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Originally published November 18, 2009 at 11:27 PM | Page modified November 19, 2009 at 10:41 AM

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Seattle Schools return to neighborhood-based system

Seattle Public Schools has officially returned to a neighborhood-based system of assigning students to schools, similar to one it abandoned about 30 years ago in the name of racial integration.

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle Public Schools has officially returned to a neighborhood-based system of assigning students to schools, similar to one it abandoned about 30 years ago in the name of racial integration.

By a unanimous vote at 11 p.m. Wednesday, the School Board approved a new set of boundaries for most of the district's schools that will determine where students will be guaranteed a spot. The boundaries will be phased in starting next fall with students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades.

Students still can apply to attend any school but won't get in if those who live within the school's boundaries fill it up first. The district also won't provide as much bus transportation — even to alternative schools, which won't have boundaries, and have been all-city draws.

Some think the board is moving too fast — drawing boundaries before it can assure that students will get a high-quality education at all its schools. The plan also is strongly opposed in some areas where parents say the lines divide communities.

Some also see the board's decision as the final step in a long retreat from efforts to integrate schools that started in 1978, when Seattle became the first large city to voluntarily adopt a busing plan to integrate schools.

"It's interesting that it just turns around 180 degrees," said Ann Siqueland, who was the desegregation project director for the Church Council of Greater Seattle in the '70s and '80s and wrote a book about that effort.

Mandatory busing for integration ended more than a decade ago. Since then, the assignment plan has evolved into an often-confusing system that, while based largely on geography, has not guaranteed students a place at any particular school.

In returning to a neighborhood-based assignment system, many School Board members have said segregation in Seattle neighborhoods is a societal problem too big for the district to solve alone, and they'd rather spend money improving instruction than busing students across the city — whether for integration purposes or to provide parents with choices about where their children go to school.

The district has billed the new student assignment plan as a simpler, cheaper, fairer and more predictable alternative to what exists now.

"If we're going to use our limited resources efficiently, this is a big opportunity to reduce transportation costs, balance out enrollment so that hopefully the vast majority of our schools have enough students in them to be successful," said board president Michael DeBell.

Under the existing plan, DeBell said some schools have long waiting lists while others are only half full and unable to provide the same level of programs and services. Under the new plan, he said, all schools will be full or close to full, with none left to wither.

"I think we will greatly improve our chances of serving all of our children successfully if we can create schools where the community is invested in them," he said.

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The boundaries approved Wednesday reflect small adjustments in the lines around five pairs of elementary schools: Bryant/View Ridge, McDonald/Green Lake, Whittier, West Woodland, Loyal Heights/Adams, and Alki/Lafayette.

The board still has to decide how to phase in the new plan — especially how long to provide school buses for students now enrolled far from their homes, and whether to give siblings spots at the schools attended by their older brothers and sisters.

Along with concerns about how the boundaries are drawn in some areas, the sibling question has been one of the most contentious aspects of the new plan.

And many parents say they don't want to be required to attend a subpar school.

"I think they should all be equal if we're going to be told, or restricted, as to where we can send our kids," said Angela McKinney, a parent of three, whose youngest attends school at Graham Hill Elementary.

DeBell and other board members acknowledge that providing quality schools is key.

"We have to be demonstrably better at turning around low-performing schools. That's absolutely part of the success of this by 2015," DeBell said.

Along with the concerns, however, board members say they've heard from parents who like having a guaranteed assignment to a specific school. "There are certain pockets of neighborhoods that feel very strongly about things," said Ramona Hattendorf, president of the Seattle Council PTSA. "But I'm not hearing wholesale railing against it."

There also has not been an outcry over the fact that the new plan will maintain — and will likely increase — the racial divides that now exist in many schools.

T.J. Vassar, a teacher at Lakeside School who served on the Seattle School Board in the early 80s, said he's sad the district — and the city as a whole — no longer seems to feel that a quality education needs to be an integrated education — something the board felt strongly about during his tenure.

If the district had proposed this plan 30 years ago, Siqueland said someone would have quickly taken the district to court, and — given the U.S. Supreme Court at the time — likely prevailed.

In the two years this plan has been discussed, no suit has been filed.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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