The divide between Seattle schools

Nov 10, 2010, 2:24 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

Seattle Schools released their report cards on each of the 82 public schools in the district and rated them, for the first time, on a scale of 1 to 5.

On this scale, 5 is tops. Your school is rockin’ if it’s a 5. If your school is a 1, there are serious problems based on test scores, attendance rates, average class sizes and advanced placement classes, and other factors.

Without even looking at the data, I could have guessed that if your school is toward the top of the scale, you live north of the Ship Canal bridge. If your school is a 1 or 2, you live in the southern part of the city.

The facts confirm my guess. The easiest to sort through the district’s comparisons of their schools is to scroll to page 5 on this PDF. Schools scoring the highest – the Level 5 schools – are Catherine Blaine K-8; Bagley; Coe; Hay; Lafayette; Loyal Heights; McGilvra; North Beach; Schmitz Park; Thornton Creek, View Ridge; Wedgwood. No high schools score a 5. Garfield and Roosevelt are Level 4.

Those are north end schools. With the exception of Northgate elementary, the lowest-rated schools are in the south end.

Level 1 schools are: Aki Kurose Middle School; Dearborn Park; Dunlap; Emerson; Gatzert; Hawthorne; Highland Park; Leschi; Madrona K-8; Martin Luther King; Northgate; Roxhill; West Seattle. There are no Level 1 high schools.

I first wrote about the great divide in Seattle Schools two years ago for Seattle’s Child magazine (excerpts from both articles are below). What has changed since 2008? Not much. The reasons for achievement gaps at schools are complex, and the district is still trying to improve the same under-performing schools.

North Mom, South Mom

North and South Seattle schools are separated by more than the Ship Canal.

Test scores, enrollment figures and levels of parental involvement set them apart. Under-enrolled schools with mediocre to poor test scores are generally in the south end, and more desirable schools with higher achievement levels are in the north end of the city.

Seattle Public Schools administrators are aware of that. While the district works to make education more equitable, there must be something parents can do, too. But what? That question led me to explore the differences between north and south school communities – first with a new friend, and then with a principal who spent six years in one of the city’s strongest elementary schools followed by six years in one of the most challenged.

On the surface, Sharon Dodson’s life is nothing like mine. She grew up in Memphis and now lives in an apartment in the Van Asselt neighborhood of Southeast Seattle. She’s a single parent who works a 9-to-5 job in the health care industry. Originally from Iowa, I live in a Ballard house that I own with my husband. I’m a writer with a flexible schedule.

But we’re really not that different.

We’re both in our early 40s. We each have two children, and we worry about whether we’re doing enough to give them a great start in life. Our kids go to Seattle Public Schools, and we want them to have valuable learning experiences. So far we’re happy with their education.

Our views split when we discuss North and South Seattle schools.

I ask her to pick one word that characterizes north end schools. The word Dodson thought of immediately is “privileged.”

“They’re privileged not just because it’s a white culture, but because they have parents who demand what they want for their kids, and they get it,” Dodson explains. “Parents up north fight for what they want. They have textbooks and other resources that we don’t have.”

The word I use to describe south end schools is troubled. My opinion is based on test scores – which admittedly only tell part of a school’s story.

Dodson has high expectations of her kids. They’re doing well, even though they’re in “troubled” schools. Her son, who attends Franklin, will study to become a pilot or engineer after he graduates in June. Her daughter goes to Aki Kurose and wants to be a lawyer someday. “She should because she argues a lot,” Dodson says with a laugh.

She doesn’t make excuses for her schools’ performance, but she does point out her community has economic issues that parents “up North” don’t have to deal with. All of her friends work full time and many of them are single parents. “They work crazy hours, maybe two jobs, and it’s not easy for them to go to school to take care of things because they can’t leave work,” she says.

The majority of my friends are able to volunteer in school because they are married, stay-at-home moms. No surprise, right? They still have financial concerns, but for the most part, they’re able to get by on one household income.

