by Sharon H Chang
At Leschi Elementary on Friday morning the air was cool but the sun was shining bright and crisp. Here and there “Leschi [heart] Black Lives” t-shirts moved down sidewalks and across the schoolyard. Under a blue sky that stretched over Seattle, students, staff and faculty lined up for bell time with more anticipation than usual.
Then the bell rang out and as students filed toward their building they were greeted by around forty professionals of color, dressed sharp and with wide grins, who had arranged themselves into something of a human tunnel.
Students moved through the tunnel and received a spirited parade of high and low fives, cheers, and encouragement from the exuberant and earnest community members of color. Some children looked stunned, some gave back shy smiles, others practically jumped out of their skin they were so jazzed. But everyone was obviously impacted deeply and warmly, adults and children alike. It was going to be a good day–as it is every year after Leschi Elementary’s annual Seattle High 5.
Seattle High 5 (which also happens at South Shore Elementary) always occurs at Leschi Elementary on the Friday of the first full week of school, which is also the first week kindergarteners attend because of slow start.
Seattle-area Black and People of Color professionals are invited, in business attire, to greet and encourage children on their way into class. The goal is to show the students positive images of People of Color in their community–instead of the negative images so commonly portrayed in the media–and particularly to offer role models, uplift and promise to students of color.
Henrietta Price, crossing guard and longtime volunteer at Leschi Elementary, has been a line greeter at every High 5 since inception. “I love the kids and I want them to know that,” she said. Price ran Henrietta’s Hat Shop down the street for over three decades and her own children and grandchildren went to Leschi, and now a great-grandchild will attend as well.
Ray Williams, an adjunct instructor at Seattle’s Art Institute, also volunteered as a line greeter. Williams is a Leschi Elementary alumni who attended kindergarten and first grade in the sixties. “Thinking back–and it’s been a long time–the first days of school can be really scary,” Williams reflected, “so to feel that there’s people out there welcoming you is a big deal for kids.”
At the helm of this extraordinary event is beloved community leader and Leschi Elementary family worker, Gerald Donaldson. Inspired by a similar effort at a Connecticut school a few years ago, Donaldson first launched Seattle High 5 at his building in 2015. He thought his school might do the event just one time. But it was a mighty success and continued. Now, in its third year, Seattle High 5 has evolved into a staple at Leschi Elementary. When school lets out for summer, Donaldson boasted, his building is already planning for the next High 5 come fall. “It’s fantastic,” he beamed.
Teachers Treneicia Gardener and Tamikya St Clair, both in their eighth teaching year at Leschi Elementary, have walked students through the High 5 line all three times. “It is an amazing experience for me and my students,” enthused Gardener, who teaches kindergarten and first grade, adding her younger students are so excited to get their high fives that it makes the entire school day fabulous.
St Clair, who teaches fourth and fifth grade, said the event helps her older students feel safe, respected, and “that the people in their community actually really care about them.” She added, “It’s important too for the fourth and fifth graders to see themselves in the future leaders of the community.”
Donaldson reiterates Gardener’s point that one of the best parts of the High 5 comes afterward when students are invigorated about being at school. Meanwhile volunteer line greeters commonly want to return and volunteer even more. The point is not only the uplift to the kids, Donaldson underscored, but that the event “brings the community together.”
Paul Jackson and Reverend John Stean volunteered this year as line greeters for the first time. Jackson, a former Boeing researcher in augmented and virtual reality himself, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at a HBC (Historically Black College) and was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship to earn his Ph. D. in computer engineering. He purposefully wore a college sweatshirt to the High 5, rather than a suit and tie, “to try and impress the young kids to go on to grad school, to go on to college.” Jackson is also a member of the Breakfast Group, a longstanding African American men’s nonprofit dedicated to addressing the challenges of at-risk youth of color.
Reverend John Stean III recently moved to Seattle to pastor historic Ebenezer AME Zion Church in the Central District. Stean has been trying to get more involved in community events supporting youth especially because he knows as a young African American man himself “how important it’s been for me to see other people of color who were doing things that I might aspire to do.” Attending Leschi’s High 5 was moving for Stean who described it as “a liberating experience” and “definitely how I want to spend my morning.”
Such community-building is more important than ever for children given the current political climate, noted Donaldson and other volunteers. “It’s changed,” said Donaldson, citing unpredictability and uncertainty under the current president. For instance, Donaldson pointed out, targeting of undocumented immigrants by the new administration has left some students very worried about family, friends or classmates being deported. “There’s been a lot of peaks and valleys,” he observed sadly, “especially with the kids.”
To that end, Donaldson sees Leschi’s High 5 as having taken on even more meaning and importance in its lifespan thus far and he looks forward to the event’s bright future. “Our kids seeing the support from the Black community, our white families, the rainbow of people who came . . . I think it eases the fear,” he said. “[The children] know regardless of what’s going on . . . We can get through this.”
Leschi Elementary teachers of color could not agree more. “There’s so many marginalized groups in everything that’s going on right now politically that [Seattle High 5] is just like love arms around all of our students,” nodded Gardener. “To let them know, we have your back, we love you, and we’re happy that you’re here.”
“It’s just really important that kids, no matter what race they are, see that people come together,” said St Clair, “and that we as a country are more so together than we are divided.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.