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News / Northwest

Why Seattle schools are more segregated today than the 1980s

By Dahlia Bazzaz, The Seattle Times
Published: June 5, 2023, 6:03am

First of two parts

In 1978, Seattle became the nation’s first major city to voluntarily integrate schools. Today, it’s hard to tell it ever happened.

As the city’s population grows more diverse, children attend schools markedly more racially isolated than those their parents attended. Black students are just as segregated now as they were during the Nixon administration. The number of schools where white students are in the majority has nearly doubled since the 1990s, even as white student enrollment has declined.

These conditions are important drivers of educational inequity — one of the reasons integration was practiced here for 40 years. Integration has been linked to increases in achievement for Black and Latino students, and helping students challenge racial bias. But schools are still largely a product of where kids live, and where they live is often a vestige of racist housing laws, generational wealth and government neglect. Left unaddressed, these forces seep into classrooms.

In the past decade, the district’s gap in academic outcomes between Black and white students grew to one of the widest in the country. Parent groups at one school can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars while another campus just a few miles away has no parent-teacher organization. Schools in wealthier, whiter areas tend to employ teachers who have more experience. And the advanced learning program at one school became so segregated the former superintendent heard it was called “Apartheid High.”

More in This Series

What drove the parent whose lawsuit ended Seattle’s integration effort
One of the last times Kathleen Brose heard from a reporter was 15 years ago, when a journalist told her the nation’s highest…
Why Seattle schools are more segregated today than the 1980s
In 1978, Seattle became the nation’s first major city to voluntarily integrate schools. Today, it’s hard to tell it ever happened.
Seattle schools chose integration. But then it fell apart
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.

There is no shortage of people interested in fixing this stratification. It has been the central charge of countless school district leaders, nonprofits, students, parents, teachers and consultants. Taxpayers and philanthropists have collectively given billions toward a district that promises to unapologetically serve students “furthest from educational justice,” with an emphasis on Black boys.

But within this ecosystem, very few bring up integration as a solution anymore. This idea, initially aimed at reforming segregated schools in the American South, once had the backing of Seattle civil rights organizations. For decades, the district sent thousands of kids on buses to far-off neighborhoods in the name of resolving the same problems Seattle schools face today.

The end of Seattle’s formal integration efforts came after white parents sued over the district’s policy. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the parents’ favor in 2007.

District leaders have no plans to revive a program today; there isn’t a large public effort calling for one, either. For many racial justice advocates, gentrification has become a bigger foe. In the past 30 years, the district’s Black student population declined by a third.

“While we can’t reverse the impacts of the past, we can understand those impacts, and nurture and teach our students at every school,” said Brent Jones, Seattle schools superintendent, who is Black and was a student during the heyday of Seattle’s integration efforts. “Families have told us that serving students close to home is a community value and important.”

Each generation, including this one, has made its own attempts to lessen the pervasive consequences of segregation. Some are individual actions and some are major structural changes. None are as seismic as what Seattle schools tried nearly a half-century ago.

WHY SEATTLE DECIDED TO INTEGRATE

Seattle Public Schools became the first major district to voluntarily integrate two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separating students on the basis of race was unconstitutional. Beginning in the mid-1950s, federal courts forced hundreds of school districts to racially balance their classrooms.

By the 1970s, district officials here didn’t want the headache of a court order. At the same time, they recognized SPS’ racial divides weren’t so different from other school systems that federal justices decided were too divided.

Generations of Seattleites identify themselves by their proximity to the Ship Canal, which divides the city into the North End and South End, as much of a class line as a geographic feature.

These types of lines were drawn literally through a network of racist property deeds and a now-illegal federal government practice called redlining. These forces created areas — primarily in the North End — where people of color either were not allowed to purchase or rent a home, or found it extremely difficult to do so. The earliest calls for integration in Seattle came from redlined neighborhoods such as the Central District, where the majority of Black Seattleites once resided.

