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Seattle Happy With Choice Plan

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The Seattle Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve a new student-assignment plan that will for the first time allow all parents a choice in deciding where their children will attend school.

After a one-year phase-in period, the "controlled choice'' plan approved last week will replace the district's current desegregation plan, under which almost a quarter of its 44,000 students are bused to ensure racial balance.

Unlike similar plans operating in three Massachusetts communities--Cambridge, Fall River, and Lowell--and in Little Rock, Ark., the Seattle plan includes a school-improvement policy targeted at schools that fail to recruit adequate numbers of students.

"This plan is superb. It's the most carefully designed choice plan I've ever worked with,'' said Michael Alves, a desegregation specialist with the Massachusetts Department of Education and one of the principal developers of the "controlled choice'' model.

He said that the Seattle plan "demonstrates a real commitment to equity and to the parents of at-risk students.''

'Tired, But Happy'

The adoption of the plan culminates a process of re-examining desegregation options that has been under way in the district for the past two years. It was spurred in part by complaints about the frequent readjustments in school assignments required under the current plan.

In the previous two weeks, the school board had met for more than 20 hours in four meetings to iron out final details and to vote on 86 proposed amendments to the plan.

"We're tired, but we're very, very happy,'' said Donna Dunning, a spokesman for Superintendent William M. Kendrick, last week.

Opposition to the plan came primarily from those eager to protect five elementary schools slated to be closed. Agreement was reached after some of the programs offered by these schools were moved to other sites.

The district had unusual freedom to change its plan because it was one of the only urban districts to voluntarily adopt a desegregation plan without court intervention.

In fact, the school board defended its right to impose busing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1982 struck down a voter-initiated state law that banned busing for racial balance in the absence of a court order.

Details of New Plan

The new plan should reduce by half the number of students who are involuntarily bused for desegregation purposes, school officials predict.

It divides the district into three zones, which are subdivided into eight clusters. Parents in each cluster will have a choice of from six to 10 elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools.

In addition, a number of specialty schools and programs will be open to students within a zone or, in some cases, districtwide.
Each school will be required to attract an enrollment that mirrors within 20 percent the ethnic balance of the district, currently 47 percent white and 53 percent minority.

District officials estimate that between 80 percent and 90 percent of students will be accommodated in their first- or second-choice schools without exceeding the racial goals.

The remaining students will face assignment to a school where their race is in the minority.

Schools that fail to attract enough students to reach 90 percent of capacity, said John T. Hooker, a desegregation planner with the district, "will be notified'' that improvements are needed.

If their situation remains unchanged during the second year, he said, they will face a variety of "administrative interventions.''

The plan also calls for the creation of three or four parent-information centers, which will work particularly with parents from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be uncomfortable in assuming the active role the new plan requires.

"We have the design of the plan, now the thing will be to really get it working well,'' said Ms. Dunning. "In some ways our work is just beginning.''

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