Greg Imel has a unique view of the north and south disparity. For many years he was a principal at Whittier Elementary in the Ballard area. Now he lives and works in the Rainer Beach neighborhood. He’s Dunlap Elementary’s principal.

There are a couple of similarities between Whittier and Dunlap. Both are relatively new buildings designed by the same architect. And parents at both schools want the best for their kids.

“All families love and support their kids and want them to be successful,” says Imel. “I hang my hat on that every day.”

In other ways the school communities are opposites. Almost 70 percent of Whittier’s fifth-graders passed the WASL, compared to 13 percent at Dunlap. The poverty level is around seven percent at Whittier and 82 percent at Dunlap. Caucasian students make up three percent of Dunlap’s student population and 82 percent of Whittier’s. More than three-quarters of the kids at Whittier live with both parents, while less than half of the Dunlap students are in a two-parent household.

Also adding to the complexity, 40 percent of Dunlap’s students are from families where English is a second language.

“Many of our families are new Americans living in poverty. They’re grappling with things like learning the language and finding jobs,” Imel says. “Of course their children come first, but their priority really is working so their children can have better lives.”

And that factor leads to another contrast between the schools. Whittier has 240 PTA members. Dunlap has none.

With a 22-person PTA board, there are a lot of people available to raise money for school needs, including paying for the school’s Spanish teacher and several tutors. Whittier raises about $100,000 to support the school, although Dunlap receives about $200,000 a year in federal Title 1 funds to raise the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.

The biggest difference is that Whittier has far more volunteers, Imel says. “I’ve had to rethink what parental involvement looks like at Dunlap because we don’t have people who are available to help in classrooms or raise funds.”

If my school has so many volunteers that teachers are almost tripping over them, and his school doesn’t have parents available to help in classrooms or raise funds, then what would happen if north end parents volunteered in south end schools? Imel calls that a “great conceptual idea” and says the two schools have tried to work together on some projects. In reality, people are most concerned about their own schools.

Still, I’m naïve enough to think it could work. I’ll volunteer in any South Seattle school that needs help and I encourage other parents who have time to do the same.

Meanwhile, Sharon Dodson has stepped up to be Aki Kurose’s PTSA president, and 30 new members joined so far this year. She wants to recruit mentors who will assist teachers and students. She’s also making sure parents in her middle school are at least informed and at best involved.

“Parents need to bring something to the table too,” Dodson says, quoting a phrase her father told her. “You can’t expect someone to bring all the dinner and you don’t bring any fixings. You gotta bring something.”

Again, we agree. Perhaps the only thing dividing a North Seattle mom and a South Seattle mom is the Ship Canal.

South Mom, North Teacher

Sara Mirabueno is haunted by a decision she needs to make.
Should her daughter Mikaela attend their neighborhood school in the Rainier Beach area, or should she go to the Queen Anne school where Mirabueno is a first-grade teacher?

The Seattle School district has a policy that allows children to attend the public school where their parent teaches. That leaves Mirabueno with a choice that challenges everything she believes about diversity and education.

“I think about the differences between north and south Seattle on a daily basis,” she says.

Mirabueno, who is Caucasian, grew up in Seattle with friends from Japan and Korea. Her husband Chris is Filipino and they both “love the diversity” of the Upper Rainier Beach neighborhood where they live. They meet people with different cultural backgrounds and they find south Seattle to be a “comfortable, friendly, interesting place.”

But education is a huge part of Mirabueno’s life and she’s familiar with schools’ test scores and discipline records. In those categories, north Seattle is superior, and the school where she’s been a teacher for nine years – John Hay Elementary – is one of best in the district.

“By having Mikaela attend my school, I can guarantee an excellent education with financial resources from parents and the community that go beyond what the district provides,” she says. “That’s great, except my school is not as diverse as I would like it to be and my daughter wouldn’t be around as many kids who are the same race as she is.”

What would you do?

For Mirabueno it is a “tricky, yet privileged decision” she’ll make next year. Now it’s a public one, too, because she is sharing her dilemma with Seattle’s Child. After reading “North Mom, South Mom” – the first report I wrote about the disparity between north and south Seattle schools – she wanted to join the discussion, and the search for solutions.