Busing was a solution meant to improve educational quality: If white students attended the same schools as kids of color, district officials and families would be forced to treat every building the same.

The district was successful at cutting down the number of racially isolated schools when busing was in place, according to a Seattle Times analysis. Times journalists spent more than a year creating a database from paper and digital archives to better understand the effects of integration.

This unique analysis shows that before busing, in 1971, three-quarters of white students attended a school that was majority white. Two decades after the district busing program was in full effect, in the 1990s, that number fell to just 14% of white students.

Busing to schools in faraway neighborhoods was a defining part of growing up for generations of students in Seattle.

But each decade, the number of students bused to schools was scaled down. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, white families left the district in protest and voters tried twice to nix the program through ballot measures. Integration efforts shrank dramatically until their end in the 2000s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the district’s integration policy violated the Constitution in a case brought by parents.

Forty years of integration efforts ended, and no one ever studied the central premise over the long-term: Did Seattle’s racially balanced schools improve educational outcomes for kids of color? A definitive answer is lost to time. Given changes in academic measurements such as test scores and graduation standards, a retroactive study is unworkable.

One part of the district’s integration strategy survives today. It was once used as a way to keep white kids around.

HOW STUDENTS EXPERIENCE SEGREGATION

Students of color make up at least 20% of the student body at every school, a testament to the way the city has diversified.

But those changing demographics haven’t altered what many describe as two different districts.

“It’s no secret that when you walk into schools like Roosevelt and then see Rainier Beach, that there is a deep legacy of deprioritization of schools in the South End,” said Brandon Hersey, president of the Seattle School Board.

Over half of all SPS students met grade level standards in English and math last year, but only around a third or fewer Native American, Black, Latino and Pacific Islander children did.

Mia Dabney, who graduated from Cleveland High School last year, sensed the city’s racial fault lines from a young age.

She heard them when people called her South End school “the best of the worst.” She felt them at the private middle school she attended, where she was one of just a few Black kids in her friend group. And she saw them whenever she visited Rainier Beach, the district’s southernmost high school, where she’d watch water collect from a leak in the lunchroom ceiling.

“It’s not right that we’re so separated,” said Dabney, a former member of the Seattle-based NAACP Youth Council. “I don’t know how the money works, but we need to do better for our students.”

The council, made up of paid student activists from high schools, issues public responses on racial issues affecting the district. The students have called for more teachers of color and more funding for South End schools. And for years, they’ve called for the end of a program they believe is “perpetuating school segregation.”

Around the time the district began requiring integration, the district expanded advanced learning programs in part to stave off white flight. And although they were never explicitly racially exclusive, the majority of kids who qualified were white.

Some of those special classrooms are still operating in the same network of schools. They make up what’s called the Highly Capable Cohort — a group of 5,700 students who attend most of their classes together, apart from a general student population. While the demographics and requirements to qualify for HCC have changed in the past several years, the program still isn’t racially representative of the district. Around one out of every seven SPS kids is Black. In HCC, it’s one out of 33.

“I went to that school for four years and I didn’t make one friend outside of that program,” SPS graduate Azure Savage wrote in a 2019 book where they reflected on being a student of color in Seattle schools. “White friends, white teachers, white classmates — it was all I knew.”

Four years ago, then-Superintendent Denise Juneau called HCC “education redlining” and proposed removing it. It set off an emotional firestorm, with some parents threatening to pull their kids out of the district. The district plans to phase out the cohort model by fall 2028.

BLURRING BOUNDARIES

West Seattle has its own version of the Ship Canal: 35th Avenue Southwest, though the lines have blurred due to gentrification. Generally, west of the street, home values spike. East of the street is home to public housing, where many refugees reside.

A 2021 report by the Urban Institute found many school boundaries around the nation still mirror redlining boundaries, including the boundary around West Seattle Elementary School, on the east side of 35th. Kids of color make up nearly 90% of the school’s enrollment. Schools immediately to the west of West Seattle Elementary’s attendance boundary, which capture homes with views of Puget Sound, have five times more white children enrolled.

