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Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as Target Demographics

Target Demographics

In Seattle, the student-assignment policy seeks to keep the racial and ethnic makeup of high schools within the range of district averages.

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“Diversity is a hallmark of Seattle Schools,” states the latest annual report of Ballard High School.

And indeed, the hallways and classrooms of the 1,680-student school here reflect a wide spectrum of race and ethnicity. Though 62 percent of students are white, the other 38 percent is a mix of Asians and Asian-Americans, blacks, and Hispanics, including recent immigrants from China, Africa, and Latin America.

And diversity is on people’s minds here, with cultural understanding and minority achievement emphasized by student groups, school programs, and teachers’ professional development.

Diversity on the Docket
Introduction
Kentucky: No Shades of Gray
Seattle: Target Demographics

That embrace of diversity is not unusual at a U.S. public school. But a Seattle school district policy that goes beyond buzzwords and feel-good practices is at the heart of a lawsuit that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its term that opens this week, the justices will review a challenge to a student-assignment policy adopted by the Seattle school board in 1997 to enhance racial diversity at its 10 high schools, including Ballard High, beginning in the 1998-99 school year.

Under the policy, which has been suspended since 2002 pending the outcome of the legal challenge, students were allowed to choose a preferred high school. But when a high school was oversubscribed, the policy first favored applicants who had a sibling already enrolled at the desired school. Then, if the high school had a minority population that deviated from the district average by more than 15 percent, it was required to enroll students whose race or ethnicity would bring the school closer the district average.

Community Voices
Click on the photographs below to listen to voices of people affected by the Seattle School District's student-assignment policy.
Click to hear audio interview
Charles Walker, assistant principal, Ballard High School.
MP3 file (1:54)

Click to hear audio interview
Raheal Aragawi, Senior, Ballard High School.
MP3 file (1:34)

Click to hear audio interview
Riley Davis, 12th grade, Ballard High School.
MP3 file (1:20)

In 2000, the race-conscious policy was challenged by several white families who lived near Ballard High but whose children were denied assignment to the then-new school. Those families have since been joined by black families whose children were denied assignment to traditionally black-majority high schools. They argue that the assignment policy denied them their right under the U.S. Constitution to equal protection of the law.

“I’m involved in this because my daughter was not able to get into three different schools because she was white,” Kathleen Brose, the president of Parents Involved in Community Schools, which was formed in response to the policy, said in a recent interview here.

Ms. Brose, whose daughter had been turned away from Ballard High in 2000, lives in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood, a lushly landscaped enclave atop a hill tucked between the neighborhood of Ballard and the Space Needle in the city’s center. The neighborhood is mostly white and upscale.

For the 2000-01 school year, five of Seattle’s high schools were oversubscribed, three in the mostly white north side of the city and two in the more African-American south, PICS says in its Supreme Court brief in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (Case No. 05-908).

“Those five schools were the first choice of 82 percent of the applicants,” the brief says. “Ultimately 205 students were denied admission to their first-choice schools because of race [for the 2000-01 school year].”

The groups argue in their Supreme Court briefs that Seattle’s high schools are diverse without the race- conscious policy and that the Constitution does not permit the policy “because it prefers one individual to another for no reason other than race and thereby violates the heart of the equal-protection clause.”

Ms. Brose said her daughter Elisabeth was separated from her black friends, who were admitted to Ballard High, and she missed out on its unique programs, such as a biotechnology academy.

The school district’s dormant policy has been upheld by a federal district court in Seattle and by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco.

Raj Manhas, the superintendent of the 46,000-student district, said in an interview here that diversity delivers important educational benefits. He said race is an important tool in a city in which housing patterns are segregated in practice, if not in law.

“We are still a segregated city,” he said.

Gary Ikeda, the general counsel of the Seattle district, said the district felt compelled to defend the right of school districts to choose a policy that was, in Seattle’s case, developed over many years and in a public process that culminated in a vote by elected board members.

“We are humbled by the responsibility of this case,” Mr. Ikeda said.

The lack of the racial tiebreaker over the past five years is reflected in Ballard High’s enrollment, which has seen a decline from about 43 percent of students who are minority-group members to about 38 percent, said Principal Phillip M. Brockman. He said the loss was fewer than 100 minority students out of the school’s 1,680 enrollment. The school’s commitment to diversity wasn’t diminished, Mr. Brockman said.

One such program at the school is a math, engineering, and science achievement course known as MESA, part of a state-funded program that involves about 1,200 student in the city’s schools. It provides enrichment activities and college visits to help minorities and girls—traditionally underrepresented in those fields—in pursuing those subjects in college, although no one is excluded.

Student Demographics: Seattle

*Click image to see the full chart.

(2005 data)

School Snapshots

FRANKLIN HIGH

An academically challenging school in a largely African-American neighborhood in the south of Seattle, Franklin has seen the proportion of its white students drop by half since 2000, when the district's raceconscious assignment plan was last in effect.

BALLARD HIGH

In central Seattle, Ballard is situated among upscale neighborhoods that are predominantly white and working-class neighborhoods that are more diverse. Students from across the city apply to the school, which offers special academies in maritime sciences, finance, and biotechnology.

And student groups such as the Black Student Union are “basically supposed to make people multiculturally aware of kids from different cultures,” said Raheal Aragawi, 17, a Ballard High senior who is the president of the group. She said last year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day included Samoan dancing and singers from other cultures.

“It’s not just about black people; it’s about everyone; it’s about making people culturally aware,” she said.

Yet, Ms. Aragawi added, “I feel that Ballard High School could be more diverse than it is.” She suggested that while her presence helped create diversity for the white students, the scarcity of African-Americans left her wanting.

Being educated in a diverse setting, she said, would pay off later: “I think it’s better to go to diverse schools, rather than sticking to one certain culture at a school and then going to college and seeing all these different cultures and, not knowing what to do socially, because then that gets you into trouble later on in life.”

Charles Walker, an assistant principal at Ballard, said the school had trained its teachers to be aware of cultural differences among students and adjust their methods to help overcome the lagging achievement levels of African Americans, Hispanics, and some other minorities at the school.

Mr. Walker said that administrators analyze student data by gender, race, and ethnicity to ferret out “disproportionality” in student discipline, enrollment in advanced courses, referrals for special education evaluation, and achievement on state tests.

Still, achievement by African-American and Latino students at Ballard High trails that of white students, although students the school describes as Asian lead all populations on the WASL. Discipline referrals for African-American students, which happened more than three times as often as for Asian and white students in the 2003-04 school year, have steadily declined to nearly the same rate as for Latino students and only slightly above the rates for Asian and white students.

Mr. Manhas, the Seattle superintendent, said that South Seattle is still high-minority and high-poverty, compared with the more affluent, white north side of the city. He said students from both areas will need to understand how to interact with people from other backgrounds as adults.

“Our world is one when it comes to dealing with each other, and in business,” he said, holding up his index finger for emphasis.

The school district needs to be able to use race as a tool to prepare students for a unified world, he said, adding that he gained this conviction from his upbringing in India, another nation with a rich mix of ethnic and language groups.

The position taken by the Bush administration in the Supreme Court case—that K-12 school assignments should be colorblind—is “a very shortsighted argument,” the superintendent said. The district “is not using race for the sake of race,” he said.

Superintendent Manhas suggested that race-conscious policies may be needed in public schools for at least another generation, because children today are still receiving race-tinged values from their parents.

“My feeling is, someday we won’t need it; now we have a need” for the tiebreaker, he said. “The world of these kids is going to be very different than what their parents experienced.”

Vol. 26, Issue 06, Pages 30-31

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