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Seattle Board To Vote on New Student-Assignment Proposal

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A new student-assignment policy that would effectively end the Seattle public schools' 20-year-old desegregation plan could get approval from the school board next month.

The district's old plan, which began with voluntary busing in 1977, doesn't benefit the students it was designed to help, according to Alan Sugiyama, the board's vice president.

The new plan, announced late last month, would divide the city into nine clusters with seven to 10 elementary schools serving each area.

Beginning in the 1997-98 school year, the 46,000-student district would guarantee that children would be assigned to a school within the cluster that includes their neighborhood. The district would continue to bus within the cluster for students who lived more than a mile from school.

"We want to relax the racial-balance guidelines," said Mr. Sugiyama, who has been on the board for seven years. "The minorities were the ones traveling, not necessarily the whites."

The current guidelines stipulate that schools should not have more than 84 percent, or less than 34 percent, minority enrollment. About 10 of Seattle's elementary schools are over or at the edge of those proportions, even though nearly 2,000 minority and 400 white elementary students are bused to promote desegregation.

Mr. Sugiyama said that the diverse racial makeup of the city called for different actions. The Seattle population is 60 percent minority, a figure that includes blacks, Hispanics, Laotians, Vietnamese, Pacific Islanders, Filipinos, and others. All told, local residents speak more than 77 languages.

A study for the district found that minority students were faring no better academically after being bused. "Why spend millions of dollars if there is no change for students even if they are attending schools in another area?" Mr. Sugiyama said.

Minority Definition Grows

The proposed regionalization plan would assign students using a few basic rules.

Nine neighborhood clusters, based on the city's geographic regions, would subdivide the district. Parents would choose among different alternative schools or special programs within their region. The district would probably relax racial-balance requirements under the new plan, officials said.

An "all city" program, like the current system, would allow students to voluntarily continue to attend the schools they now attend.

A system of "sister schools" would pair largely minority schools with primarily white schools for activities ranging from field trips to dances.

Opponents of the plan have said that changes in the boundaries would force children to switch schools; the proposal to allow children to stay at their current schools is an effort to answer that criticism. The district would not be responsible for busing the children who choose schools outside their cluster.

Gary Orfield, the director of the desegregation project at Harvard University, said that the changes the district is making, such as the idea of sister schools, may sound familiar.

"It's a 'back to the future' move," Mr. Orfield said, noting that sister schools were used in the 1960s "before there was desegregation."

Mr. Orfield joined critics in saying the new plan needs work.

Though the district's original desegregation plan targeted African-Americans, the growth since then has included high numbers of other minority groups, Mr. Orfield said. As a result, Seattle officials will have a tougher time integrating their schools.

Local activists said the adjustments may work for the broader group of minorities, but could lead to increased segregation for black students.

"We will not stand by and watch the Seattle school system be resegregated," said Oscar Eason Jr., a co-chairman of the Coalition for the Education of Black Children.

Mr. Eason said the school-assignment proposal has diverted attention from the real problem: low student achievement. But school board President Linda Harris said the administration's No. 1 priority remains the academic excellence of its students.

"If we solve that problem, people will be satisfied, even if the assignment plan doesn't hit some kind of racial-balance guideline," Ms. Harris said.

The school board is expected to vote on the assignment plan next month.

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