Good Intentions Turn Into Diversity Backlash at Lakeside School

When this prestigious prep school sought to become more ethnically diverse, donations poured in. But as a pending discrimination lawsuit alleges, the effort may prove more costly than anticipated.

When Briaan Barron got accepted into Lakeside School, the elite private institution whose formidable roster of wealthy and powerful alumni includes Bill Gates and Paul Allen, it felt to family and friends like heaven's doors had swung open to receive her. "Whenever we told anyone," says her mother, Daphne Cross, "it was like, 'Oh my God, you got accepted into Lakeside!'"

"The campus was beautiful," says Barron, thinking back to her first impressions of the North Seattle middle and upper school's meticulously maintained red-brick buildings, which rise from sprawling lawns of deep green. "Everyone was very friendly."

Furthermore, not only was Lakeside's academic reputation superb, but Barron, who is African American, was impressed on her initial visit by how many black students and faculty there were, noting that she was used to seeing virtually no African Americans at her previous Catholic school on Capitol Hill, St. Joseph.

Nearly two years later, Lakeside has lived up to Barron's hopes—academically, at least. She is now a high-achieving Lakeside sophomore who sits on the school's Black Leadership Union's leadership committee. Yet she has thought often about leaving. "My daughter is miserable there," says Cross, an executive assistant at Sound Transit.

The problem, according to Barron, is that "everything turned into a race debate."

Sitting cross-legged on a couch in her family's South End rambler, Barron, a self-possessed young woman wearing jeans, hoop earrings, and a headband pulling back her shoulder-length hair, relates how she first listened eagerly to campus discussions about race. That was when, as a freshman, she found herself in the classroom of Kim Pollock, an African American teacher who had recently come to Lakeside from Bellevue Community College. While teaching English, Pollock often talked to her students about racism. "She was the first teacher I felt I could identify with," Barron says.

But Pollock also stirred controversy, particularly among white students, who perceived that she was accusing all whites of racism. Barron felt compelled to defend her and found the ensuing debates dispiriting. "We're coming from two different perspectives," she says. Barron felt herself pitted against people who liked to hear the sound of their own impressive vocabularies, and who would say things like, "My father does this, and this, and this; therefore, I have more background information on this."

Then Pollock suddenly left Lakeside midyear, with little explanation from the school. A number of other teachers and staff, several of them African American, also handed in their resignations. "If everyone's leaving amicably, where's the cake and punch?" Cross asks.

At the same time, Lakeside became embroiled in debate over its decision early last year to withdraw a speaking invitation to high-profile author Dinesh D'Souza. His conservative ideas on race sparked protests from African American faculty, as well as some whites, and were ultimately judged "harmful" to Lakeside's "current efforts to be an inclusive community," according to a letter written by Lakeside Head of School Bernie Noe. Notwithstanding that decision and an intense effort by the school to become more diverse, two African American teachers filed suit against Lakeside last October in a case now proceeding through federal court, charging the school with being a hostile work environment that practices racial discrimination.

On top of all that, it seemed to Barron and her mom that the school was always talking about how much it valued diversity—not necessarily a bad thing, but one which brought even more of a draining focus on race. Cross says she was always hearing questions among the Lakeside community such as: "How do the black kids compare to the white kids?" and "How do the scholarship kids compare to the nonscholarship kids?"

Says Barron, "All I had to worry about at St. Joe's was doing my best in my classes."

"We just want her to go to school," her mother adds.

Race crops up more often as a subject of debate in public schools than it does at an institution like Lakeside. The Seattle School District has made ending institutional racism official policy. (Concerned about the achievement gap between African American and white students, the School Board has concluded that the district's own racism is partly to blame.) And the district's recent search for a new superintendent brought a barrage of questions from the press and public about racism.

Meanwhile, Lakeside has had the same kind of self-recriminating discussions about ending "white privilege," heightened in some ways because the privilege enjoyed by many students at a school that charges upwards of $20,000 a year in tuition fees and admits less than one-third of its applicants is far vaster. The Gates-Allen connection is used so often as shorthand to convey Lakeside's royal pedigree that it is easy to forget all the other storied names attached to the school, which read like a history of moneyed Seattle: Pigott (the PACCAR founding family); Blethen (the family that owns The Seattle Times); Selig (the real estate family responsible for the Columbia tower); Ballmer (as in Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, whose children attend the school); Schwarz (Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz sent a daughter there); Bullitt (founding family of King Broadcasting); McCaw and Nordstrom (of cellular communications and department-store fame, respectively).

