Seattle did it

Seattle has desegregated its schools. While there are still problems to be resolved, the combination of mandatory assignments and voluntary choices has been relatively well accepted over the past five years.

Perhaps Seattle's attitude toward desegregation is best reflected in the exchange between a local reporter looking for a story and a nine-year-old girl involved in busing: ''Why do you want to take the bus all the way across town?'' asked the reporter. ''Because it's too far to walk,'' was the reply.

One factor in Seattle's success was maintenance of local control. In 1977 the school board took it upon itself to desegregate Seattle's public schools without court order. By deciding on its own to desegregate the 50,000-student school system, the board avoided the trauma, divisiveness, and racial polarization that have often accompanied court-ordered desegregation.

Seattle decided to desegregate for three basic reasons: (1) because it was the right thing to do; (2) to fulfill a constitutional obligation; and (3) because of a profound belief that all children would be better off in multiracial environments than they would be if confined to segregated schools.

Another factor was the authentic involvement of the community. Seattle was fortunate to have a combination of responsible people in the right places at the right time. But it was more than that. For two-and-a-half years a carefully developed strategy involved a committed school board and superintendent; a strong citizens' advisory committee with politically astute leadership; the establishment of close working relationships with the downtown business community, civil rights organizations, religious groups, and political leaders; and the commitment of the news media to avoid sensationalism.

The desegregation plan works. For several years now all schools have met board desegregation guidelines. Since the plan began, schools have opened each year without incident. Enrollment has stabilized. Although some white families have left the public schools to avoid busing, the rate of white enrollment loss is actually lower since the plan has been in operation than it was during the several years before desegregation.

The local electorate has responded positively, by consistently rejecting school board candidates who oppose continuation of the plan and by passing local property tax levies by overwhelming margins.

Last June the US Supreme Court struck down a Washington state law which was designed to undo the desegregation plan.

Are there still problems? Certainly.

In some Seattle schools some classrooms are still segregated. White students are enrolled disproportionate to their numbers in programs for the academically gifted, while black students are underenrolled. Some minority groups tend to be underenrolled in classes such as advanced mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Our test scores indicate that some minority groups score lower than the district-wide average in attainment of basic academic skills.

Thus, although we have desegregated on a building by building basis, we still have lots to do to ensure both equity and excellence for all students.

We are dealing with these problems. A 32-member citizens' committee is reviewing the desegregation plan and will recommend improvements. Like the committee that developed the plan six years ago, the current group reflects a cross section of the community.

The district, while maintaining the desegregation plan, is now focusing its resources on making all schools instructionally effective. We are working with the University of Washington, Seattle University, local citizen-based groups such as the Citizens Education Center Northwest, and others to share resources and expertise.

Computer-managed instruction systems will be in place next September so that teachers, principals, and supervisors will know which students need what kinds of help.

What Seattle was able to do does not lend itself readily to all communities simply because of demographics. For example, the Chicago school system is now less than 20 percent white and it would seem that Chicago would not have the same opportunities to deal with issues of equity and excellence that Seattle has had.

We know that all children can master basic academic skills and can seek academic excellence regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender; we know that schools can make a difference.

Desegregation and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive. The relationship, rather, is one of mutual dependence.

However, in seeking the right environment for both equity and excellence, we, and other school districts, must remember that any plan needs careful monitoring. Unless attention is paid, small decisions will be made over time that can ultimately lead to results far different than anticipated. We can avoid that risk through community-wide review, making sure that we do not lose sight of the goal of equity and excellence.

Seattle has shown that we can desegregate our schools without court order; more important, we will presently show that desegregation and academic excellence, far from being inimical, are mutually dependent and mutually attainable.

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