brazilian-born 56-year-old, talking about her tenure last week in her small office. She developed a series of new rules and procedures. Typical is her handling of the widespread problem of skipping classes. Instituting hall sweeps this year, she collected data on the students caught, continually sorting it to see which kids require the most intervention and whether there might be some teachers whose classes students are more likely to cut. Dersé also laid down a new attendance policy, which denies students credit for a class after a certain number of unexcused absences.

"Most African Americans are not getting credit because of that," complains one student, Jenni Edgecombe, a cheerleader who is African American. "A lot of people have a lot of issues come up. Your mom can be sick. There are a lot of kids at this school whose parents are on drugs. Or you're trying to take care of your baby sister because your mom is out doing stuff she shouldn't be doing. This school is not like the school she came from." Not a suburban school, she means, the kind of school Dersé's critics believe she wanted to turn Garfield into.

Critics saw more evidence of that agenda even in Dersé's decision to paint the school's interior, which proved "stunningly" controversial, according to language arts teacher Steve Miranda. The building "hadn't been painted in 30 years," Dersé says. No matter, a painted Garfield was not the Garfield many students knew and loved, particularly not one painted white. "Ballard has white walls," says Chevrette, the Advanced Placement student, meaning Ballard High School. "It looks like a hospital." The kids quickly made the walls look grimy again, adding to the dark, battered, and, the way some see it, cool look of the place.

"The white kids bussed in from places like Laurelhurst take pride in going to a ghetto school," says teacher Miranda. Chevrette, who is white and from Ballard, agrees. "We've learned that being white is not cool," she says. "Not only do white kids have more privilege, and there's guilt about that, but there's the history where whites have done a lot of bad stuff."

It's ironic, then, that Chevrette was swept up in an incident widely heralded as an act of racism. Around Thanksgiving last year, an assistant to the drama teacher said she found a ferret hanging from an upper tier of the auditorium, along with a noose and a couple of swastikas drawn on a piece of scenery. Drama teacher Carole Ross, who is Jewish, said she felt the vandalism was directed at her, suggesting that it was related to her attempt to integrate the drama club. When she felt the incident wasn't being taken seriously enough by school administrators, she turned to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee, all of whom denounced the administration. Eventually, the school called in the police, who helped question students pulled out of class, including Chevrette, one of the drama club's leaders.

The mystery has dragged on for months. Drama club students, who were warring with Ross for a variety of reasons related to access to the auditorium and the students' unwillingness to be controlled, angrily deny involvement in the vandalism or having racist attitudes. They say several African Americans already belonged. They also point out that the ferret was found to be merely a pelt and that the swastikas were drawn backward, an ancient symbol adopted by hippies as a peace sign. Ross could not be reached for comment. But her assistant, Linet Henry, vehemently responds: "All of this nonsense that some white kids are coming up with is garbage—something that the kids and their parents are coming up with so that they don't have to recognize that they're intolerant of people. Period."

Dersé says that an internal investigation had finally solved the mystery. The school found the student it believes is responsible, she says, although that person has not confessed. According to Dersé, the student is not a member of the drama club, and the incident had nothing to do with an attempt at integration.

The drama club affair, however, became one of the points of evidence marshaled against Dersé by a newly formed group called the Garfield Community Coalition, which thinks that the school is not meeting the needs of African-American students. Though most of its members are not parents, it has acquired a highly visible role in school politics. The Coalition, as it became known, has spoken before the School Board and to district officials. Last July, it submitted a list of six recommendations to Superintendent Raj Manhas and then–Chief Academic Officer June Rimmer. One: "Design and implement a plan to actively recruit and retain African American students in Advanced Placement classes. Until there is equal access to all programs for all students, we require the dispersal of AP students and staff throughout the entire student body to help ensure balanced and integrated classrooms."

The Coalition decried Dersé's elimination of a program for failing students called the Garfield Achievement Program, something she did when the district pulled funding amid a budget crisis but which the Coalition suggested was aimed at eliminating the program's African-American administrators. Dersé, unlike her predecessors in recent years, is white. The Coalition also accused the school of misappropriating special-education funds to spend on Advanced Placement students, resulting in an audit by the district of Dersé's books. According to Dersé, the audit came out clean, although the district was unable to verify this for Seattle Weekly.

Meanwhile, a parent group has been working inside the building to meet the needs of African Americans. The Parents for African American Student Excellence, known as PAASE, is more kindly disposed. "She brought some focus on the real issues," says PAASE Chair Mary Wideman-Williams. "The first thing she did—before school even started—was that she sought us out and asked our opinion on what we saw as the issues. Also, for the first time ever, we were invited to participate in all governance committees. She consistently, in all messaging, made it clear that Garfield was for all students.

"The other thing she did," Wideman-Williams continues, "is push the idea of an African-American scholars program." The ninth-grade program offers accelerated classes to promising African-American students to prep them for Advanced Placement courses. A similar program started under Dersé, called AVID, provides extra support for students taking rigorous courses. In a couple of years, the programs have increased the number of African-American students on track to take calculus by senior year from four to 31.

Wideman-Williams and others also note that there has been progress in communication between Garfield's various constituencies; PAASE, the APP Task Force, and the school's PTSA all came together recently to work on funding issues.

Still, there's no denying the glaringly different levels of achievement among whites and blacks at Garfield. Among approximately 1,000 Advanced Placement seats, only 60 are occupied by African Americans. And one wonders about any principal's ability to handle the politics surrounding a school community this complex. To many, Dersé seemed like a principal who was finally going to stick around. "I am principal at Garfield High School and principal of Garfield High school I shall remain," she said just last September, in a written response to the Coalition's critique of the school. Now, she says, "this is a place where you can lose yourself."

The district is offering few answers. "It doesn't matter what school you're in, there are always going to be issues," says Superintendent Manhas, deflecting a question about Garfield to talk about budget problems systemwide. McWashington, the district's high-school chief and a former principal of Garfield, also lumps Garfield in with every other high school when asked if Garfield has received adequate support. "All I can tell you is I'm sitting here talking to the principal at West Seattle," he says during a phone interview. "And I'm sure he feels like he needs more support." In fact, McWashington seems to feel that other high schools need more help so they can attract some of the APP kids now going to Garfield. "Ideally, my long-range plan in the next three years or two years . . . is that no one school will be perceived as the only one that can handle that population."

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