The weight of it all generates, by turn, awe, embarrassment, and fear. "Don't you know all the most important people in town are connected to Lakeside?" says one former student, explaining why he can't risk talking on the record. And one Lakeside parent, a black politician, worries about his image if word gets out that he is affiliated with "the most exclusive school in the state."

Lakeside has changed a lot since it was founded in 1919 in the Denny Blaine neighborhood overlooking Lake Washington (it has since moved to the city's northern limit, just west of Interstate 5). As late as the mid-'60s, when Gates arrived on the current North Seattle campus, it was, as he described in a 2005 speech there, "an all-boys school where you wore a jacket and tie, called your teachers 'master,' and went to chapel every morning." (The school began admitting girls in 1971.)

But Lakeside has always offered a kind of pre–Ivy League experience, giving kids copious freedom and demanding much in return. At a school where a teacher once told Gates he was "coasting," students put in as much as six hours of homework a night, and compete fiercely for top grades that will send them to the real Ivies and equivalent schools (a goal achieved by roughly a third of the students, judging by the college attendance plans of the most recent graduating class). In all, 99 percent of students go straight to college. Classes feel like seminars, with an average size of 16. And by official mandate, every student owns a laptop.

The school even looks like an Ivy League college. Though it is near the freeway and busy Northeast 145th Street, it is buffered by a greenbelt, majestic trees, and an athletic field. Buildings like Pigott Library and Allen-Gates Hall cluster in quadlike formations on what are actually two campuses: one for the middle school and one for the upper (i.e., high school), which are separated by a few blocks along the quiet side street of First Avenue Northeast.

Now, a new era has hit Lakeside. If it was old money that formed Lakeside, it is new money that is shaping its current culture—and new money warms to the idea of diversity. In 2003, Lakeside created a mission focus that made "diversity and inclusion" one of three goals, along with the related goal of "global citizenship" and the third goal of academic excellence. Shortly afterward, the school embarked on a $105 million fund-raising campaign—an unprecedented amount of money, even for Lakeside—the bulk of which is to go toward supporting the mission focus and enabling need-blind admissions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated $40 million of the $84 million raised as of December.

"We sort of changed the notion of diversity from being a deficit—where people were initially thinking about what's going to happen to standards, will our standards go down and so on—to where it is now, where we have defined excellence and [have] said you can't really have excellence without diversity," says T.J. Vassar, a longtime Lakeside administrator (and former Seattle School Board member) who is Lakeside's coordinator of multicultural education and diversity.

However, contends Nancy Burgoyne, whose son graduated from Lakeside a couple of years ago, "The school is no longer based on excellence. It is based on an agenda." And that agenda, she and others feel, has come at the sacrifice not only of standards but of intellectual freedom.

Meanwhile, there are those who believe that Lakeside's effort to eradicate racism has not gone far enough.

"It's a little ironic that the people who lobbied to have me disinvited—and were successful—cited that very episode as evidence of discrimination," says Dinesh D'Souza, speaking by phone from California, where he is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He's referring to the lawsuit by two African American teachers that is currently proceeding in U.S. District Court, with a trial date set for January 2008.

Yet the D'Souza incident is only one of numerous events and grievances cited by history teacher Chance Sims and math teacher Novella Coleman in their 15-page complaint. The most overt suggestion of racism concerns the use of the word "nigger" by a Lakeside middle-school student, something the school admits in court documents. The incident takes up only two sentences in the complaint, however, and the circumstances leading up to the epithet are not described.

More nebulous territory is student and parent criticism of Sims and Coleman that the teachers felt was motivated by race. According to the complaint, two students had charged Sims with plagiarizing course materials (a charge usually leveled in the reverse direction). The complaint asserts that the plagiarism charge was false but that the students were not disciplined (although one was removed from Sims' class). The complaint does not detail the criticism that came from students and parents against Coleman, except to call it "unfair" and allege that she was not supported by the school.

Generally, according to the complaint, Sims and Coleman felt neither faculty nor students of color were adequately supported by the school, and Sims expressed concern in particular about the high number of African American students who were on academic probation.

In November 2005, the complaint goes on to say, Coleman announced she was leaving, as did Kim Pollock, the teacher Briaan Barron liked so much. Head of School Bernie Noe called a faculty meeting to discuss what one white teacher called, in an e-mail, "the fact that our community is losing some fantastic teachers of color at an alarming rate." The meeting turned dramatic. Sims brought up his objection to the D'Souza invitation, the complaint relates, whereupon a white staffer admitted her role in asking the conservative to come. "Shame on you," retorted Sims. That prompted a white male staffer to rise to the woman's defense, according to the complaint, "in an aggressive tone."

