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Originally published April 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 1, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Danny Westneat

School district's obsessed with race

As part of its well-meaning quest to rid itself of racism, the Seattle School District has found a program it considers racially biased...

Seattle Times staff columnist

As part of its well-meaning quest to rid itself of racism, the Seattle School District has found a program it considers racially biased.

Summer break. The 10-week hiatus from school is institutionally racist, said the district's Equity and Race Relations director. That means it's something that "results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race."

The premise is that summer break disrupts the school year, thereby deterring students of color from catching up academically.

Now, you can see from my photo that I'm about as white as it gets. So maybe this goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: I don't get it.

Wouldn't struggling white students benefit from more time in school, too? Can't students who need to catch up go to summer school now?

If we want to extend the school year, then let's talk about that. What's skin color got to do with it? More importantly, how will declaring that summer break is racist actually lead to any better education for kids?

This obsessive focus on race in Seattle schools has gone too far. It's killing us.

You may have seen a story in this newspaper last week titled, "Race, class splinter a school."

It was about how white people started enrolling their kids in a black school, but then left in a case of white flight.

I am one of those white people. After four years of fundraising and volunteering at our local school, Madrona K-8, we transferred our kid to a school a mile away, McGilvra Elementary.

We did it because there were 31 kids crammed into our first-grade class. They got little to no recess. And the administration seemed to be resistant to the arts, music and foreign-language study. And was ambivalent, sometimes hostile, to our efforts.

We were sad to leave. There are many great things at that school, such as dedicated teachers and outstanding families.

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But the degree to which race has come to dominate the story is eye-opening. Especially since much of the race-baiting comes from school-district employees.

First, there was an e-mail, sent from the vice principal's computer to a departing white parent. It said the school wanted to get rid of her.

"I hope you enjoy your wonderful educational experience aboard the Mayflower," it read.

At a community meeting last week to talk about the issues facing the school, it seemed everything was about race.

A former Madrona principal, now a principal at another Seattle school, said white people in and around the school make her uncomfortable.

A Madrona school official talked of his suspicion of "white charity." He dismissed the concerns of parents who had left as "BS" and said he wouldn't attend another meeting about it.

And a Seattle high-school teacher and coach declared that the real problem with white people is they don't want to go to school with blacks.

Now, it'd be one thing if these were the visceral feelings of the public. But these are school-district employees, some of them administrators. They're our leaders, the very people we're counting on to help bring disparate groups together.

It makes me wonder: Does the Seattle School District even want whites and blacks to go to school together?

They said they did last fall, in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the district said integration is crucial to education and society.

But out in the trenches? Not so much, apparently.

There's no question race matters. We don't live in a colorblind society. But this school district is so focused on race it's fueling an atmosphere of division. It's blinding the district to what matters even more than race — its job to educate any kid who walks in the door.

Take Madrona. It is trying valiantly to get itself off the federal failing-schools list. Yet the enrollment there has dropped by 40 kids since October.

About 10 of those who left were white.

So while everyone was busy arguing about white charity and the district was off blathering about the racial unfairness of summer break, a whole host of families of all races at Madrona were voting with their feet.

That's not white flight. That's just flight. Shouldn't we be having meetings about that?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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