Second of two parts
In Seattle, the political will to racially integrate schools withstood four decades of opposition. But it could not survive the clamor over Ballard High School.
In 1999, the school emerged fresh from a $35 million rebuild. Baby trees dotted the campus, which neighbors a public swimming pool. An experimental academic model gave students the chance to dive into maritime and biotechnology trades.
When David Engle became principal there in 2000, he dreamed of holding the post until his retirement. He arrived ready to bring in a diverse group of students from around the city. But as he scanned the list of teens trying to transfer into Ballard that fall, he saw mostly white applicants.
“I’ve got trouble coming,” he thought.
Within weeks of Engle’s hiring, a group of mostly white families sued over the district’s last attempt at integration: a “racial tiebreaker” that allowed principals with swollen waitlists to use race as a factor in admission. On June 28, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents. Seattle never attempted to integrate again.
What brought integration to an end had been years in the making. From the time Seattle became the first major city to integrate schools, opposition from white parents followed. The district tried a variety of strategies, then steadily backed away from every one of them, including requiring tens of thousands of students to bus to schools outside of their neighborhoods.
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And flaws in the program eventually wore away at the program’s credibility among the communities of color it was supposed to support, because it placed the burden of integration mostly on them.
The efforts have been called brave, life-changing, messy and a “well-intentioned failure.”
The first programs to integrate are older than the founding of the Seahawks and Mariners. Some of Seattle’s most notable people were school-aged during the era, including Macklemore, Sir-Mix-A-Lot, Mayor Bruce Harrell and current Superintendent Brent Jones.
In the years since the district stopped requiring students to bus outside of their neighborhoods, Seattle Public Schools have resegregated. City schools are more segregated now than they were 30 years ago, a Seattle Times analysis has shown.
Maid Adams, an activist who was one of the earliest voices for integration in Seattle, said the end of integration was a failure of execution, not of integration. It was hard from the beginning to persuade district leaders.
The story of integration in Seattle started nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Civil rights activists launched demonstrations and lawsuits against the district, which they believed was neglecting the education of Black children. In turn, the district tried as long as possible to avoid making integration compulsory for families.
The activists’ efforts predated the outlawing of housing discrimination. So stark was the segregation in Seattle that a young Rev. Phyllis Beaumonte, who taught in Seattle schools for three decades, remembered tugging on her mother’s coat when she saw another African American person outside of the Central District in the 1950s.
“We had our businesses, we had our beauticians, and we had our barber shops,” said Beaumonte, who grew up in the neighborhood.
In 1963, after the first of three lawsuits filed by the NAACP, the district started a small, voluntary program that allowed students to transfer schools. Participation was dismal; 250 students took part, all but 17 of whom were Black.
The following year, on a budget of $800 (about $7,000 today), Seattle CORE — a civil rights organization — assembled the Freedom Schools, inspired by similar actions in Mississippi. During the two-day protest, more than 4,000 kids skipped regular classes to file into churches converted into makeshift classrooms. Volunteers taught lessons about civics, made crafts and fed the students, most of whom were Black.
“It was a chaotic, messy and joyful situation,” said Adams, a member of CORE who managed one of the Freedom School sites.
The meager school-transfer program continued to grow, but the volunteers were still mostly Black children, which didn’t achieve the goal of racially balancing the schools. By 1970, at its peak, 2,200 of the 2,600 participants were Black.
Michelle Osborne was one of the Black students in the voluntary program. She loved running cross-country at Roosevelt, and bonded with several classmates and teachers. But she also encountered adults who “had no idea what they were doing with Black students.”
In 1975, during the spring of her senior year, Osborne discovered her college counselor hadn’t mailed any letters of recommendation to the colleges where she had applied, costing her the opportunity to attend the University of California, Berkeley, her dream school.
When she asked why, the older white man took a deep, heavy sigh. “I didn’t think you were college material.”
Osborne was accepted to Princeton University, and later became an attorney. But that experience haunts her even now, she says.
“I was a good student, yet the Seattle Public Schools — in the form of one of its employees and his belief that a Black student could never be successful in college — couldn’t see me or my potential,” said Osborne, now a diversity, racial equity and inclusion consultant.
A few years after Osborne graduated, the School Board began crafting a plan for mandatory integration, conceding that voluntary efforts weren’t proving effective and desperate to head off a federal court order to desegregate. Since the Brown ruling, hundreds of school districts had been forced to racially balance their classrooms.
“The advice to me last Friday was — move, NOW,” former School Board member Suzanne Hittman wrote to her colleagues in 1976, relaying the details of a visit to Milwaukee, which had recently been put under court-ordered integration.
In 1978 the district launched mandatory busing. It was called The Seattle Plan.
For as long as the district tried integration, there were protests against it. Opponents slashed bus tires and took out ads in local newspapers. White families left the district. In 1988, real estate company John L. Scott capitalized on this dissent, printing flyers advertising homes on King County’s Eastside where “children can go to their own quality neighborhood school.”
