The Seattle School District's new student-assignment plan, adopted two years ago, does not appear to have yet significantly decreased diversity at most city schools. A Seattle Times analysis identified six schools where racial balance has suffered, and three schools where it has increased.
The student body at Alki Elementary is becoming more like the neighborhood around the school — which is to say whiter.
Last year, 71 percent of the West Seattle school’s newest children — those in kindergarten and first grade — were white, compared with 54 percent of the students in grades two through five.
The shift there is not a surprise, nor is it likely to end.
Last year’s kindergartners, and the kindergarten class before it, were among the first assigned under the Seattle School District’s new assignment plan, which places most students in their neighborhood school. And in the attendance area around Alki Elementary, three-quarters of the district’s elementary-age students are white, according to the district.
The changing demographics at schools like Alki appear to be the first effects of the new assignment method, which was approved in 2009 to cut transportation costs and alleviate uncertainty under the old assignment method.
Under the earlier plan, students applied to preferred schools anywhere in the district and were assigned based on a variety of factors.
The new, neighborhood-based plan signaled a complete turnaround in priorities for a district that made history in 1978 by voluntarily adopting a busing plan to integrate schools and two decades later went to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend a school-assignment racial tiebreaker with the same goal.
The neighborhood plan is still being phased in, with students who were assigned to schools under the old plan — and their younger siblings — staying at those schools.
So far, it appears the new plan hasn’t greatly affected most district schools, according to a Seattle Times analysis of enrollment statistics provided by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
But diversity has suffered at at least six schools. In each case, the school is in a predominantly white area. And with more neighborhood students now attending, the enrollment has become whiter.
Three schools, meanwhile, have become more balanced — that is, closer to the district’s overall racial mix.
School District officials, who have not done a similar analysis, cautioned there may be other factors affecting demographic shifts, including enrollment growth and program changes affecting individual schools.
“There are so many different factors and the enormous enrollment growth that we’ve had,” said Tracy Libros, the district’s enrollment manager. “This is more complicated than one answer.”
But Libros and other officials acknowledged the assignment plan is causing many more students to attend their neighborhood school, which was its intent.
District officials also acknowledge they have changed their thinking on the contentious topic of integrating schools, saying it’s not because they no longer value diversity but that busing became an expense the district can no longer afford.
They say they are focusing instead on educating students where they live, trying to boost the quality of schools in poorer parts of town so they are just as good as the ones in wealthier neighborhoods.
“The student-assignment plan is the student-assignment plan,” said Phil Brockman, the district’s executive director of school operations. “We’ve had a dozen iterations over the past 20 years. But our focus has always been on quality instruction.”
“We don’t want to see”
Still, the loss of diversity at some schools is troubling to some parents.
“Even those of us who aren’t a minority, we don’t want to see that shift,” said Carla Rogers, an Alki PTA vice president, noting she chose the school in part for its then-diversity. “We don’t want to have a homogeneous school for our boys because that’s not the world and you have to show your kids that from the very get-go.”
Rogers and others concerned about diversity said they nevertheless support the new plan for its predictability and encouragement of parent involvement.
The plan comes with a guarantee that if you live within a school’s district-drawn attendance boundaries you can go there. If you don’t want to, you can apply to another school with space, or to a handful of citywide “option” schools — but a yellow bus won’t take you there.
It’s similar to assignment plans used in most urban school districts.
Under Seattle’s old plan, all schools were citywide draws and students had to apply to schools they wanted to attend. Whether they got their first choice depended on a variety of factors, including the student’s distance from the school, whether a sibling attended and, in some cases, a lottery.
The new neighborhood method earned unanimous approval from the School Board, with the most contentious debates surrounding how to implement it. Board members ultimately decided to phase it in, applying it only to a school’s incoming grades (kindergartners, sixth-graders entering middle schools and high-school freshmen).
Since then, officials have described the plan as a success, pointing to skyrocketing enrollment and some $1.4 million in transportation-cost reductions, with more savings expected.
To evaluate the effect on racial demographics, The Seattle Times obtained enrollment statistics from last school year and compared the demographics of grades assigned under the old plan and those assigned under the new plan (kindergarten and first grade, vs. grades two through five for elementary and grades six and seven vs. grade eight for middle schools).
Option schools were excluded from the analysis, as were high schools, because most still set aside a portion of seats for non-neighborhood students.
The Times focused on shifts of at least 10 percentage points relative to the district’s overall racial mix: 57 percent minority and 43 percent white.
The identified schools were examined in light of neighborhood demographics and enrollment among neighborhood students, data provided by Seattle Public Schools.
The analysis indicated a substantial loss of diversity at Alki, Arbor Heights (in Southwest Seattle), Sacajawea (Maple Leaf), Gatewood (West Seattle) and Greenwood elementaries and McClure Middle School (Queen Anne). Each saw a spike in white students.
Racial balance rose at Leschi, North Beach (Northwest Seattle) and McGilvra (Madison Park) elementaries. Two of those saw a jump in students of color while Leschi was already heavily minority and got closer to average by getting more white students.
Parents at schools in each category said they have noticed the shifts.
Retreat from busing
To some, the numbers served as further evidence of the district’s long retreat from busing.
In the 1970s, Seattle was credited as the first big city to implement busing before being ordered to do so by a court.
The district abandoned the practice two decades later, but it maintained a choice plan with a so-called racial tiebreaker, which gave assignment preference to students who could improve a school’s racial balance.
That policy was challenged in 2000 and found unconstitutional in 2007.