We don’t have to look far to see that the divide between successful and struggling schools isn’t limited to Seattle. Teachers and parents from Everett to Tacoma have told me about their “haves and have-nots” issues.

Inequities in the Everett School district are in reverse. Their south end schools are more desirable than those in the north. One school in Pierce County had to borrow math books from a “privileged” school in their district, photocopy worksheet pages for their mostly minority kids, and then return the books.

When educator Adie Simmons pulls the magnifying glass back a little more, she sees disparity in communities all around the state.

“We talk to parents from tiny little towns in Washington, that some people don’t even know exist, and they’re telling us the same things,” says Simmons, director of the Office of Education Ombudsman. Governor Chris Gregoire created the office about 18 months ago to promote equity in K-12 education.

Before Simmons was appointed as the state’s first education ombudsman, she oversaw grants for Seattle Schools – a district she calls “clearly divided.”

“At one point I wanted to take the Seattle PTSA council on a field trip to show them south Seattle neighborhoods. I felt like they were living in a different reality,” she recalls. “They would ask, ‘Can’t those parents in the south volunteer and form PTAs and raise money like we do?’ It’s not that simple.”

Simmons’ passion is teaching parents of all ethnic backgrounds, many of whom speak limited English, how to be partners in education so that they can improve their kids’ chances of academic success. Her biggest challenge is helping parents who had terrible experiences when they were in school and are not inclined to get involved.

Ron knows all about terrible experiences. His parents didn’t have much money and when he was 6 years old, his family home in Spokane was demolished after 30 days notice. In Spokane Public Schools, Ron’s teachers either underestimated him or disregarded him. He was told he was a trouble maker, so he acted like one.

That changed when a fifth-grade teacher established high expectations for him. He flourished. Three high school teachers also thought he had potential and pushed him toward college. He started seeing opportunities instead of obstacles. Today Ron considers himself “one of the lucky ones” who made it through childhood poverty and racism.

Now, as King County Executive, Ron Sims (again, this story was written before Sims became Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) has introduced a program that has been on his mind since childhood, and took almost two years to develop. It’s called the Equity and Social Justice Initiative. Each of King County’s departments is charged with finding ways to narrow racial and economic disparities, as outlined in the executive’s 28-page report. As one example, the Public Health Department will compile a database of its employees’ language skills. That’ll make it easier to find translators for more than half the patients at county clinics who don’t speak English

Sims says the initiative “tears down the curtain that hides inequities.” His office is looking at “decades of misguided policies” that have provided inadequate schools and services to the region’s poorest neighborhoods and isolated them from economic opportunities.

When a majority of us live in nice neighborhoods with nice jobs and nice schools, he says it’s easy to ignore these realities:

• A child in south King County is more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as one in east King County.
• A youth of color is six times more likely than a white youth to spend time in a correctional facility.
• A Southeast Seattle resident is four times more likely to die from diabetes than a resident of Mercer Island.
• A Native American baby is four times more likely to die before his or her first birthday than a white baby.

“The statistics are jarring and maddening, but they’re not inevitable,” says Sims. “People say, ‘You can’t get rid of poverty.’ Yeah, you can. People say, ‘You can’t address racial issues in the classroom.’ Yeah, you can. I’m under no illusion that this is going to be easy, but we can have fairness and opportunity for all people in King County.”

King County is the only jurisdiction in the United States with such an initiative. Sims says cities around the nation are interested in it. Last month he was invited to Atlanta to discuss specific, measurable goals with leaders from the Centers for Disease Control.

In the area of education, for example, Sims wants the library system to take on the responsibility of providing reading materials and services to unlicensed daycares. While the county doesn’t run schools, it wants to be a partner in education. Sims adds that in his 12 years as county executive, Maria Goodloe-Johnson is the first Seattle Schools superintendent who came to him wanting to know what services King County provides to schools.

“A lot of people recognize the problems,” says Sims. “Now we’re working on solutions that will be like a tsunami washing out inequities here.”

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The divide between Seattle schools