The next day, the complaint laments, Noe suggested that Sims apologize to the woman but said nothing about the man who aggressively rose to her defense.

The following month, Sims sent a mass e-mail to the school's entire staff, labeled "A Valentine for Kim Pollock," which read: "After learning that the administration is spending hundreds of hours dealing with the D'Souza debacle, I'm left to wonder how this school might look if the administration spent hundreds of hours supporting retention efforts." The administration apparently took umbrage, because Noe subsequently placed Sims on two months' probation, according to the complaint. After that, the complaint says, Lakeside stalled at giving Sims a new yearly contract, prompting the teacher to enter a Ph.D. program in women studies at the University of Washington, although he still works part time at Lakeside. (Coleman took a teaching job in California after leaving Lakeside, and Pollock returned to Bellevue Community College, where during her 14-year tenure she had founded the ethnic and cultural studies department, which she now chairs.)

Lakeside has denied the suit's allegations, and claims, in its answer to the complaint, that Sims' and Coleman's "damages, if any, were caused by their own conduct." School officials have declined to discuss the case in detail, and Sims and Coleman declined to be interviewed for this story.

But since the teachers filed their initial allegations, they and the school have submitted hundreds of pages of documents in court, including internal e-mails, reports, and meeting notes. These provide an unusual glimpse into the inner life of a school that, as one document states, has long gone by the ethos: "Punish in private, praise in public."

The plaintiffs suggest that one of the e-mails they include, from a longtime African American teacher named Phyllis Byrdwell, is evidence of prior discrimination complaints. That e-mail, sent to all faculty members in the heat of the D'Souza debate, really speaks of isolation as much as anything else. Here, Byrdwell writes poignantly about what it felt like to be, as she puts it, "the only person of color on BOTH campuses" before others came along. She continues: "I can remember my first year and how hard it was to even ascertain HOW to 'fit in.'...During my tenure here, I have had to be the 'voice' that spoke to issues regarding race and it is actually refreshing not to have to be the only voice anymore."

The most compelling voice in these documents, however, belongs to Coleman, whose anguish virtually jumps off the pages. In an e-mail to Noe and a separate year-end review filled out by teachers, she writes that she had been attracted to the school because of its new mission, but ultimately decided to leave "because my current situation at Lakeside was absolutely unbearable. I felt like the students were holding me under a microscope. I felt attacked by parents, and I felt marginalized by those who claimed to be addressing my concerns."

When she announced her resignation, Coleman continues, she was "bombarded by false promises and lots of meetings" with, among others, the school's diversity committee and "community members wanting to discuss white privilege." All to no avail. She writes: "I have lost the ability to peacefully fall asleep after a long day's work rather than spend hours tossing and turning, full of regret and anticipating how I will be able to survive the next day....I have lost control over my desire to not cry in public but have been reduced to tears at the thought of returning to Lakeside or even spending another moment there."

At a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue near the Lakeside campus, administrator T.J. Vassar reveals himself to know something about feeling isolated at the school, as well as the way in which its good intentions can backfire. Easygoing, with a deep-throated laugh, and wearing a navy V-necked sweater and glasses, Vassar remembers back to the mid-'60s, when he and two other students became the first African Americans to attend Lakeside.

The school had just started the Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program, known as LEEP, which offers summer classes to promising disadvantaged youth.

In 1965, some Lakeside students showed up at what was then called Washington Jr. High School (now Washington Middle School), where Vassar was a student, and talked about a summer program at a school the young man had never heard of. "I didn't have anything else to do that summer, so I said yeah," Vassar recalls. Afterward, the school invited him to attend as a full-time student.

"I refused—twice," he says. Vassar's father worked as a steelworker. His mother was a Boeing riveter. He started life in the Rainier Vista housing project and subsequently moved to a Central Area house a block away from Garfield High School, where his mom still lives. For a boy in that place at that time, Lakeside did not seem like at attractive option.

"Think about it," he says. "It was 1965. All I saw on TV were civil-rights unrests, and, you know, the Montlake Bridge was sort of like the Mason-Dixon line of Seattle at that time. I didn't know anything about going that far north."

But when Lakeside asked Vassar a third time, he finally gave in.