Officials now say the best way to ensure equality is to provide a quality school in every neighborhood.
“I believe that parents and taxpayers want us to have consistent academic achievement, much more than they’re seeking diversity,” School Board President Michael DeBell said.
Board member Harium Martin-Morris agreed that across-the-board school quality is the priority
“Are we there yet?” he asked himself. “No. But we’re at least moving in the right direction.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
This People's History of Alki Elementary School is taken from Building for Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000 by Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr. That book, published in 2002 by Seattle Public Schools, compiled profiles of all the public school buildings that had been used by the school district since its formation around 1862. The profiles from the book are being made available as People's Histories on HistoryLink.org courtesy of Seattle Public Schools. It should be noted that these essays are from 2000. Some of the buildings profiled are historic, some of recent vintage, and many no longer exist (new names and buildings not included in these profiles from 2000 have been added), but each plays or has played an important role in the education of Seattle's youth.
Alki Elementary School
The present Alki Elementary School stands a short distance from where David Denny, Lee Terry, Captain Robert Fay, and John Low camped on September 27, 1851. The Duwamish Indian name for this site is Swaquamox. Denny and Terry stayed there while Low went back to Portland and returned with two dozen hopeful settlers in the schooner Exact. They landed on November 13, 1851, in the pouring rain, and optimistically named their settlement "New York-Alki". "Alki" means "by and by" in Chinook Jargon, a trade language spoken by Indians and early immigrants.
Although Alki, as this location came to be called, did not become the center of a new metropolis, it has been continually inhabited since the arrival of the first settlers' party. In 1868, the Olsen family moved to Alki Point and the next year the Hansen family came. These two Norwegian families stayed in the area for several generations.
Children who grew up on Alki first attended the West Seattle School (see Lafayette). From 1904 to 1909, those students rode a school wagon or walked on trails through the woods to reach their school. From 1909 to 1912, younger children went to a double portable on Carroll Street and Chilberg Avenue, the first Alki School. Children ate their lunches in an open shed in back of the school. When the weather was nice, classes were held on the long flight of stairs behind the school at the end of Carroll or in the madrona grove at the top of the stairs.
A larger site for a permanent school was purchased by the Seattle School District at Alki Point. This land was part of the original Olsen-Hansen properties. The new school opened in 1913 with approximately 175 students in grades 1-8. Only five rooms were used at first and the school shared a principal with Gatewood. Of note in the schoolhouse was a gun rack. Boys carried rifles on their way to and from school through the woods for protection from wild animals. By 1918, Alki's enrollment had more than doubled.
In 1953-54, an auditorium/lunchroom, a gymnasium, and six new classrooms were added. The gym was larger than average, because it and an adjacent playfield were shared with the Seattle Parks Department. At the dedication ceremonies, held December 2, 1954, the PTA presented a play about the first settlers called "I Remember Alki". The school reached its peak enrollment in 1958 with 620 pupils in grades K-6. In April 1965, an earthquake seriously damaged the three-story 1913 section of the building, but miraculously no one was injured.
Because the jolt came before school opened, the pupils were still on the playground. The damage necessitated busing of the students to seven other West Seattle schools for the remainder of the school year. The 1954 additions were repaired and made ready for use. During the next two years, while construction was going on, eight of the classes met in portables placed on the nearby parks department field.
The replacement addition, containing eight classrooms, a multipurpose room, and a learning resource center was dedicated in April 1968. Its design allowed for continuous progress learning, with a large room on the second floor accommodating six normal-size classes and folding wall sections to divide the space. Learning areas of varying sizes created more flexibility and were used mainly for 4th through 6th graders. In 1981-82, the school became a K-5 facility.
In 1987, Alki's test results were at an all-time low and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer listed it as one of 20 city schools needing drastic improvements. The following year, Pat Sander took over as principal and began working with staff and parents on overhauling the school’s techniques, curriculum, and approach to education. The reading block was stretched from one hour to the entire morning. The next year the test results rose 12 percent. Then Stanford University’s innovative Accelerated Schools program, which attempts to accelerate the learning progress for each individual student, was instituted. As a result, in 1992, Alki was selected as one of seven successful North American schools for a documentary film by the Agency for Instructional Technology.
Currently Alki's students represent a diverse population and the school focuses on multicultural education. A bilingual center provides assistance for about 20 percent of the students. In 1996-97, with the help of artist Tip Toland, each student in the school created a tile based on a theme of folk tales and myths about the sea. The tiles were assembled into 10 framed displays as a permanent art exhibit in the school hallways. Because of the school’s location, students take many field trips to Alki Beach at low tide. The adjacent Alki Community Center provides a large gymnasium (complete with climbing wall) and space for before-and-after school activities.
Name: Alki School
Location: Northwest corner Carroll Street & Chilberg Avenue
Building: 2-room wood
Site: 0.25 acres
1908-10: Operated as annex to West Seattle
1911-13: Operated as annex to Gatewood
1913: Closed; demolished
1951: Property leased to Seattle Parks Department
ca. 1987: Traded to Seattle Housing Authority for property at High Point
Name: Alki School
Location: 3010 59th Avenue SW
Building: 10-room brick
Architect: Edgar Blair
Site: 1.4 acres
1913: Opened in March
1954: Additions (Theo Damm)
1965: Closed by earthquake in April; 1913 structure demolished in August
1967: Replacement addition (Damm); reopened on September 6
Alki Elementary School in 2000
Address: 3010 59th Avenue SW
Colors: Blue and white
Motto: "As Alki seagulls soar, we shall succeed."