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Originally published February 19, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified February 20, 2013 at 1:15 PM

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Lakeside's transformation on court mirrors changes in hallways

Top-ranked Lakeside's new success in boys basketball came after a push for the private North Seattle school to better reflect the community.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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so basically they are recruiting and paying top notch players from the city to play there. MORE
What about academic achievements overall? Are they on a par with the Lakeside of old? ... MORE
Iceman what is your relationship to the school/bball program? Instead of asking... MORE

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Outside of Lakeside School, three men carefully remove more than 4,000 bricks from a wall attached to the athletic field house.

Soon, the field house and gym will be demolished, and construction will immediately begin on new facilities. But school administrators knew they had to preserve the bricks, so the three men spent days tediously removing each one.

At last check, only three or four had broken.

The field house and gym are a special place for Bruce Bailey and other old-timers. Bailey graduated from Lakeside in 1959, then coached the boys basketball program into a serious threat in the '80s. Back then, the little gym built in the 1930s used to rock as people crowded to see the Lions.

"This building had its time, and it was great," said Bailey, who last coached in 1990. "But this is for the next 50 years."

Lakeside is going through a similar transformation. The private North Seattle school is trying to shed its reputation as a place for rich, white kids by diversifying the student population.

The decadelong process is underscored by the top-ranked boys basketball team, an eclectic group that showcases the school to the public in a way few activities can.

By next year, the Lions will play in a sparkling 800-seat gym, and inside will reside the answer to a common question from alums:

What about the bricks?

The coach

Tavio Hobson needed convincing to apply for the head-coaching job at Lakeside. He had spent the previous year as an assistant for the Lions, and both Bailey and athletic director Abe Wehmiller prodded him to apply.

First, though, Hobson needed to hear that the school was committed to winning. Lakeside had gone nearly 20 years without making noise in the state — or even the Metro League — playoffs, and Hobson wasn't going to waste his time if the school wasn't serious about turning that around.

But there was something else.

Hobson, an African-American, wanted to make sure Lakeside was the kind of school he would send his children to. There's no denying Lakeside's academic reputation — Bill Gates is an alumnus — but Hobson needed confirmation that Lakeside was also committed to diversity.

"I wanted to know it was a place that was inclusive of a lot of people, not just wealthy people or people of a certain area," says Hobson, 29.

Four years later, his team is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A heading into the state regionals this weekend. The Lions have a chance to place at state for the first time since 1990.

And they are doing it with the kind of team Hobson had hoped would represent the school.

The Lions are led by Tramaine Isabell, one of the state's most talented juniors who attended Washington Middle School in Seattle's Central District. Isabell has scored at least 18 points in nine of his past 11 games.

"People take us lightly as the nerd school," Isabell says, "but we can also (perform) on the basketball court."

There's Matthew Poplawski, or Pops, a quality outside shooter and defender who will play soccer at Penn next year. There's D'Marques Tyson, a 6-foot-5 smooth-shooting junior, and Anand Rajesh, who didn't play last season because he spent the year in China through a school-sponsored program.

There are kids from the Eastside and the city, kids who grew up wealthy and kids who grew up poor.

"If we've made any progress, this team reflects that," says Than Healy, Lakeside's Upper School director.

On the court, the Lions returned many of the same players from a team that went 10-11 last year, with two notable differences. First, Lakeside added Isiah Brown, a freshman who made 6 of 8 free throws in the fourth quarter of Saturday's upset of Rainier Beach.

The other change was more mental. The Lions had the talent to win, but not the team approach.

"Last year taught us a lot about what individual play won't get us," Hobson says.

Assistant coach Aaron White agrees, and cites wins against stalwarts Franklin, Seattle Prep and Rainier Beach as proof.

"We knew we were going to be pretty good," he says, "but we needed guys to really have each other's backs. That's how you win big games."

The school

The mission to make Lakeside a more inclusive place started nearly a decade ago with a question: What students keep you up at night?

The idea was to identify students who weren't succeeding at Lakeside, who didn't feel a sense of ownership with the school and to find out why. When Lakeside evaluated where it stood in 2003 and refined its mission statement, the school came up with three pillars. One emphasized diversity.

That started an ongoing process at changing the Lakeside culture, from a place of mostly wealthy students to one with a broader spectrum.

"What we're trying to figure out is, how do we make the school accessible for all those kids?" says Healy, Lakeside's Upper School director.

Lakeside officials tout that the school is made up of 51 percent students of color, and 29 percent of the students are on financial aid. The school, which has yearly tuition of $26,500, gives out more than $4 million in aid each year.

"The easiest thing was getting the numbers," Healy says. "But the hardest part is the cultural shift and changing ourselves as an institution so we're ready for all the kids we accept."

Initially, there was some blowback, although Healy considered it minor. Some wondered if the school was lowering its academic standards (Healy insists it isn't). Others thought the school was different from the one they attended.

"People say, 'Why are you doing this? Is this some liberal agenda?' " Healy says. "This is about being a relevant education, and to be a relevant school in the 21st century, you've got to have everybody at the table."

There have been problems along the way. Two African-American teachers filed a racial complaint against the school in 2006, which followed a previous complaint from a teacher. Another teacher filed a lawsuit against the school in 2009, claiming she was forced out because she expressed concerns about Lakeside's treatment of black teachers and students.

The court found in favor of Lakeside in the 2009 civil case.

"I think the goal is a worthy goal, and if there are bumps along the road, then you deal with those in as humane a way as you can," Healy said. "What were the alternatives? To say, let's go back to being rich, white and elite because it was just more comfortable when we were homogeneous?"

The student population at Lakeside is far different from when Bailey attended in the '50s. It's still changing, evolving, and the hope of Healy and Lakeside administrators is that it will reflect the world outside the school's well-manicured lawns and brick buildings.

At a recent assembly, Healy stood in front of the student body and took notice of the faces looking back.

"OK, we're getting there," Healy thought. "This room is starting to look like the city of Seattle."

And that leads to the bricks.

The rebuilding

As the story goes, Lakeside ran out of money during construction of the field house. A Latin teacher suggested having graduating seniors pay for inscribed bricks to finish the wall, and the tradition stuck.

For years the names on the bricks reflected the mostly homogeneous student body of Lakeside. That has started to change in the past 10 years. The bricks, too, have diversified.

This graduating class will be the last to etch their names in bricks once they leave.

"It's time to move on," Healy says. "A new tradition."

The construction on the athletic center is about to begin. The $22 million field house and gym will replace the ones that stood for so long, and the bricks will move inside.

Lakeside's basketball program, much like the school, is attempting to enter a new phase. The last 20 years weren't kind to Lakeside basketball, but Hobson's team won the Sea-King 3A District title on Saturday and finished the regular season with the second-best record in the Metro League.

The Lions have regularly drawn large, vocal crowds this season. It reminds Bailey, the former coach, of the old days, when the little gym was rocking. He smiles at where the program once was and where it is now.

"Alums are coming up to me asking if this is the best team ever at Lakeside," Bailey says. "I don't want to compare teams, because they haven't done much yet. But I always say, it's pretty darned good."

Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or jjenks@seattletimes.com

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