For the most part, Vassar liked Lakeside and its students a great deal. Things did not go entirely smoothly, however. "I think the school was trying to reach out to us by having us read some literature with black people in it," Vassar says. "I remember in the 10th grade we read Huckleberry Finn." Right after that was Richard Wright's Native Son. Neither are fundamentally racist books, but as the teenage Vassar saw it, Twain's novel had the "n" word all over it, while Wright's opus centered on a black man who killed a white woman. "So they were trying to be multicultural by having us read these two books that the instructors had read, and that were the worst books for us to have to sit in a virtually all-white classroom and have students get up and read."

Over the following decades, Lakeside continued to wrestle with issues of diversity, recalls Lisa Ayrault, a former Lakeside teacher, now dean of education at the Waldorf School in Seattle. Dan Ayrault, Lisa's dad and Lakeside's beloved head of school from 1969 until his sudden death from heart problems in 1990, had co-founded LEEP. The program brought in a steady stream of students of color—atypical for private schools at the time—but they weren't always happy at Lakeside. Ayrault remembers that in the early '90s, under then–Head of School Terry Macaluso, "we had a real crisis of black males leaving the high school."

"The whole institution was brought up short by it," says Ayrault. "We were focused on trying to find out why it was happening." The school brought in a team put together by the National Association of Independent Schools to conduct a "multicultural assessment." Ayrault says the discomfort seemed to stem from the general atmosphere of the place: the high-end cars in the parking lot, the complexion of most of the faces. A caring middle-school director named Harry Finks had seemed to ease the way for younger African Americans, but no one managed to do the same at the upper school.

In 1999, Bernie Noe assumed leadership of Lakeside. He had been a top administrator at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., which had allowed him to rub shoulders with the Clintons, whose daughter, Chelsea, attended. He is, by all accounts, a deft schmoozer, going, as one former teacher notes, from "Bill Clinton to Bill Gates."

Tom Weeks, a Lakeside parent and former City Council member who completed a nine-year term on the school's board last June, calls Noe "hard charging." Once Noe makes up his mind to do something, Weeks says, he doesn't necessarily stop for reflection or consultation. And Noe wanted to do things at Lakeside.

His first major change concerned curricula, according to Weeks. "He believed the school was too focused on the West," says Weeks. "He changed it to have a global thrust." Lakeside began teaching Chinese, brought international authors into its literature classes, and broadened its scope of history. Eventually, the school also launched a new Global Service Learning program, which sends students to developing parts of the world to work on summer service projects.

Noe next turned his energies toward the faculty. Lakeside had always been the kind of place where teachers enjoyed a great deal of autonomy—too much autonomy, felt some administrators and board members. So Noe instituted a formal review process. "It was a huge change," Weeks says. "Suddenly, there were people in the classroom observing them [teachers], working with them to improve their skills."

Some teachers who'd been at Lakeside for decades were forced out. Others left of their own accord. It was the kind of turnover that had never before been seen at Lakeside. John Jamison left the school in 2001 after 31 years as a history and physics teacher there. Now living in Walla Walla, Jamison says he felt at cross-purposes with the new Lakeside. He recalls that Noe once declared at a faculty meeting that "this is a mediocre faculty." (Noe, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

More essentially, Jamison says: "The main goal of the school was rapidly becoming fund-raising, and we were not to do things that interfered with that goal." In one case, he says, "there was pressure on people to give high grades to the son of a famous, wealthy family."

"When you have lots of money, your view of the world changes," Jamison muses. "You're not as careful how you spend it." Rather than focus on the classroom, where Jamison thought the school's energies should be, he felt that the largesse of Gates and others propelled an interest in "high-visibility projects." He cites a commonly heard example, the Global Service Learning program, "where you fly kids to Peru to pick up litter off the street." Jamison adds: "You're spending a huge amount of money. (Total cost for the month-long upper-school program is approximately $5,000, $1,300 of which is paid by a student's family; the two-week middle-school program is about half that.) The kids are having a vacation. They feel like they're doing things for the poor without actually doing things for the poor....It's like those Jane Austen stories where the rich people take baskets of food to the poor villagers."

Vicki Weeks, who directs the program (and is Tom Weeks' sister), passionately defends it. "Kids go, and something happens to them," she says. "Their heart bursts open....It gives them a sense of their world and their place in it, and they come back really dedicated to making a difference in their own communities here." Weeks mentions a young woman who went to Peru and worked in a school there on an evaluation system for teachers and staff. When she returned, she volunteered with the local organization Rainier Scholars, which offers an academic and enrichment program for kids of color.