A Seattle Times analysis found other instances where neighboring schools had significant racial differences. At Bailey Gatzert Elementary School in the Central Area, which enrolls students from a public housing development, only 12% of the school’s 345 students were white. Adjacent schools along Lake Washington are around 30% white or more.

Tomás Monarrez, one of the authors of the Urban Institute study, found differences in teacher experience and even discipline rates in schools that were located next to each other. Tweaking these boundaries could reduce segregation, he said.

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“I’m not saying that (moving boundaries) is going to resolve all the racial issues in Seattle forever. But it’s going to resolve this racial inequality between two neighboring public elementary schools that are under the jurisdiction of the same school board,” said Monarrez. “Why do we keep this racial inequality?”

Hersey, the School Board president, says he personally sees the school boundary lines and other disparities wrought by segregation as worth addressing. But he believes that it should be a citywide conversation, and he’d need to see a push from the public before proposing any policy.

The district hasn’t proposed conversations about changing boundaries to address those disparities, said Ashley Davies, the district’s executive director of school operations. Boundary changes are only considered when schools are crowded or to find safer routes for students walking to school — and when they are under consideration, the district shares data about how a potential change would affect demographics at a school.

Asked if she’d ever seen the overlap between school boundaries and redlined areas, Davies replied, “We do understand the demographics of our schools … We as a district are focused on how we create excellent schools, so where a student is does not influence a student’s ability to be successful.”

Located in High Point, West Seattle Elementary’s neighborhood is quiet and green, with community garden plots every few blocks. The school draws much of its attendance from public housing, where many East African refugees live.

Student test scores there were once among the lowest in the state. But the school has made a significant turnaround in the past decade after receiving a federal grant. Last year, the school outperformed the state average in math and reading.

School Principal Pamela McCowan-Conyers, who oversaw the turnaround, has no plans to slow down. She wants to install an academy within the school that would allow students to immerse in science and art. But the school would still benefit from integration, if the community wants it, she said. Students would get the chance to interact with kids from different cultures and upbringing, helping them feel a deeper sense of community. And, with more socioeconomic diversity, the PTA could raise more money, helping with hiring.

Despite her school’s academic successes, West Seattle’s stigma as a less desirable school has remained, said McCowan-Conyers.

“It’s hard to erase when you’ve struggled for so long,” she said.

PARENTS TAKE ACTION

When Laura Stowell was first looking for a home in Seattle, real estate agents would often refer to areas that had “better schools,” she said. But the Boston transplant chafed at the idea of shopping for the best classroom. At one point she was the only white parent on her block who sent their kid to West Seattle Elementary, she said.

The school has been amazing for her family, said Stowell, who has two daughters there.

Asha Mohamed, an Ethiopian immigrant and mother of six kids who all at one point attended West Seattle Elementary, said her family became fast friends with the Stowells, who live just a few minutes’ walk away in High Point.

A growing number of parents, mostly white, are taking the same stance as Stowell, said Katy Strange, who heads the local chapter of Integrated Schools, a national organization that encourages affluent parents to enroll their kids in racially diverse schools close to home. The parents discuss the latest research on integration, and how they can contribute to their schools without disrupting the culture that already exists there.

Some parents in West Seattle are trying to bridge the economic divide. Kristen Corning Bedford, a white mother whose kids attended Genesee Hill Elementary, where fewer than 10% live in poverty, helped create a fund that dedicated a portion of its proceeds to high poverty schools in the area. In its first year, the fund raised nearly $20,000, and West Seattle Elementary received almost $5,000.

The campaign raised awareness about the area’s history, including how redlining boundaries affected the socioeconomic makeup of the schools. It also held a discussion between parents at low-income schools and their more affluent counterparts.

