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Monday, June 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Garfield says goodbye to its old self

Seattle Times staff

The once-stuffed trophy cases have been cleared out. The bust of Jimi Hendrix, the school's most famous dropout, also has been put into storage.

Atop the old smokestack towering over the school, students painted this farewell graffiti in the school colors of purple and white: "THE CLASS OF '06 — THE BEST 4 LAST." It's closing time at Garfield High, about 40 years after talk first surfaced about permanently shutting down the Central Area landmark because of what was termed "racial imbalance."

In a few weeks, the school with an unusually rich history of diversity, controversy and achievement is being closed for a two-year, $92 million remodel job that will keep intact its brick exterior but not much else.

Gone will be the purple-permeated hallways, doorways and rooms where seemingly little has changed since the building opened in 1923, giving visitors an eerie sense of walking back in time.

Also say goodbye to the tiny gym on the second floor with the elevated running track so worn that wooden slats are showing through the surface, as well as the newer gym outside, possibly the auditorium and many of the student murals, paintings and the countless names spray-painted on the walls. They may be preserved only in photographs.

To most who know the Garfield of today, with its water-damaged ceilings, warped and cracked floors and dingy bathrooms, the remodel is a good thing; the school is worn out, outdated, and a major makeover is long overdue.

Garfield closing "Bash"


The "Bulldog Bash Before The Smash" — an all-class reunion, open house and musical celebration of Garfield's history and upcoming remodel — is Saturday.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nearly a dozen jazz, soul, rap and other musical acts, mostly Garfield graduates, are scheduled to perform in the auditorium beginning at 11 a.m.

Where: Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave., Seattle. Parking will be available on the playfield. Enter off 25th Avenue.

Who: The free event is open to the public and is sponsored by a coalition of three groups: the Garfield Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising organization; Garfield Golden Grads, an alumni group; and the Garfield High School PTSA.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled at 10 a.m. Tuesday near the school's front steps.

For more information: www.ghs.seattleschools.org

To some students caught in the middle, however, it's been that way forever, so why shut down Garfield now? Can't it wait another year or two until after they've graduated?

"My aunt was telling me that when she went here they were talking about remodeling it. My dad said the same thing," said Tiana Ingram-Walker, 17, an 11th-grader who wears purple shoes to school and is helping put together a student handbook for the move.

"So it's like why wait until I become a senior? That's just not fair."

Maybe not, but it's time.

Looking back at Garfield

Since the beginning, Garfield always seemed to be ahead of its time, something that other high schools around here often were measured against.

Its basketball teams have won 14 state titles, far more than any other school. The Clarence Acox-led jazz program and the Marcus Tsutakawa-directed orchestra have won national acclaim. The school has churned out a parade of National Merit Scholars, on par with exclusive Lakeside School, Bill Gates' and Paul Allen's alma mater.

But there always has been something else special about Garfield. Its location, perched on a knoll in the heart of the Central Area, allowed the school to draw from some of the poorest and wealthiest parts of the city, and the students came from all races and religions. There was nothing like Garfield, and the students knew it. As they wrote in a yearbook nearly 70 years ago:

"The nineteen hundred and thirty eight Arrow is dedicated to the student body of Garfield, whose friendliness stimulates racial understanding."

A unique sense of identity has prevailed at a school that was the first truly integrated high school in the Seattle area, back before open-housing laws and mandatory busing.

In 1957, when the enrollment at most high schools around here was 99 percent white, Garfield boasted a student body that was 48 percent white, 34 percent African American and 18 percent Asian American and "other."

The demographics of today's student body aren't much different: Forty-three percent are white, 32 percent black, 18 percent Asian American, 6 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American.

"We were diverse before anyone even knew what that meant," said Darlene Hook Daggs, Class of '62 and a member of the group organizing Saturday's "Bulldog Bash Before The Smash" — an all-class reunion and open house with live music at Garfield.

A similar event was held at Roosevelt a couple of years ago before it, too, was shut down for remodeling, sending its students and programs to the former Lincoln High School building in the Wallingford neighborhood where Garfield's 1,600 students will spend the next two years.

The renovations will turn Garfield into what Principal Ted Howard II (the son of retired Cleveland Principal Ted Howard) enthusiastically calls a "state-of-the-art" campus, with a new gym and performing-arts center, allowing it to keep pace with other public high schools recently renovated in Seattle.

But even at this supposedly sunny time for the school, some clouds are hovering over it.

A last-minute city initiative campaign has been launched to save the Quincy Jones Auditorium (named for the 1950 graduate), which would force a big change in plans for a new lunchroom and commons area.

Plus, the prospect of a gleaming new Garfield is a symbol to many of the accelerating gentrification and revival of the Central Area.

Said Ingram-Walker: "It's going to be a nice school after it's finished. ... But the new Garfield looks like it's supposed to be in a different neighborhood, like on Mercer Island somewhere."

The comeback campus

Daggs, an African American, was at Garfield during some of its most pivotal years, when the enrollment of black students surpassed 50 percent, prompting the school district to consider closing it because it was considered so segregated compared with other schools.

Garfield stayed open, propped up at first by voluntary transfers and a "Magnet" program, but went into decline as enrollment plunged during the 1960s and early 1970s when racial tensions grew, educational offerings shrunk and students of all races left for other schools.

Things got so rough that Michael Dixon, the 1970 senior-class president, tennis-team captain and a member of the Black Panthers, said that after school he would escort white friends home to their Madrona neighborhood and Asian-American friends to their homes down by Yesler Way. He even worried for his own safety.

"It was dangerous for everybody. It wasn't just white kids," said Dixon, who now works as a security specialist at the school. "But we kept the dream alive. We didn't die as a multicultural school. We grew from that."

Dixon said he's pleased Garfield is getting remodeled but is frustrated that it took so long. Like the principal, Dixon is one of a number of Garfield grads who have come back to work at the old school. It's a place that's hard to shake.

Students and alumni speak of the Garfield spirit that's handed down from generation to generation like a prized heirloom. Ingram-Walker and classmate Tierra Jenkins are both second-generation Bulldogs, following parents to the school. Jenkins, a cheerleader who proudly displayed her purple-and-white socks, cringes at the thought of going to Lincoln, which seems like a big, old, soulless building, and is concerned about what the younger students will find upon returning to the remodeled Garfield.

"Will the Garfield spirit still be here? We have all that history here and that's going to be gone," she said.

Howard said he doesn't expect that to happen, although it's an emotional time for him, too, even through he's looking forward to the remodel.

"Walking out of the building and knowing what it stood for and everything is really hard," said Howard, who grew up a few blocks away and graduated from Garfield in 1985. "Garfield, to me, it was almost like the Taj Mahal of the community. It is more than just a school. ... It stood for the passion of education in our community. For black kids, for white kids, for all races of students who were interested in getting a quality education.

"It's more than just a school to the kids. I think the spirit is going to move with us."

Bill Kossen's father was among the first Garfield students, graduating in 1927; two older siblings went there in the 1960s, and he was looking forward to going there, too. But his family moved north and Kossen ended up going to Lincoln High, which closed in 1981 and will now be home to Garfield for the next two years.

Bill Kossen: 206-464-2331 or bkossen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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