In the 1980s, voters passed a state initiative to legally stop the district from busing; it was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Voters approved another citywide initiative to halt mandatory busing in 1989, but it was never implemented.
People of color criticized the program, too. Accelerated learning programs, expanded to stave off white flight, created segregation inside school buildings — a trend that continues to this day but that the district plans to restructure.
Students of color were also being bused disproportionately. In 1980, four times the number of South End kids — the majority of whom were kids of color — were bused out than in, according to Seattle Times archives. This was one of the many challenges of integrating in one of the whitest major American cities.
Norm Rice, Seattle’s first African American mayor, ran for office as the city initiative to ban busing was gaining traction in 1989. At the time, he defended the integration efforts because he felt initiative supporters, including his opponent, were fighting the program for the wrong reasons. But he still thought it was flawed.
“They were busing to avoid a court order,” Rice said. “It wasn’t about what was best for children.”
But many graduates across the racial spectrum say the experience was formative, bringing them academic and social opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had.
The schools did clock a significant change, too. Research shows that West Woodland Elementary in Northeast Seattle, now 72% white, was nearly half kids of color in the 1990s.
“It is still going to be a multiethnic world when [those kids] graduate. That’s something you can’t exactly read in a book. It comes from growing up with all kinds of people,” said Lea Vaughn, a Roosevelt graduate and retired University of Washington law professor.
Vaughn and several other Roosevelt alumni assembled recently to reflect on how integration influenced their high school experience, producing a short documentary.
Research has shown that integration can help improve academic and economic outcomes for kids of color, and even influence the diversity of friendships made later in life.
The district’s attempts to document these kinds of benefits were limited. The data collected while integration was happening only spanned a few years. It would’ve been hard to do this well anyway; the integration program changed so much that a comparison across years would’ve been difficult — and families attempting to dodge the program by changing their addresses, or leaving the district, threw off the efforts, too.
A large study of nationwide integration found that while Black students in the American South benefited from integration, their counterparts at integrated schools in Northern states saw little or no change. That might be a reflection of how easy it was for opponents of integration to remove their children from integrated school districts in the North, said Owen Thompson, an economics professor at Massachusetts-based Williams College who co-authored the report.
The Northeast and Northwest have more parochial and private schools, said Thompson. School districts outside of the South also have more school districts within a county, making it easier for families to shop around.
The resistance to busing, and a large enrollment decline in white students, proved successful at getting the district to tamp down the program. By the late ‘80s, the district scaled back busing in favor of a “controlled choice” system, which allowed parents more say in where their kids could attend.
In 1996, the district’s first Black superintendent, John Stanford, moved to end mandatory busing. To make his case to the School Board, Stanford shared an internal report showing kids of color bused out of their neighborhood schools performed slightly worse in reading than those who remained. It’s not clear what methodology the district used to determine this, or how long the trend held true.
“I don’t need someone of a different race sitting next to me in order to learn,” Stanford said at the time.
In the place of mandatory busing, the district offered parents the ranked choice system to select a school and the racial tiebreaker — the policy that would reach the nation’s highest court. The end of the 1990s marked a spike in segregation for Seattle schools.
The majority opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle (known as the “PICS case”) was one of several successful attempts by conservatives to narrow the scope of the landmark Brown ruling, said Justin Driver, a Yale law professor who was a clerk for then-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at the time of the case.
The court ruled that the school district violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution when it used the racial tiebreaker to admit oversubscribed high schools. Kathleen Brose, a white mother whose daughter couldn’t get into Ballard High School, was the most vocal plaintiff. In 2000, the year that the parents filed suit, 300 students were denied admission to a school in the district of 45,000.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the court also found school districts had violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Except the plaintiffs were Black children who were denied admission to white-only schools.
“The only way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the court’s majority opinion, famously wrote.
On the day the decision was announced, Breyer — who dissented — delivered an impassioned speech at the court for nearly 20 minutes, an unusual move.
“To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown … This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” he wrote in his dissent.
The decision cemented changes the district was already making. The district reverted to a model that encourages students to go to their neighborhood school, but allows parents to apply for slots at other schools, too.
The Supreme Court ruling didn’t shut the door for devising a different tool for integration, one based on socioeconomics rather than race, said Shannon McMinimee, an attorney who pleaded the Seattle schools’ case before the court. The district even devised a student assignment plan around those parameters. But soon after the ruling, the district faced an enrollment crunch, and the plan was never implemented.
Engle, the former principal at Ballard, never got to his dream of retiring from the school. Fearing the legal challenge would mean the end of integration, he quit two years into the job as an act of protest. A white educator drawn to the district because of its integration legacy, he had admitted as many students of color as he could while the tiebreaker was still in place.
Integrating the school proved harder in practice than on paper, he said. The staff had to navigate the divergent needs of both affluent students and recent refugees. But there were early signs that the work was paying off.
He decided to leave, in part, because of a hallway conversation he overheard between students talking about the PICS case. As they passed him, he heard one of them say, “The adults won’t do anything.” He wanted to show them at least one of them would.