The stories were more stark than Corning Bedford expected. While some low-income schools said they’d spent the little PTA funding they had on rent assistance for families, a wealthy school sat on its PTA reserves for an entire year during the pandemic because it couldn’t find a reason to use the donations.

“We know it’s like sticking a finger in the dam,” she said. “But unless you start having the conversation and changing the people’s story about why we are where we are, it’s going to be easy to just continue along with the status quo.”

WHAT THE DISTRICT DOES

The district has formed dozens of initiatives dedicated to addressing inequities. It has a department called the Office of African American Male Achievement, and mentorship program for Black boys. A separate levy from the city government also kicks tens of millions toward schools with the aim of addressing historically marginalized students. School Board items go through an equity analysis.

Officials say they also protect low-income schools from some budget cuts and propel them higher on the priority list for building renovations and repairs. And, after years of community activism, Rainier Beach High School is getting a new building.

That’s in addition to all of the projects and protests launched by teachers and students, including a week of lessons at some schools about the history and current events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

On the spending side, SPS does generally try to be equitable, said Marguerite Roza, a Seattle-based education finance professor at Georgetown University.

But one important funding inequity remains, said Roza. Teachers tend to be more experienced at the district’s northern and white-majority schools, according to a Seattle Times analysis of state data from 2022. That means higher salaries directed toward those schools, since educators are paid based on years of service.

An average of 17% percent of the teaching staff are beginners at the 10 schools with the highest share of white students. At the schools with the most students of color, around a third of the roster is inexperienced on average, with some schools as high as 48%.

Just one of 10 schools with the most experienced teachers is located in Southeast Seattle, the Seattle Times analysis found.

The disparities have consequences for student achievement, said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington.

Teachers become progressively better each year for their first five to eight years on the job, research generally agrees. Research also shows teacher turnover can negatively affect student academics — and teacher attrition tends to be higher at high poverty schools.

“It feels like we are fighting to survive sometimes,” said Joaquín Rodríguez, a former multilingual science teacher at Franklin High School who now chairs the Center for Racial Equity, which is part of the teachers union focused on race and social justice issues. Staff at high-poverty schools are often addressing students’ basic needs in addition to their academic performance, he said.

In Seattle, this turnover is exacerbated when the district shuffles staff based on enrollment projections. The labor contract specifies that teachers with the least amount of experience are first to be displaced, with an exception to preserve staff diversity.

Fixing the problem would require incentives to work at high-poverty schools, said Goldhaber, such as higher pay. The Seattle educators union said it would be interested in exploring bonuses and workload relief at such schools.

The district doesn’t have a specific plan to address disparity in experience.

“We value every teacher regardless of their experience. We have a lot of talented educators who want to work in our Title I schools — because of the programs, because of the students, and because they want to inspire students who look like them,” said Brent Jones, the district’s superintendent, through a spokesperson. (Title 1 schools have higher poverty rates.)

For Rodríguez, more money to address educational inequities is a step in the right direction. But, he added, the problem requires a deeper solution than what funding alone could accomplish.

“The last thing I want them to say is, ‘Well, we sent them enough money down there. How come you’re not better already? How come racism isn’t solved yet?’”

That was the wall Stephan Blanford hit during tenure on the Seattle School Board. A member of the board from 2013 to 2017, Blanford, who is Black, argued the disparity in student achievement was unacceptable. But governing according to that conviction was a Sisyphean task, he said.

“People are willing to make some accommodations for low-income schools, but only some,” said Blanford, who serves on the board of Integrated Schools, the nonprofit with a Seattle chapter.

In 2016, as he tells it, he battled with his colleagues over an idea to use surplus district funds on low-income schools. He observed “thinly veiled racism” from white parents pushing back against moving boundary lines in Magnolia, or installing a program for recently incarcerated students in Queen Anne.

Most people value the concepts of integration and equity, he said.

“But in reality, when that means you’re going to have to bus your kid from the top of Queen Anne down to Rainier Beach — that’s when the rub happens.”

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