When Nicole Harris’ son started fourth grade at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in the Central District this year, there were only minority children in his class. That’s in spite of the school being over 44% percent white. Meanwhile, some of the other fourth grade classes are almost entirely white students.
Why are the classrooms inside Thurgood Marshall so segregated?
Maybe because it’s a magnet school participating in the Seattle Public Schools’ “Highly Capable Cohort (HCC)” program. The students in the HCC classes are predominantly white, and those in the regular program are mostly students of color.
“Is it actually possible that every single child in the general education [program] is not potentially capable to be in the advanced program?” Harris wonders. “To me, it’s segregation. It’s blanketed and nicely programmed with a nice word on top that says ‘advanced program,’ but it’s segregation.”
The Roots of Segregation
To understand the roots of this segregation in Seattle Public Schools, you need to look at how institutionalized racism and division by socioeconomic standing have dominated Seattle school assignments in recent decades.
A large push to integrate Seattle schools began in 1977 with The Seattle Plan which bussed students to schools in different neighborhoods in an effort to create racial diversity.
But that first year white parents responded to bussing by pulling their children from public schools en masse, prompting the district to create special magnet programs to entice them back. Five years after mandatory busing started, the number of schools offering magnet programs had grown by 30.
The combined result were schools that were diverse overall, but mostly segregated from classroom to classroom.
In 1997, Seattle ended the busing experiment, largely deemed as a failure, and enacted a race-based tiebreaker for spots in schools that too many students wanted to attend. But in 2007, a group of mostly white Seattle parents won a suit before the Supreme Court that ruled that schools nationwide could no longer use race as a factor in placing students.
As a result, Seattle schools are now trending back toward being racially segregated from neighborhood to neighborhood. But even in those that remain diverse on paper — magnet schools like Thurgood Marshall Elementary and Garfield High School, for example — students are still segregated between classrooms.
Harris thinks she’s identified part of the problem. For many advanced learning programs, teachers act as the gatekeepers, recommending students they see fit for “highly capable learning.” And the process, where parents opt into the tests, and are even able to appeal the results and pay for retesting, advantages families where parents have the time, language skills and resources to actively advocate for their children.
When Harris took her daughter to test into Kindergarten early this year, she says the testing supervisor leaned down and asked, “Do you speak English?”
Separate and unequal
Harris says she knows it will be a battle for both of her children to fight through institutionalized racism in public schools the next decade.
Currently, Seattle has the fifth largest gap between white and Black students in America. A Black student tends to test about three and a half grades below a white student. A Hispanic student tests two and a half grades below a white student.
There’s also an alarming contrast in suspension rates for minority students versus white students. In data collected by the University of California, Los Angeles, Civil Rights Movement, they found that while Asian and white students had similar suspension rates, other minority students were suspended at more than twice those rates.
“My son will not be a statistic,” says Rose Wallace-Croone, another Seattle Schools parent. She says it’s easy for a six-foot-tall, dark-skinned male to become a statistic in the Seattle School District.
Her son, who is slated to graduate high school this year, went to Thurgood Marshall Elementary in 2010 when the Seattle School District decided devote some of their classrooms to the Accelerated Progress Program (now known as HCC). They began to bus mostly white children from outside of the Central District to the school, and it went from a majority minority school to majority white. Students like Wallace-Croone’s son, and now her daughter who is in the same school, became “general education” students. She says they didn’t invite the general education students to join the new program.
“They built this program, but our children didn’t have access to the program,” she explains. “The parents did not feel comfortable or safe with our children walking across the hall to be in the same classroom with their children.”
As her son moved to Washington Middle School, he scored high enough to place into Spectrum, another advanced learning program. But with that year’s new program guidelines, Wallace-Croone heard that the program accepted too many minority students. They would have to test again next year to show consistency. Ultimately, her son never joined the program.
“My son is graduating this year,” Wallace-Croone says, “and it wasn’t because the district looked out for my son or because he had these incredible educators. It’s because his mother paid attention to his education.”
As a parent and advocate for minority children in Seattle public schools, she says she’s frustrated at how racial segregation has morphed and mutated — hidden but apparent to those facing it.
“You’re not going to hear the term ‘ni**er.’ You’re not going to hear the term ‘cholo.’ You’re not going to hear those.” she says. “But you may hear things like ‘I don’t feel comfortable.’ ‘I don’t feel safe.’”
A new approach?
In Wallace-Croone’s words, each student should have the right to learn, grow, and be loved in school. But she says minority students don’t currently have those rights in Seattle schools.
She and Harris agree that a lot of power and influence lies with the parents. Parents do not realize the impact they have, but they need to make their voices heard.
After an uproar about the segregation of Garfield High Schools Honors program, the school enacted a new equity program called “Honors For All” that will have “advanced learning” students and “general education” students take the same Social Studies class together, in an attempt to bridge the gap. Thurgood Marshall is adopting a similar program.
The school district didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story. But in a document supporting the Garfield program, the district stated, “studies over the past thirty years that note the detrimental effects of ability-level tracking are an indicator of the institutionalized racism that plagues our school system and adds to the opportunity gap.”
Sean Riley, a teacher in the Seattle School District as well as an advocate for school integration, is hopeful about this change. However, he fears that a negative outcome may dissuade the school district from continuing these changes.
“I would argue that a 21st century skill is being able to communicate with different types of people and being able to understand different points of view,” he says. “To promote segregated classrooms in the long run is to do a real disservice to each student’s education.”
We’ve updated this story to correct the name of the program Wallace-Croone’s son was in, from APP to Spectrum. We’ve also updated to clarify the details of how students are admitted into advanced learning programs, and to give more details on Honors For All and similar programs.