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School Makes Most Of Second Chance Chase Middle School Learns From Mistakes

This is the second year for the new Chase Middle School - and a second chance.

After a faculty feud and charges of racial discrimination blemished the school’s opening year, new administrators took steps to make sure problems didn’t recur.

Neighborhood coffee hours, anti-harassment training, prizes for good grades and a renewed emphasis on discipline are helping the $13 million school in southeast Spokane run more like a flagship and less like the Titanic.

With visible relief, teachers say “last year’s turmoil” is behind them and they’re enjoying school again. They’re so busy with new programs, clubs and committees they have little time to rehash the past.

There was only a brief mention at a recent staff meeting when the U.S. Office of Civil Rights completed its final investigation, clearing the school of charges of unfair treatment of a minority student in 1994-95.

New Principal Alison Olzendam credits her staff for their pull-together attitude.

“We’re lucky in our profession that every year we have an end and a beginning. After the summer we can come back and take a different perspective on things,” she said.

The upbeat feeling at Chase contrasts with January 1995 when a group of teachers filed a harassment complaint against an African American counselor, who in turn charged his fellow staff members with racial discrimination.

The accusations prompted investigations by Spokane School District, the state and the federal government through the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

When the dust cleared, Principal Rodger Lake and Assistant Principal Dianne Fields were assigned to new schools. The counselor, Lionel Harding-Thomas, stayed on.

In retrospect, teachers and administrators say Lake didn’t get enough help opening a new, large building. Suddenly, there were 900 students, 50 percent more than had attended Libby Middle School, which Chase replaced. Malfunctioning fire alarms and odd odors from the ventilation system kept stress high.

But the image of a school torn apart was never quite true, said teacher Mary Langford.

“What happened last year never filtered down the steps,” said Langford, whose classroom is a staircase away from the main office. “It was almost as if there was a gate.”

Soon after her appointment in June, Olzendam told the Chase staff to rest over the summer and return refreshed.

Stealing an idea from a Missouri principal who had inherited a troubled building, she convened six neighborhood coffee hours in August.

“It allowed me to make connections with parents that would have taken a year,” Olzendam said.

The coffee hours, held in homes, generated a list of what parents felt were the school’s strengths and weaknesses. “Outstanding staff” was the most frequently mentioned strength. The parents’ second most cited concern - after student safety - was staff morale.

Morale began to rebound the week before school started at a barbecue at East Central Community Center.

Hosted by the Rev. Happy Watkins and paid for by Nate and Roberta Greene, owners of Empire Ford, the barbecue was a symbolic moment, district officials said.

The community center was the site of a public rally in February 1995 during which parents and students hurled charges against the school and voiced support for Harding-Thomas.

“It was like Thanksgiving,” Watkins said. “People had barbecue sauce on their faces, hands and noses and they were just talking. Afterward, they shook my hand. Many of them hugged me. It was an electrifying feeling, a joyfulness, a oneness.”

A few weeks later, a Seattle theater company performed a play about discrimination for Chase students, setting the theme for the year. Students were trained as mediators. Posters around the school stressed diversity.

Harding-Thomas, who said last year he was targeted because he stood up for minority students, declined to discuss the new school year. “My interview days are over,” he said laughing.

There are other changes. A new student handbook emphasizes rules and discipline. Suspensions for fighting are strictly enforced.

In addition, academic excellence enjoys new emphasis through a program called Renaissance. Students with good grades or perfect attendance receive prizes from local businesses.

“The way they run the school is great. If you make good grades they honor you for it,” said seventh-grader Jeanette Townsend, pulling from her binder a photo of the honored students.

In the group photo, kids of all races sit in rows on gymnasium bleachers dressed in identical T-shirts. In the center sits Olzendam.

Sherri Louis, a family advocate at Martin Luther King Center and a member of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, said the parents she knows support the new school leadership.

Teachers described a staggering variety of activities they’re involved in, including new clubs, a new foreign language class, new computer technology, and plans for new accountability so students don’t graduate until they have skills for high school.

The 300-member band will travel to Portland in June to march in the Rose Festival Youth Parade.

“It’s been a healing time. People can focus on teaching again, focus on their classroom,” said Heidi Bauer, student government adviser and science teacher.

Last year taught teachers how quickly sparks of misunderstanding can blow up into three-alarm fires.

Unfortunately, some students may have learned about a hot button within their reach.

On Wednesday, a girl walked into the Chase student office. She had been sent by her teacher for talking in class.

Everyone else was talking too, she complained to another student in the office.

“Tell them it’s a black thing,” the friend advised.

Then they both burst into laughter.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo