It was an entertainment center, a concert venue, a theater and a lecture hall. Sometimes it hosted fundraisers and pancake breakfasts. It was a sports venue, too, and served as our local town hall. It put on fairs and exhibits. It had day care. It was also a recycling center. It was valuable to the entire neighborhood, yet none of these roles was its main function.
What was it? A neighborhood school.
If Seattle is a “city of neighborhoods,” the heart and soul of those used to be its public schools. They put education within walking distance, acted as neighborhood hubs, and helped you put down roots. I saw my first plays and concerts at Franklin High School, went to football and basketball games, attended science fairs and fundraisers on its campus. At my grade school nearby, we had talent shows and Cub Scout meetings. A few times a year, the whole of Mount Baker brought bundles of newsprint to the schools for “paper drives.” (No one called it recycling in the 1950s.)
Seattle’s neighborhood schools were part of the fabric of the city. The first question Seattleites used to ask each other was “Where did you go to school?” They’d answer Franklin, Garfield, Rainier Beach, Ballard, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Queen Anne. It was short-hand for telling them all about yourself, what neighborhood you came from, maybe your ethnic background and your social milieu. It was the starting point for establishing common ground.
All that changed with the advent of mandatory busing and the attempts to desegregate Seattle’s schools that started in the 1970s. Old Seattle was less integrated and diverse than it is now — back then some neighborhoods had covenants against selling to blacks or Jews. I knew white guys in the North End who went all the way through high school without ever sharing a classroom with a black or Asian.
Seattle’s neighborhood schools were sacrificed for a noble ideal, but it was also damaging to the city in some ways. Busing did not effectively integrate the schools, and it drove many families away, not always because of race per se, but because many didn’t want to turn their kids into hour-a-day bus commuters and high school nomads. In the first decade of busing, Seattle lost 37 percent of its population under the age of 18. Partly as a result, Seattle’s population of children is among the smallest of any major city in America. In the end, busing did not make Seattle’s schools better, and it harmed neighborhoods by damaging a vital community organ.
For the last decade, the tide has been slowly turning back in favor of neighborhood schools. It started with the late schools superintendent John Stanford in the 1990s, and is now in full swing as the district looks to move toward schooling more kids in their own backyards. This reduces school choice for parents, and not everyone likes that. Some chafe at the specific boundaries the district is drawing for each school: Parents don’t like being boxed in with their kids’ education options, especially if the local school is suspect.
On the other hand, the move has the potential for enormous benefits. In this age of eating and buying local, schooling local also make sense. Can you imagine how much the carbon footprint could be reduced if most kids weren’t driven and bused to school? And because community is largely shaped through families and kids, neighborhood schools help create close-knit neighbors. I still know guys I grew up with whose mothers worked with my mother to start a kindergarten class in 1959 after the local levy failed. That act of mommy activism has had lifelong effects.
More importantly, neighborhood schools will only work if the city and state do what is necessary to support them. Funding from Olympia is an issue, as is making sure no school is left behind and that a kid can get a good education in any school. But to make that possible requires work on the grassroots level, too. We need to make sure it is safe in every neighborhood for kids to walk to school (more cops on the street, more attention to gangs); that we locate affordable family housing within walking distance of schools; that we ensure our streets are bike and pedestrian friendly. In short, successful neighborhood schools set the bar for doing what it takes to make the city better for everyone.
This essay first appeared in Seattle magazine's January issue.
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