Monday, December 04, 2006

The Seattle School District’s Supreme Day

As most know, the Supreme Court is hearing a case based on the Seattle School Districts use of race as a "tiebreaker". The case originated when a group of parents sued the school because their children were not allowed to attend Ballard High School, their neighborhood school, which also just happened to be the brand new rebuilt school with all of the new facilities. The school district wanted to make sure the ethnicity of the kids at Ballard matched that of the kids in the district as a whole. The reason the district gives is that a diverse population is an important part of the education process. Now a little background, the Ballard area of Seattle is historically the Scandinavian section of Seattle. You can not go a block without seeing a Scandinavian flag, Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc. The area is overwhelmingly white and also overwhelmingly liberal. The Republican Party does not even bother running candidates for state offices that cover the Ballard area. I happen to live just North of Ballard, drive through it on my commute to work every day. In addition, my son’s neighborhood high school would be Ballard High if we were still in our house in another 7 or 8 years. I also had a relative who worked at Ballard High up until recently. I know Ballard and yes it is true, people in Ballard do not know how to drive.

A couple of points…

I always question when something like this is used as a "tiebreaker". I would be curious to know what constitutes a tie. This is a bigger issue when you are talking college admissions and you are truly looking at each candidate and comparing GPAs and SATs and outside activities but still, when are two potential students considered tied where race would be used?

As I have mentioned before in a previous post, this strikes me as a situation where both sides simply want the best school for their kids. I am reasonable sure that if Rainier Beach was rebuilt tomorrow with all of the latest and greatest programs, parents from Ballard would be fighting to get their kids in at Rainier Beach and Rainier Beaches neighborhood parents would be fighting to keep the Ballard kids out.

The one really, really odd thing to me is a much under publicized fact that in the district program being reviewed, often the minority child that ended up going to Ballard, did not have Ballard as their first choice. In effect both kids were being denied their first choice in order to make Ballard more diverse.

Another fact that you are not hearing about is that the racial balancing that the district deems so important is only being used at over subscribed schools. There was not a plan in place that would make the schools kids did not want to go to be more diverse. It was just the popular schools were affected by the plan. So if a school had more desks than kids, the Seattle School District was not doing anything to change the underlying racial makeup of those schools. This fact seems to undercut the district claim that diversity is an important element of the education process.

Another problem is the existence of the African American Academy. While the program under review covered just high schools, the African American Academy is a K-8 school that was specifically created to lessen the achievement gap between white and black students. Now if you were to look at the most current test scores, it is painfully obvious that the achievement gap is not being narrowed by the existence of the AAA. 5th grade, 2%, 1 out of 50 students, meet the minimum WASL standard for all 3 subjects. 7th grade, 4%, less than 1 out of 20 meet the minimum for WASL. 8th grade, 3%, 1 in 33 meet all 3 minimums. This is one of, if not the worst, performing school in the district and is also by far the most non diverse school in the district, 94% African American, 3% Hispanic, no other group above 1%. I would be interested in hearing a school district representative’s response if asked why is it important to bus kids across the city in order to make the student body diverse yet there is a school specifically designed to be segregated? It would be one thing if test results from the AAA were above average but when they are at the very bottom for all schools, that is going to require some explaining. Like I said, it would be interesting to know, I have asked and can not seem to get a reply. I would also be interested in finding out why a parent would send their child to a school that is doing such a poor job of educating the children.

1 comment:

steresa said...

You make some interesting points in your blog and I appreciate your comments because this subject has been on my mind. I have a different perspective on this. My husband and I are both teachers in Seattle Public Schools. I also previously taught in the Head Start Program in both High Point in West Seattle and in Seattle's International District. As you probably know, the Head Start program is one of the most successful educational programs in our country and serves low income preschoolers. I favor the racial tiebreaker for elementary, middle and high school because it gives kids with limited opportunities the chance to attend schools that they would otherwise be unable to attend. Seattle's school enrollment is dictated largely by socio-economic factors. People who have enough money to buy homes in Ballard or Ravenna happen to live next to the schools with the highest test scores, the most active PTAs, the Spanish and arts programs and all the perks that parents want for their kids. The children living nearest these top schools have the best chance of being enrolled in them. As you probably understand, if a school is popular, the number of parents requesting it often outnumbers the spots available for students. The "tiebreakers" that are used when an excess number of parents request the elementary school are 1.) sibling in the school 2.) reference school (essentially meaning those people living in a defined area closest to the school) and 3.) distance applying student lives from school. Look at the state-of-the-art Spanish and Japanese Immersion program, John Stanford International School in Seattle. It's located in Wallingford where the cost of housing has gone through the roof. Look at Coe Elementary, John Hay, Montlake... All of these top schools are located in neighborhoods with exorbitant price tags on the housing. I know this too well. My husband and I looked at more than 100 homes in North Seattle in 2003. We wound up buying a small home in a modest part of Greenwood with the understanding that Greenwood Elementary was undergoing a revitalization-both the building and the school itself. As you know, teachers don't make big salaries. We couldn't afford a home in Montlake, Wallingford, Green Lake or even Ballard as much as we would have liked to be closer to some of the top schools. Now after dedicating our lives to educating other people's kids we find that our "reference school", Greenwood, is indeed one of the least desirable public schools around. My family is multiracial. I am white and my husband and daughter are Asian. Ethnic diversity has a complex importance for kids who are not white, the dominant race of our fair city. Do I want my daughter who is Chinese to go to a school that is virtually all white as many of the popular Ballard elementary schools are, i.e. Loyal Heights(85% white), Whittier (82% white)? The answer is 'no'. It is isolating for a child who is not of the dominant race to have few faces that look like her own or like any other than white around her. But by the same token, white families whose kids are educated in their almost completely white high performing schools don't even realize that their children get their educations based on the privilege of having the money to live where they do and to not have to care about other kids whose families don't. I'm sorry to say that socio-economics in our country and city are not based on equality. It takes a long time to overcome the long history of racism in our country. During World War II, my husband's parents were thrown in an internment camp and lost everything they had. After being released from the camps his father worked day and night to provide for his family despite that the poverty he was raised in only allowed him less than an 8th grade education. The repurcussions of this racism are still with us today. Some of my African-American friends have not had the privilege of stable two parent families growing up. In 2007 my husband sees huge disparities in the educational support available to his white, upper-middle class students and the working class students from non-white and occasionally white backgrounds. The upper-middle class kids have parents with advanced college degrees who can help them with their calculus homework. When that fails, they hire paid tutors. The kids of color from low-income families have to fend for themselves, stuggling as best they can to understand the material and get help from my husband after school. Many of them are from single parent families struggling to survive. Their parents didn't graduate from high school, let alone obtain college degrees. Many, many young kids of color have these same struggles every day. The Ballard parents who sued the Seattle School District weren't thinking about these kids and the opportunities that they deserve just like her precious kids. Might I add that the same parents suing the Seattle School District appear to have the money to send their kids to private schools, another luxury that the kids that may benefit from the racial tiebreaker usually can't afford. The racial tiebreaker could help my own daughter get into a school other than our less than desirable reference school. If other students of color were given a bit more of an opportunity to be able to attend the popular Loyal Heights or Whittier Elementary Schools in Ballard, perhaps my daughter could attend one of these schools without feeling like one of the few Asian faces in the crowd. As it stands, the racial tiebreaker isn't available to my family or many other multi-ethnic families who are lower-middle class and can't afford to live in the Loyal Heights reference area, let alone the John Stanford, Coe, or Whittier reference areas. I'll go out and tour schools. I'll bend over backwards to make the right school choice for my daughter who is due to enter kindergarten next fall. Her education means the world to me. But if we end up being assigned to Greenwood, I'll know that this is socio-economic inequality at work. All I want is a good quality school with at least a decent amount of ethnic diversity for my daughter. If we can't find that based on where we live, we may need to pick up and move. Still, our ability to do this is questionable. Housing costs have risen at increasing rates and we can afford even less now than we could in 2003. Many multi-ethnic families with less resources than mine will have even fewer options. They'll be stuck with their substandard neigborhood schools, determined by their socio-economic status. And so the cycle continues. This is just a slice of what is meant by institutionalized racism, and classism. The day that there is no correlation with race and poverty, race and incarceration and race and lack of opportunity, I would say we don't need the racial tiebreaker in our city. I hope that day comes soon, but it definitely isn't here yet.

Thanks for letting me get on my soapbox.