Due to adults behaving badly, Garfield High School in Seattle hasn’t had a choir director for seven of the past 12 school months. So the kids started teaching the classes themselves.
Julia Furukawa is a high-school senior. I’m no education specialist, but technically I think that makes her a student.
As in: “A person, usually young, who is learning under the close supervision of a teacher at school.”
Except she is the one doing the teaching.
Furukawa goes to Seattle’s Garfield High School. Here’s some of her typical day the past couple months:
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First period she has a history class. She spends part of this time arranging soprano and alto parts for a girls’ choir.
Second period she has AP Statistics.
“I check in, make sure I get my assignments. Then I run down to the second floor to warm up the girls’ choir and get them going. Otherwise they’d just be sitting there. Then I run back up to statistics. Sometimes then I run back down.”
Third period she’s got AP Biology: “I usually stay in this one. But sometimes the teacher grudgingly lets me run to organize the boys’ choir.”
Fourth period she’s got Concert Choir. But here she’s no student — she’s pretty much completely in charge. She leads the 20 kids in stretches and vocal warmups. She selects the music — on a recent day it’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” She directs the choir’s various sections through this piece repeatedly in preparation for a spring show.
After school, Furukawa and a fellow senior, Emma Chrisman, also direct the Vocal Jazz ensemble.
“She’s turned out to be a really amazing teacher,” says Riley Calcagno, a choir senior. “Especially because she’s not even supposed to be doing it.”
Strangely, the Seattle School District denies that Furukawa is teaching these classes — even though she plainly is.
It’s a sore point because the district is astonishingly employing three adults related to these classes. One is the former choir director Carol Burton, whom the district fired last year for multiple lapses on a field trip. She was reinstated by a judge last week but remains on paid leave as the district figures out whether to let her return to Garfield.
Another is a replacement choir director who mysteriously bolted midyear but who mysteriously also remains employed by the district. The third is a sub called in to oversee the classes, but who has no music experience.
Bottom line: Since that fateful field trip to New Orleans in early 2015, the choirs have had no real instructor for about seven of the 12 months the school has been in session.
So the kids decided to run it themselves.
“At some point we saw it was either that, or let it die,” Calcagno said.
That this has gone on so long is due to the usual Seattle schools prescription for any problem: Namely, pour molasses on it. Most every adult at every level — from the original choir teacher to district staff who didn’t warn the school of a student with behavioral problems to the superintendent who has seemed more concerned with legal liability than getting these kids a teacher — all failed these students to one degree or another.
But like some real-life episode of “Glee,” the show not only went on, but seemed to get better. I heard the jazz choir at the school auction this spring, performing with no adult director, and they were electric. At a recent regional competition in Oregon, they were the only group with no director, and they won third place.
“I want to be clear: It’s crazy that we’re teaching these choirs,” Furukawa says. “But we’d be blind not to see how it has made us more passionate performers. It’s been powerful.”
They want the reinstated director put back in the school. Hopefully sometime before they’re in college.
Barring that, maybe the school should just hire the 18-year-old Furukawa?
“It would be nice to have a prep period, like the other teachers get,” she joked. “Oh, and a salary.”
So what did you learn in school this year, kids?
“About the limits of the system,” says Calcagno. “How you have to work around it to get anything done.”
“That a bureaucracy has no real heart or soul,” says Chrisman.
“That relying on adults to get things done can be a dead end,” Furukawa said. “They have mottos — ‘Every student, every classroom, every day’ — but they don’t really mean it. You have to make it happen for yourselves.”
Well, you can’t say you don’t get an education in Seattle Public Schools. It’s just often not the one advertised.