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Originally published June 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 29, 2007 at 12:49 PM

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Some new diversity strategies take shape

Without a racial tiebreaker to force integration at its schools, the Seattle school district will likely use special programs and extra...

Seattle Times education reporter

Without a racial tiebreaker to force integration at its schools, the Seattle school district will likely use special programs and extra funding to attract a wide range of students to schools throughout the city.

But the district still is considering using other factors, such as income, in determining who goes to school where.

Even though Seattle Public Schools lost a landmark desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, district officials were declaring victory because of Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion. Kennedy voted with the 5-4 majority, but he wrote his own opinion, arguing that school districts can still be what he called "race-conscious" when making enrollment decisions.

He listed ways districts could better integrate schools, including strategically locating new schools, drawing attendance zones to combine areas with different demographics, allocating money for special programs and recruiting students and faculty.

"I think it's a real challenge, but I think that those of us committed to a desegregated society have to think of creative ways to keep our focus on desegregating our schools," said James A. Banks, director of the University of Washington's Center for Multicultural Education.

Kennedy's guidance is helpful to the district as the Seattle School Board works on a new student-assignment plan for the 2008-09 school year, said Gary Ikeda, the district's general counsel.

The School Board took the first step last week, pouring $200,000 into three struggling, predominantly African-American schools in Southeast Seattle.

Board members said Thursday they hope the money will improve schools and attract a more diverse student body.

"I think that this ruling is in alignment with where our assignment plan has been going," said board member Michael DeBell.

This fall in the gentrifying Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle, Chief Sealth High School will launch the South End's only International Baccalaureate (IB) college-preparatory program. This is part of an effort to improve the school's academic reputation and make the school a more attractive option for middle-class white families moving into the neighborhood.

"If we don't offer a good amount of high-quality programs, and there are more opportunities in other schools, kids will go, so it does become kind of a spiraling effect," said Sealth Principal John Boyd. "One of the concerns that we had was that by putting the IB program in, it would make it a white middle-class school and chase our kids away."

Over the next year, the School Board also will draw a new districtwide map identifying school assignments for individual households.

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Currently, Seattle's Open Choice system allows students to choose their schools. Several popular -- and mostly white -- high schools have waiting lists while high schools that serve mostly students of color are losing enrollment.

School districts should now "think about other factors," said Gary Orfield, a professor in UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. "They need to think about geography, language, poverty and test scores, and combine those with race, and figure out how to increase diversity in that way."

Seattle School Board President Cheryl Chow said family income is a better arbiter of success in school than race, anyway. District officials Thursday also suggested other means to determine who gets into popular schools, giving an edge, for instance, to kids from certain neighborhoods.

School-assignment plans that consider socioeconomic factors, such as family income, are already legal and should not be affected by Thursday's ruling, said professor William Koski of the Stanford University Law School. So are neighborhood attendance zones that limit school choices, and locating new schools with an eye to promoting racial diversity.

Instead of looking for a replacement for the racial tiebreaker, the district should focus on improving schools, said Harry Korrell, the attorney for the parents who sued the district.

"If what they're trying to accomplish is the same racial balancing that the court rejected here, and they want to use that [socioeconomic] mechanism instead of race, then they may have trouble," he said.

Retired UW professor Richard Morrill helped write Seattle's original busing plan in the late 1970s. But now he believes districts shouldn't force students to integrate. If "people can be enticed [to schools], we're better-off," he said.

Times staff reporters David Bowermaster and Linda Shaw contributed to this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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