Double-talk

Conflict at Eckstein reveals flaws in "neighborhood schools" plan.

If you've been following all the hoopla over getting Seattle schoolchildren back into their "neighborhood schools," you may envision Seattle returning to the days of segregation when North End and South End schools were as different as, well, white and black. But the contrast is not so sharp. Closer examination reveals that the old "busing" plan and the new "neighborhood school" plan are not as far apart as they've been portrayed. School board member Ellen Roe insists Seattle doesn't have a neighborhood school plan at all. "It's a watered-down desegregation plan," she says bluntly. Roe says in order to have true neighborhood schools, the district would have to abandon integration. "One or the other has to rule," she says. The most recent flash point in this conflict over image and reality is Eckstein Middle School.

For anyone who's noticed that neighborhoods in Seattle are segregated by race, it may seem self-evident that true neighborhood schools could hardly be diverse. But caught between the need to preserve parity between students of different backgrounds and the demands of parents to end busing, the district is loath to admit that it can't do both. Hence the recent news stories touting the "neighborhood school" policy, which went into effect for elementary schools two years ago and will apply to middle schools this year.

Many parents in Laurelhurst, Wedgwood, and View Ridge assumed their children would be going to the middle school closest to their home—Eckstein. Unfortunately for them, Eckstein is a hot middle school which has to turn away applicants.

John Vacchiery, who oversees enrollment for the district, explains why many parents were disappointed when their kids didn't get into Eckstein. "The district plan is to provide options [for students] to go to their neighborhood school," he says, but "we also put a high priority on [school choice]."

In other words, parents have the option of asking that their kids be enrolled in the nearest middle school but have no guarantee that will actually happen. And assignment priority goes to kids who can integrate a school—even if they live further away than other families who request the school but can't integrate it.

Parents whose children did not get into their closest schools are angry and confused about what the district is trying to accomplish. "I'm not opposed to diversity," says Laurelhurst mom Kendal Aberg, whose child was denied enrollment in nearby Eckstein Middle School earlier this spring. "What I'm opposed to is choosing kids based on [integration] ahead of neighborhood kids." Aberg was particularly confused because in the past Eckstein had always been the default middle school for Laurelhurst kids. In the district's eyes, students from Laurelhurst and other Northeast neighborhoods that used to feed into Eckstein can now go to the next closest school, Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford, if Eckstein fills up. But some Laurelhurst parents wouldn't accept their children being bused all the way to Hamilton, which many of them view as a lousy school. Using a variety of tactics—persistence, political pressure, and threats to abandon public schools altogether—they pressured the district to rectify the situation. In April, 87 extra Northeast corridor students were allowed to enroll in Eckstein.

Aberg questions whether the district's plan is even legal in light of Initiative 200, the new law prohibiting mandatory government affirmative action. "It could become an issue if they don't change the policy," she warns.

Naturally, parents whose kids were first enrolled in Eckstein see this last-minute decision as the district caving in to affluent Laurelhurst parents—at the expense of their own children's education. "If you increase the school by a tenth, that's going to affect every other aspect of the school," says incoming Eckstein parent Melissa Westbrook.

The school board has demanded that the district's staff take another look at the plan and fix whatever went wrong. "We need to monitor it," says school board member Don Nielsen, who claims the board didn't foresee how the plan would affect very popular schools such as Eckstein. Vacchiery admits the plan is complicated and has confused many people.

One aspect of the plan that the district probably will not change, however, is that parents who don't put a second choice on their enrollment form may be assigned to a school pretty far from home. Some Laurelhurst parents who made just that mistake were told their children would be going to Mercer Middle School on Beacon Hill, even though Wallingford's Hamilton had plenty of available spots.

Is that weak approach to integrating Mercer intentional or unintentional? It's anyone's guess, but school board member Ellen Roe claims it is "counterproductive" to the district's oft-stated goal of reversing white flight. Roe says if the district wants to lure North End families out of private schools, it has to guarantee that their kids won't be bused far away for the sake of integration. Don Nielsen admits the district is waking up to the impossibility of both sustaining desegregation and satisfying demands for neighborhood schools. He posits a rather utopian solution, however. He says that ultimately, the best way the district can integrate the schools may be to simply make them all so good that the neighborhoods they're in are equally attractive to all home buyers. Thus good schools would integrate the city. While that may seem unlikely to ever happen, it might be the only way for the district to reconcile Seattle's color-blind image with its segregated reality.

 
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