Noe's next big move was to call for a new mission focus. In the summer of 2003, he called together staff, board members, and parents for a retreat to consider potential themes. The selection of diversity as one of three core goals matched Noe's deeply held beliefs on the subject, according to those who have worked with him. It also was "a particularly easy subject of fund-raising," Tom Weeks says. In fact, he says large donors were "demanding" greater diversity, making their views known through a number of gifts dedicated for that purpose.

To wit, in a speech two years ago at the school in support of the new fund-raising campaign, Gates said, "I want as many students as possible, from as many different backgrounds as possible, to enjoy a Lakeside education. So I think it's important to put the financial-aid program at Lakeside on such a solid footing that money will never be a reason for denying a Lakeside education to a promising student."

Between the fall of 1998 and the present, the number of minority students at Lakeside rose from 24 percent to 38 percent. That's a greater percentage of minorities than in the entire city of Seattle, according to the latest census estimate, and 12 percentage points more diverse than rival Seattle Preparatory School. Lakeside's largest share of nonwhite students, 17 percent, are multiracial (the precise combination of races does not appear in school statistics), while 13.5 percent are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent and 5 percent are African American. Approximately 20 percent of all students receive financial aid.

"In my group of friends," says Jordan Hall, a recent Lakeside grad who's now a sophomore at Chapman University in California, "we had someone who was East Indian, someone who was Japanese American, someone who was Tibetan American, someone who was African American, someone who was Chinese American, someone who was Korean American. I'm Caucasian."

Looking back on it now after a year and a half at Chapman, a school that he says has a far whiter complexion, Hall says: "I found diversity to be one of the most powerful parts of my education at Lakeside."

Noe wanted the faculty, as well as the student body, to become more diverse. "He challenged the school in a big way to do that," says Lisa Ayrault, the former teacher. "He insisted there would be one nonwhite applicant in every applicant pool. It was initially hard to find."

Bob Simeone, a parent who co-chaired the school's diversity committee for a couple of years recently, recalls frustration as Lakeside officials would travel around the country to attend meetings of African American physics teachers and so on—only to come back empty-handed. "They couldn't find one?" he remembers thinking. He and others who watched the process say they came to realize that black teachers had more appealing options, like working at a college or with larger numbers of minorities at a public school.

Eventually, however, a number of African American teachers arrived on campus, including Sims, Coleman, and Pollock.

As the notion of diversity generated heat on campus, parents started asking some new questions: What about religious diversity? What about political diversity? Simeone, who felt that the speakers who visited campus were overwhelmingly liberal, helped put together forums on both topics. "That just opened the floodgates," he says, noting that both forums drew large crowds that offered stories of what was perceived as intolerance toward conservative or religious viewpoints.

The school's invitation to conservative D'Souza stemmed from those discussions. But Lakeside eventually got boxed into a damned-if-it-did, damned-if-it-didn't spot with D'Souza. If the school let its invitation stand after faculty had protested, it risked jeopardizing the diversity effort into which it had poured so many resources. If the school canceled, it faced public embarrassment and a backlash over intellectual freedom. The school's choice of the latter brought a storm of negative press, led to a series of meetings between school officials and families, and amplified the unease that some had with the diversity effort at large.

After the school canceled D'Souza's engagement, former Lakeside parent Nancy Burgoyne arranged for the author to speak at Seattle University, where she teaches political science. Residing in a spacious Clyde Hill home overlooking Lake Washington, Burgoyne, an effusive former East Coaster, believes that the school has become so obsessed with diversity that it "got out of the business of learning." Each summer, as the family would set out for an annual sailing trip back East with other families from there, she would compare her son's summer reading lists to those of their friends' children. They were reading the classics, while he was reading what she felt was "this fringe stuff...about a lesbian Peruvian or something or other."

She contends that Lakeside is accepting minority students to fill a quota, without regard to whether they're adequately prepared for the schoolwork, and maintains a similar quota for faculty of color. "I think it's actually very cruel what Lakeside is doing," she says.

Moreover, while Lakeside's patrons among Seattle's new hyper-rich put their money behind diversity, old Lakeside families with more pedestrian wealth have privately expressed concern. Known as "connected" families by the school's admissions committee, these clans often had siblings expecting admission or offspring who attended the school over a span of generations. Parent Shelly Saunders says she can imagine the dismay of parents who, for example, "have three children, and the fourth didn't get in. And you see the face of the class changing."

