Race, class — and new school map
The Seattle School District's transition to a neighborhood-based enrollment plan and away from a system of multiple choice raises issues raises issues for most constituencies.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The Seattle School District's transition to a neighborhood-based enrollment plan and away from a system of multiple choice raises issues for most constituencies.
But what happens now is most critical in neighborhoods, mostly in the South End, where test scores have lagged in schools that many families avoided when they had a choice. That's where the district needs to focus its attention if it wants to draw white middle-class parents back and serve the needs of the families who are there now.
The district is holding meetings on the plan around the city. Parents are asking about boundaries and buses and budgets, but at a meeting Tuesday night at Aki Kurose Middle School Academy in Southeast Seattle, the big question rose above such details.
"How does the system intend to make education comparable at all schools?" a parent wanted to know.
The district knows that this plan has to make equal education across the city a priority. Carol Rava Treat, the district's executive director of strategic planning and alliances, offered a list of changes from more coaching and mentoring for teachers to spreading advanced learning opportunities to all schools to a new evaluation program, all intended to further that goal.
Someone else yelled out: "Excuse me, but we were hoping to hear about South Seattle."
Yes, another parent said, "Tell us what improvements have been made in struggling schools so we will know whether we can send our kids."
"That's why we're here," someone else shouted.
The shouting parents weren't black, as they might have been in the '60s. These were white, middle-class parents who wanted to know whether they could trust their children to South End schools. They constituted most of the audience.
During small-group discussions, Robin Pfohman went to Rava Treat with her concerns, which she felt weren't being addressed. "We're not fools; we know that the South End schools have been historically neglected due to institutionalized racism," she told me later.
Pfohman, who is white, said the district is "a white, middle-class system and in the South End you don't have that many white, middle-class families."
She said parents are the key to school success, and the South End is hampered by higher poverty, working-class parents who don't have time to come to meetings, and language differences.
Pfohman said she has three choices. "I could either really get involved and make the schools my life, or I could move out of the neighborhood, or I could try to send my kid to private school."
Her children are 1 and 3, so she hopes the district will have it figured out by the time they're ready for class.
Tené Frazier, one of a sprinkling of African-American parents, found a way to make the current system work for her. She got her daughter into McClure Middle School in Queen Anne, even though she lives down the street from Aki.
Frazier is an engineer who was recently laid off, but went back to school right away studying naturopathic medicine.
She won't be able to shop around for a school for her son under the new plan, so she came to find out what the district has planned in her neighborhood. Her son is only 4, so there's time.
And there is hope. We know a lot more today about how race, class and family income affect education.
We have solid examples of what success looks like and road maps for getting there.
Michael DeBell was one of the School Board members at the meeting. When I asked him about plans for the schools that need improvement, he quoted Geoffrey Canada, "Whatever it takes."
Canada created the Harlem Children's Zone, basically drawing a line around a large section of Harlem and guaranteeing every child educational success in schools he designed to meet their needs. It worked.
"People are impatient, and I understand that," DeBell said, but then he talked about the obstacles in the district's path. There are many group and individual agendas crying out for attention.
But if this current plan is going to work the district needs to make it clear to the community that its focus is to provide a high-quality education — in every neighborhood. Whatever it takes.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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