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Originally published August 20, 2012 at 9:26 PM | Page modified August 21, 2012 at 8:13 AM

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6 Seattle schools have become whiter as new assignment plan changes racial balance

The Seattle School District's new student-assignment plan, adopted two years ago, does not appear to have yet significantly decreased diversity at most city schools. A Seattle Times analysis identified six schools where racial balance has suffered, and three schools where it has increased.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Diversity and a new school-assignment plan

Since Seattle Public Schools began assigning students to neighborhood schools two years ago, the racial makeup at most schools has not greatly changed. But diversity has taken a hit at six schools, which have each gotten significantly whiter. Meanwhile, three others have become more racially balanced.

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The student body at Alki Elementary is becoming more like the neighborhood around the school — which is to say whiter.

Last year, 71 percent of the West Seattle school's newest children — those in kindergarten and first grade — were white, compared with 54 percent of the students in grades two through five.

The shift there is not a surprise, nor is it likely to end.

Last year's kindergartners, and the kindergarten class before it, were among the first assigned under the Seattle School District's new assignment plan, which places most students in their neighborhood school. And in the attendance area around Alki Elementary, three-quarters of the district's elementary-age students are white, according to the district.

The changing demographics at schools like Alki appear to be the first effects of the new assignment method, which was approved in 2009 to cut transportation costs and alleviate uncertainty under the old assignment method.

Under the earlier plan, students applied to preferred schools anywhere in the district and were assigned based on a variety of factors.

The new, neighborhood-based plan signaled a complete turnaround in priorities for a district that made history in 1978 by voluntarily adopting a busing plan to integrate schools and two decades later went to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend a school-assignment racial tiebreaker with the same goal.

The neighborhood plan is still being phased in, with students who were assigned to schools under the old plan — and their younger siblings — staying at those schools.

So far, it appears the new plan hasn't greatly affected most district schools, according to a Seattle Times analysis of enrollment statistics provided by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

But diversity has suffered at at least six schools. In each case, the school is in a predominantly white area. And with more neighborhood students now attending, the enrollment has become whiter.

Three schools, meanwhile, have become more balanced — that is, closer to the district's overall racial mix.

School District officials, who have not done a similar analysis, cautioned there may be other factors affecting demographic shifts, including enrollment growth and program changes affecting individual schools.

"There are so many different factors and the enormous enrollment growth that we've had," said Tracy Libros, the district's enrollment manager. "This is more complicated than one answer."

But Libros and other officials acknowledged the assignment plan is causing many more students to attend their neighborhood school, which was its intent.

District officials also acknowledge they have changed their thinking on the contentious topic of integrating schools, saying it's not because they no longer value diversity but that busing became an expense the district can no longer afford.

They say they are focusing instead on educating students where they live, trying to boost the quality of schools in poorer parts of town so they are just as good as the ones in wealthier neighborhoods.

"The student-assignment plan is the student-assignment plan," said Phil Brockman, the district's executive director of school operations. "We've had a dozen iterations over the past 20 years. But our focus has always been on quality instruction."

"We don't want to see"

Still, the loss of diversity at some schools is troubling to some parents.

"Even those of us who aren't a minority, we don't want to see that shift," said Carla Rogers, an Alki PTA vice president, noting she chose the school in part for its then-diversity. "We don't want to have a homogeneous school for our boys because that's not the world and you have to show your kids that from the very get-go."

Rogers and others concerned about diversity said they nevertheless support the new plan for its predictability and encouragement of parent involvement.

The plan comes with a guarantee that if you live within a school's district-drawn attendance boundaries you can go there. If you don't want to, you can apply to another school with space, or to a handful of citywide "option" schools — but a yellow bus won't take you there.

It's similar to assignment plans used in most urban school districts.

Under Seattle's old plan, all schools were citywide draws and students had to apply to schools they wanted to attend. Whether they got their first choice depended on a variety of factors, including the student's distance from the school, whether a sibling attended and, in some cases, a lottery.

The new neighborhood method earned unanimous approval from the School Board, with the most contentious debates surrounding how to implement it. Board members ultimately decided to phase it in, applying it only to a school's incoming grades (kindergartners, sixth-graders entering middle schools and high-school freshmen).

Since then, officials have described the plan as a success, pointing to skyrocketing enrollment and some $1.4 million in transportation-cost reductions, with more savings expected.

Analyzing enrollment

To evaluate the effect on racial demographics, The Seattle Times obtained enrollment statistics from last school year and compared the demographics of grades assigned under the old plan and those assigned under the new plan (kindergarten and first grade, vs. grades two through five for elementary and grades six and seven vs. grade eight for middle schools).

Option schools were excluded from the analysis, as were high schools, because most still set aside a portion of seats for non-neighborhood students.

The Times focused on shifts of at least 10 percentage points relative to the district's overall racial mix: 57 percent minority and 43 percent white.

The identified schools were examined in light of neighborhood demographics and enrollment among neighborhood students, data provided by Seattle Public Schools.

The analysis indicated a substantial loss of diversity at Alki, Arbor Heights (in Southwest Seattle), Sacajawea (Maple Leaf), Gatewood (West Seattle) and Greenwood elementaries and McClure Middle School (Queen Anne). Each saw a spike in white students.

Racial balance rose at Leschi, North Beach (Northwest Seattle) and McGilvra (Madison Park) elementaries. Two of those saw a jump in students of color while Leschi was already heavily minority and got closer to average by getting more white students.

Parents at schools in each category said they have noticed the shifts.

Retreat from busing

To some, the numbers served as further evidence of the district's long retreat from busing.

In the 1970s, Seattle was credited as the first big city to implement busing before being ordered to do so by a court.

The district abandoned the practice two decades later, but it maintained a choice plan with a so-called racial tiebreaker, which gave assignment preference to students who could improve a school's racial balance.

That policy was challenged in 2000 and found unconstitutional in 2007.

Officials now say the best way to ensure equality is to provide a quality school in every neighborhood.

"I believe that parents and taxpayers want us to have consistent academic achievement, much more than they're seeking diversity," School Board President Michael DeBell said.

Board member Harium Martin-Morris agreed that across-the-board school quality is the priority

"Are we there yet?" he asked himself. "No. But we're at least moving in the right direction."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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