Thea Leidel has several things in common with the students whose parents brought their lawsuit against the Seattle Public Schools to the U.S. Supreme Court last week. Like them, she is white and middle class. And like them, she was locked out of her first choice in high schools and assigned to a predominantly minority South End school with a bad reputation—in her case, Cleveland High.
The students, whose parents filed suit six years ago, claim they suffered racial discrimination because the district gave preference to nonwhite kids when there were too many students trying to enroll in popular schools, such as Ballard High. The district has since suspended using the "racial tiebreaker" practice, but the effect of losing this suit—as seems likely, judging by the questions posed by the justices last week—would be to cement its demise.
The students' argument draws power, in part, from a belief—common among many white, middle-class families in the district—that schools like Cleveland, to which several of the plaintiff students were relegated, are an unthinkable option for their bright, capable kids.
Leidel's family thought otherwise. "I want to be here," Leidel says, talking after school one day, her brown hair swept into a ponytail. Her father, Steve, a senior computer specialist at the University of Washington, says of the school: "It's been really good for her in ways I can't even put into words yet."
When Cleveland turned up on her assignment form, Leidel was shocked, she says. Like many of her childhood friends, she had set her sights on Garfield, a school with a high academic reputation and a panoply of Advanced Placement courses. It's also approximately 40 percent white, about even with the district overall.
Cleveland, whose percentage of minority students stands at 92 percent, offers not a single Advanced Placement course. (Which throws into question a statement by the school district's lawyer, who told the Supreme Court last week that the city's high schools are all "basically comparable.") At the time Leidel was enrolling in high school, Cleveland's scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning were some of the worst in the city. They still rank low, though they have risen considerably.
Her parents toyed with the idea of moving from their Rainier Beach neighborhood to get a new assignment but eventually accepted Cleveland. "We were thinking she'd go into Running Start," says Steve Leidel, referring to the state program that lets upper-level high-school students enroll early in college.
But Thea Leidel ended up choosing against that option. She liked the school so much that she couldn't bear to leave. "I feel comfortable here," she says. "I get to know a lot of different people. Everyone knows me." Indeed, she is vice president of the junior class.
Leidel participates in a "global studies" academy, one of two smaller academies at Cleveland that receive funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (The academy concept—in which teachers work together as teams to stress particular themes and monitor small groups of students—has been scaled back since its inception several years ago due to funding and staffing issues.) She praises teachers who try to compensate for the school's weaknesses. Her French teacher, for example, offered to make it possible for her and two other students to take the French Advanced Placement test by spending extra time with them to go over the necessary material. All of her classes have also offered students a chance to earn honors credit by doing additional work.
Currently, she's excited about a mock trial that her U.S. History and Law class is putting on this week. Seattle University law students have been helping her and her classmates prepare for their roles as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses in a murder case with a claim of self-defense.
As for the level of class discussion, she says: "A lot of people surprise you."
Bright students can thrive at Cleveland, says Marc Ottaviani, a lanky 35-year-old language arts teacher, who sought out the school because he thought it had the potential to be great. "But they have to be self-motivated. What they're not going to get is an overwhelming competitive tone. What they can get, if they want, is serious work, serious exploration of ideas."
In Ottaviani's ninth-grade classroom one recent morning, Cleveland's poet in residence, Jourdan Keith, is giving a lesson on alliteration. A number of the kids seem less than engaged. "Do we gotta take notes?" asks one. Another starts taking things out of her backpack and throwing them on the floor, creating thuds as each one falls. Still another closes her eyes.
"I'm starting to lose some students. I want everyone to wake up," says Ottaviani, knocking gently on students' desks. "Track the speaker. I want to see everyone's beautiful eyes."
Despite the squirrelly behavior, the class contains some determined students. "I definitely want to get to college," says Makya Green after class. "Only two or three people in my family ever went." She wants to be a lawyer, and to do that, she knows she needs good grades. Her classmate and cousin Derhonda Clay plans to get a master's in business and start her own salon. She says she chose Cleveland because of a program through the Gates Foundation that offers college scholarships to low- income students.
When it comes to college, Steve Leidel admits he's a little worried about Thea's chances at schools like the University of Washington, since her high grade-point average may not count as much, coming from Cleveland.
His daughter, however, who plays on the volleyball, basketball, and softball teams, feels confident. With all her activities in addition to her course work, she says she has a lot of grist for her application's personal essay. One theme she is considering: why she stayed at Cleveland High School.