The documents filed in the Sims-Coleman lawsuit reveal that these concerns have been a subject of much discussion. "The big issue for people who are scared is that the school will 'deteriorate,'" read the notes of a March 2004 meeting of top administrators, called directors. "In almost every case, what we're fighting about is entitlement."

The school took a war-room approach. "Is the fussing about the mission focus coming from people who simply don't want to get with the program?" the March meeting notes ask. Those and notes from other administrator meetings outline a strategy of defense—"Be clear that we only admit students we believe are capable of doing the Lakeside program"—and offense: "Each director needs to go to his or her constituencies to shore up the front line." When talking to the faculty about the diversity push, administrators should: "Assume it's a done deal, and celebrate."

Susan Saunders, a teacher and erstwhile dean of faculty at Lakeside for 20 years until she left in 2005, observes that in recent years, the school has lost its appreciation for dissent. She says she was told by a number of teachers that they had been called on the carpet by an administrator for expressing a view at a faculty meeting that was not considered acceptable.

And it seems from the school's documents that opposition to its diversity effort became one of those ideas deemed unacceptable.

Administrator T.J. Vassar acknowledges that "Lakeside is not an easy school to be in" for anybody—but especially for African Americans unused to the private-school culture. "People demand a lot," says Vassar. Parents, he says, are "paying a lot of money. They want good service." Students "demand something new every day....You have students who really kind of feel like I can call up this teacher, if I got an A-minus, and ask why I didn't get an A."

Vassar adds, "That might feel like: Why are you singling me out? And quite frankly, we haven't had a lot of teachers of color, particularly in our upper school. And our families may not have had people of color instruct their kids. This is something we have to get used to on both sides."

In the case of Pollock, there certainly seemed to be mutual friction. As she brought her ideas on racism into the classroom, some students rebelled. One day last school year, the teacher embarked on a discussion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail" and the letter to King from eight white ministers that had preceded it. The conversation turned into a debate about rape and power. As Pollock recalls, she seized upon the possessive language in the letter from the white ministers—"our negroes"—to talk about the history of slavery, which "allowed a white male to buy a black woman and own as much property as he could by raping her, and raping her daughters and raping her granddaughters." She says she noted: "And that's how come slaves got to look like me."

Some students in the class discerned a broader message that they felt was debatable. "Our teen came home and said, 'She thinks if you have sex with someone who is in power, you're being raped,'" recalls Linda Deright, who is white and the wife of Bob Simeone, the diversity committee co-chair.

So the kids argued with Pollock, which she took as a racial insult. One student told her that she was "intellectually raping" the class. An hour later, Pollock walked into the cafeteria and heard Deright's son talking about the teacher in an unflattering way, according to the recollections of both Pollock and Deright. Pollock says she told the boy: "You're not the first little white boy to have challenged me—and you won't be the last."

Pollock defends the comment as a factual description and "not in the context of a racial put-down."

Typically, Lakeside quietly dealt with the incident. "I was put on probation, which I refused to accept, and I left the school," she says.

"I was really confused when I heard what happened," says Lakeside mom Carlotta Walker, whose son is friends with Deright's, and who is African American. "I think she abused her position as an African American person to say something like that," she says of Pollock. On the other hand, Walker adds: "From her heart, I don't think she meant it that way."

Racism is present at Lakeside, just as it is everywhere, Walker says. Yet she notes, "Compared to what I went through with the public-school system, it's nothing." Walker's son, now a senior, previously attended the Seattle School District's program for gifted students at Lowell Elementary. Walker believes her son was picked on because of his race by a teacher who questioned him sharply about black history and kept yelling at him to talk louder despite a speech impediment.

"Lakeside has been a lifesaver," she says. Administrators welcomed her son "with open arms," she says. In his early years there, he struggled academically. "They really worked with him," she says. This year, he has brought home mostly B's.

Confusion is something you hear a lot in regards to Lakeside's diversity effort. Everybody seems to be puzzling over why it hasn't gone more smoothly despite the enormous amount of time and money invested.

But does Lakeside even know what it wants? That's a question that Pollock essentially poses as she reflects on the circumstances that led to her departure. "They knew who I was when they hired me," she says, referring to her long history of teaching issues related to race, ethnicity, and gender. That, presumably, was why she got what she describes as a "cold call" from administrator Vassar asking her to come in and talk. She reiterates, "They came looking for me."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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