Seattle Schools' next hot potato: student assignment plans

Out, finally, go all those arcane rules deriving from desegregation efforts. Now, the School Board hopes to adopt a new plan, assigning students largely to neighborhood schools, with far fewer "escape valves." The real challenge remains improving quality of all schools.
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Cleveland High School will have a new incarnation under the plan

Out, finally, go all those arcane rules deriving from desegregation efforts. Now, the School Board hopes to adopt a new plan, assigning students largely to neighborhood schools, with far fewer "escape valves." The real challenge remains improving quality of all schools.

The Seattle School Board agreed last June on a new student assignment plan that will provide guaranteed places in elementary, middle, and high school for each child, depending on where they live, creating the kind of predictability that families have been advocating for years. On Tuesday (Oct. 6), the board and the public get the first look at the new boundaries drawn around the schools. There are sure to be winners and losers and a lot of noise for the next month until the board votes on a final map November 18.

The Seattle School Board ended the school district'ꀙs 30-year experiment with desegregation busing June 17 this year, when it approved a new student assignment plan based on residence, not race. Technically, you could say that happened in June, 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Seattle could not use assignment rules to adjust the racial balance of its high schools. Or even earlier this decade, when the lawsuit by a group of Magnolia-area parents, allied as Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS), prompted the school board to put the 'ꀜracial-balance tiebreaker'ꀝ on hold until lawsuit was settled.

In reality, the change was gradual and inexorable. The number of kids on buses steadily dropped during the 1990s, most notably under Supt. John Stanford, when elementary schools were formed into 'ꀜclusters'ꀝ and much of the dramatic north-south busing ended. Stanford based his changes on a district study which found that low-income children bused farther than the school next closest to their homes did worse academically than kids with comparably low-income parents who stayed in their neighborhood schools. That study also showed that minorities carried most the burden for what was left of desegregation busing. Five times more minority kids rode the buses north than white kids came south.

Even with Stanford'ꀙs changes, the school-choice provisions of the current assignment plan (the new plan starts next fall) still allow — if not encourage — plenty of south-to-north migration. 'ꀜChoice'ꀝ remains what it always was, a way to avoid having your kid stuck in one of the weaker schools, particularly those in the South End where the preponderance of low-income families don'ꀙt have the moxie or money to compensate for the nearly automatic weaknesses of a large bureaucratic system.

The enrollment flight north from Rainier Beach High School to Franklin and other schools is proof enough of this. For years unable to attract even 500 students, Rainier Beach High hasn'ꀙt had the resources to mount a comprehensive academic program. Money follows students, and when families stop favoring a school its revenue falls and course offerings disappear. A similar if less pronounced northward-migration occurs at elementary and middle school levels.

The new and long awaited assignment plan (overdue by two years according to the board'ꀙs own 'ꀜframework'ꀝ document) is scheduled to get a final go-ahead from the school board next month. It is designed to put an end to this kind of migration and balance the enrollment at all schools. Each elementary school will have a geographically defined attendance area. (Folks over about 55 or who'ꀙve moved here from elsewhere will recognize this as something of a standard approach to school assignment, one typically used in more racially homogenous communities, suburbs, and smaller cities never hit by desegregation busing.)

It'ꀙs pretty simple. If you live within the assignment area of School X, you are guaranteed a place at that school. (It'ꀙs 'ꀜa guaranteed assignment, not a mandatory assignment,'ꀝ stresses school board president Michael DeBell in a reassuring nod to families worried about potential loss of school choice in the new system.) A collection of such 'ꀜattendance-area'ꀝ elementary schools makes up a 'ꀜservice area'ꀝ of 'ꀜfeeder schools'ꀝ for each of the city'ꀙs 10 middle schools. And each of the now nine comprehensive high schools will have its own attendance area. Thus, based on residence address, a family will be able to predict exactly what schools their children will attend from kindergarten to graduation. A simple registration process (including proof of residence) will suffice.

It'ꀙs not quite that simple, though. The plan includes a lot of what we have now. There will be 11 'ꀜoption'ꀝ schools, most of them popular K-8 schools, along with three option high schools — NOVA, now in the Meany building, the Center School at Seattle Center, plus Cleveland which will no longer be a comprehensive high school. Applying for these schools will resemble the current system with similar 'ꀜtiebreaker'ꀝ rules for when a school is oversubscribed: sibling already there, residence in a 'ꀜgeographic zone'ꀝ or, those things still being equal, lottery.

