Bellevue’s image as a homogenous, white, suburb is going away. The Seattle Times’ Gene Balk reported this morning that Bellevue is more diverse than Seattle. The Bellevue School District has been less than 50% white since October 2010.
“We are a very diverse district,” said the school district’s interim communications manager Melissa Laramie in an email. “As of 2010, minorities make up 50.7% of total district enrollment. More than 80 languages are spoken in the Bellevue School District, with 30% of students speaking a first language other than English. About one in five students receive free or reduced-price meals.”
But as a graduate of Bellevue High School’s Class of 2011, and a person of color, I am skeptical that these demographic changes will mean more opportunity for students of color on the east side.
When my mother and her family moved to the Bellevue area in 1980, the school district had a 92% white population. Since then, this proportion has drastically changed — and while the increasing rate of minority representation district-wide is observable and significant, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Bellevue’s high schools, which are ranked as some of the best in the country, are located in different parts of the city and individually reflect unique demographics.
While Sammamish High School, Interlake High School, and Newport High School have all seen their minority populations pass the 50% mark in recent years, Bellevue High School and International School, despite noticeable and significant demographic changes, retained a white majority as of 2013.
Like the schools, Bellevue itself is far more diverse in some places than in others. Balk uses a measure known as the “diversity index” — the likelihood that any two people will be of different races. In Bellevue, that ranges from a low of 30 in West Bellevue up to 74 in Crossroads.
Bellevue High was 59% white during my senior year. A large proportion of my classmates were white, wealthy, and upper middle class. As an Iranian American I didn’t feel, and have never felt, white – despite the fact that I have checked the box marked “white/Caucasian” many times.
My family–a divorced parent lower-income household–reflected neither that of the typical Bellevue kid, nor that of my few Iranian schoolmates.
Kristina Keogh, who teaches English literature at Bellevue High, has seen racial diversity increase rapidly since she started at the school in 2008. But she notes that attitudes have not kept pace: she says students are generally convinced that the high school is not economically and racially diverse.
“When I first started teaching at Bellevue things felt more separate, it felt like a campus with cliques, and people stuck to their groups,” Keogh said. “It has since changed, perhaps as a result of increased diversity, but I think there’s a negative stereotype that continues to persist about students who move here and are not English speakers.”
It begins to become apparent that different regions of Bellevue are telling different stories, and that meshing these observations into one citywide statistic overshadows the realities of economic disparity, linguistic diversity, and the influx of new immigrants to this relatively small city.
Keogh believes that the most significant marker that continues to otherize students is economic inequality.
“I’m hoping that our nature will change such that students no longer identify themselves by their economic status. In Bellevue, there’s a stereotype that students are very wealthy, but numbers show that isn’t necessarily true,” Keogh said. “There is a significant number of students on free or reduced lunch. Students who are not as wealthy feel really bad about themselves and feel left out. I wish people would be more inclusive.”
Keogh believes that the less-represented minorities at Bellevue, such as the black population, which stands at 3%, were and still are underrepresented. According to Balk’s analysis, the overall black population stands at 2.2% citywide.
“I teach one African American student right now out of about approximately 145,” Keogh said. “In class we talk about race and ethnicity often, and it’s disheartening when that voice isn’t represented.”
Seeing how the city and school district has changed since I left in 2011 has challenged me to revise my perceptions of “the Bellevue experience.” While Bellevue’s diversity is rapidly and notably growing, we shouldn’t forget that there is an increasing need for attitudes to shift to accommodate to such changes.
While I’m sure that attitudes haven’t remained completely stagnant, I have no doubt that there are still students navigating Bellevue’s remodeled halls feeling unwelcome or different.
I know it’s how I often feel when I venture outside of the remarkable communities I’ve encountered while attending the “diversity conscious” University of Washington just a bridge away.