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How schools can help save neighborhoods

Bringing back neighborhood schools, as Seattle is now doing after a long experiment with desegregation, is a great way to improve the city.
A poster used in the campaign to stop Seattle Public Schools from closing Arbor Heights Elementary, which had been listed in an earlier recommendation but spared in the final proposal.

A poster used in the campaign to stop Seattle Public Schools from closing Arbor Heights Elementary, which had been listed in an earlier recommendation but spared in the final proposal. Flickr contributor mahlness

Franklin High School, 1917. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Franklin High School, 1917. (Seattle Municipal Archives) None

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.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 18, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute,

Locate what affordable housing? Seattle has forced low and medium income families out of the city to the surroundinding smaller cities. This is reflected in the ever-decreasing school age population of Seattle. And there went diversity with it.

Lack of quality education has also taken it's toll on the school and family population, causing out migration to other school districts.

And, as far as safety and walking to school, when WE were kids, safety came from all the familiar eyes of the neighbors watching the walking kids get to and from school. Today, most parents are at work and no one is home to do the watching ans/or reacting

So, as far as neighborhood schools go,the idea has outlived it's value to the NEW neighborhood population. Until this city rediscovers it's values and collective goals, and refocuses it's attention from a city for the wealthy and tourists, to a CITY FOR ALL, nevermind!

Art

Posted Thu, Feb 18, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

The biggest obstacle to a return to the neighborhood school as a center of community has been the School District's own Facilities department. Our Neighborhood Plan from 1998 described precisely the type of facility outlined in your article. Many of us worked very hard for over 15 years with the District and the City to make it so. When it came time to follow-through on the remodel of our school, however, we were told point blank by District Facilities that "we don't DO neighborhoods". How absurd! As you say, this was not always the case, but District divisiveness and adversity has seemed the norm in the many capital projects of the past 15 years.

slame

Posted Thu, Feb 18, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute,
I was there too—getting my first notions of what "high" culture was all about at and through Seattle's neighborhood public schools. Furthermore, those notions have held true to this day, which makes me more than sad that they are not part of public schooling any more and, worse, will be the last things to come back. The problem with punishing success and rewarding failure is that we wind up with a whole lot of failure.

Art,
As I understand from previous comments, you now write from Port Townsend? If so, thanks for continuing to take an interest. You are right about the "locate" if you think that means only building new "affordable" housing. It could have been clearer, but I read it as including conservation of the (relatively) affordable housing that we have left by focusing on designated centers and villages for major redevelopment. That "unifying goal" remains the focus of Seattle's official Plan, although it has been amended into near gibberish since the 1994 Council redrafted into plain English and then adopted Seattle's first state mandated and nationally noted Comprehensive Plan.

I do agree that in practice the theory has been different, and so much so that if citizens do not wise up, the goal will be changed this year to match the practice.

slame,
I hope you can get in to see the new Mayor about the discarded co-location within the many residential urban villages, in particular, of all the activities that Knute outlines with such fondness.

The message for taking back the high road: if things are as bad as climate change activists claim, than its "activists" elected to office now need to get serious: stop providing cover (mega-cities saves nature) for business as usual (urban renewal) and realign growth targets (take more than our share) with fiscal abilities (dismal) per state law.

afreeman

Posted Fri, Feb 19, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute, add to your piece by including WEST SEATTLE in the Seattle public high school world of our youth. Also, we shouldn’t forget Broadway (Now Central Seattle CC), the early casualty of neighborhood high school closure/transformation when the district made it a “voch-tech” after the Korean War. This decision eliminated a community focus on Capitol Hill by sending high school students far away – to either Lincoln or Garfield, or more likely, to one of the many private schools that thrived in the absence of a strong public choice.

It was no accident that schools were the center of post-WW II Seattle neighborhoods you remember. This was a guiding principle in the first comprehensive city plan, approved in 1957, under the professional direction of the region's first city planner, my late husband, John Spaeth. His vision was to co-locate schools, community centers and parks at the heart of our neighborhoods for just the sort of community-building effect you applaud. Check out his first neighborhood-planned community, Magnolia, as an example. Even with public support for that idea, the separate bureaucracies within the school district and city made this a challenge.

The end of many neighborhood schools, followed by the drastic drop in Seattle public school enrollment 30 years ago, meant not only fewer children, but also the loss of young and middle-aged parents - the people most likely to contribute to the communitarian life of a city. thus Seattle's population of children was not just "among the smallest" in the nation, it actually posted the absolute lowest percent of children in its population among the nation’s top 100 cities in the 1990 census and was #2 – after San Francisco – in 2000. We await 2010 with a wary hope that this dubious ranking will improve. Thanks for your good update and keeping the subject in view. Barbara Stenson Spaeth

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