These option schools provide the choice, a safety valve, in the new system much like — and to a comparable degree — what the 'ꀜalternative'ꀝ schools do now. Assuming an average enrollment of 500 students at each option school, many of which are K-8s and will exceed that, it'ꀙs easy to see that under the new plan more than 10 percent of the district'ꀙs 46,000 students will be in 'ꀜchoice'ꀝ schools, not including those students in special programs such as the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) for gifted kids.

Nevertheless, the new system is expected to reduce busing costs. That'ꀙs one of its real attractions for the school board, in charge of a system that wants for money even in good years. It'ꀙs these potential savings — more than any philosophical claims about kids doing better in schools close to home or neighborhood schools getting more community support — that are most often mentioned by school officials as justification for the plan. Savings will grow gradually, though. Next fall, the new attendance area rules will apply only for students entering kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades and be phased in one grade per year after that. A modest amount of choice is still available even at those years, though it will be subject to space available except in high schools where a certain yet-to-be-determined number of seats will be reserved for transfers.

Now comes the devil with the details. School district staff have been crunching numbers for some months now to complete the very tough job of drawing the boundary lines between the schools. How many kids live exactly where around the school? How many will be there in five or 10 years? How far can the boundaries reach before the building is full? Can the boundaries be made to include both high- and low-income areas, waterfront neighborhoods and view hilltops along with the valleys and denser neighborhoods along arterials, so each school'ꀙs population reflects as much as possible the city we live in? On Tuesday, October 6, from 4 to 8 pm, enrollment planning manager Tracy Libros and her staff will roll out the results in a work session for the board. That session is sure to be attended by dozens of passionate school watchers.

And for the next month, through a series of public meetings, the proposed assignment-area boundaries will be the issue. Tempers will grow heated, and it will be another test for the new school board of how well it can hold together and support its superintendent, Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

Beyond that heated discussion of details, there remains the underlying issue of school quality. Under the current assignment plan, devolved as it was from mandatory desegregation busing, school choice served in part as a way for savvy parents, mostly middle- and upper-middle class, to avoid sending their kids to schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. They were avoiding schools where achievement was low or uncertain for all the reasons nearly all urban school districts, despite good intentions, fail to bring students from families in poverty up to middle-class achievement levels. (Incidentally, the new assignment plan calls for consideration after two years of a low-income assignment preference for high schools. This kind of preferential system is widely believed to be permitted by the Supreme Court decision that outlawed the race preference.)

Thus what the new plan does is put in even sharper focus the district'ꀙs failures with kids from low-income and non-English-speaking families, and many from African American and Latino households. The present assignment system, which permits nearly unlimited out-migration from schools of perceived lower quality, has allowed the district a level of benign neglect (some would call it institutional racism) toward weak schools serving primarily low-income kids. (This has not been universal. A handful of outstanding principals have been very successful in raising achievement above the average for some such schools.)

Bringing all its schools up to higher levels of student achievement is, of course, the school district'ꀙs fundamental goal. Now, the new assignment plan shines an ever brighter spotlight on that challenge. If the plan works, strong neighborhood constituencies will develop, asking for change and more money where both are needed. There won'ꀙt be any schools, as there are now, that the district can put on the back burner to work on later.

Stable and increased enrollments will help solve the problem. For example, four years from now when the attendance area system is fully phased in and its enrollment has reached about 1,000, Rainier Beach High School will be generating the money to offer the kind and number of college prep classes now characteristic of its peers. (As an option school, similarly under-enrolled Cleveland will take a different approach to building enrollment.) But just what the district can do to bring the weak schools and the kids who attend them up to middle-class skill levels in reading and math remains the uncomfortable question.

Through 'ꀜweighted staffing standards'ꀝ and federal and state funding specially earmarked for students from poverty, Seattle Public Schools already spends more per pupil on poor kids that it does no rich kids. It'ꀙs hard to imagine that what the district hasn'ꀙt been able to do for a generation, it will suddenly be able to do now without some new ideas and new money.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.