Full length of tensed girl sitting against brick wall in school corridor

OPINION | SPS Faces Crucial Equity Decisions That Impact Our Communities

by Mark Epstein and Michael Dixon

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is once again at a crossroads. The issues affecting our education system are a mirror of those affecting our neighborhoods, our city, and society as a whole. It is a time of great potential, but also great danger. A time of increasing inequality: growing wealth for a small minority and an increasingly precarious existence for many. To decrease this kind of inequality, SPS faces crucial decisions about equity, integration, and differentiated learning that meets the needs of each student. These educational decisions cannot be separated from the issues facing the community in general. 

Understanding some of the history of SPS decisions about these issues can shed some light on the decisions we face today. The authors have extensive experience at two high schools, Garfield and Rainier Beach, and each of these schools illustrates where district policy has intersected with community changes, the demand for equality, and the question of advanced learning. 

Gentrification in the Central District and Rainier Valley

In the Central District, where Garfield is located, the gentrification process is well underway; this formerly redlined neighborhood is now majority white. The protests around the killing of George Floyd in 2020 included community demand for concrete change to bring additional resources to Black and underserved communities. As a result, the Central District has seen strong increases in Black-owned small businesses, cultural centers, and murals that recognize its roots as the center of the city’s Black identity.

In Rainier Beach, the gentrification process is more recent. The 98118 is no longer the most diverse ZIP code in the nation; many of its poorer residents have been forced out, moving south to Kent, Auburn, Federal Way, or Tacoma. Rainier Beach High School is currently engaged in a nearly $300 million rebuild. Be’er Sheva Park across the street is being reconstructed to include a sandy beach, and apartment rents of $3,000 and above are now common from Columbia City south to Rainier Beach. Thousands of low-income residents have been pushed out of the neighborhood in the past five years. The past few months have seen numerous shootings in Rainier Beach; it has become the nexus point for conflict between young people from the Central District and points south, and disaffected resident local youth (as indicated in recent SPD community meetings).

Political decisions reflect underlying values, whether they are explicit or under the surface. Poor choices in the past 50 years, especially around integration, have led us to the increasing levels of inequity we are now facing; the displacement and violence we witness today in our city and around our country may be a direct result of some of those choices. Because educational and other inequalities were not addressed directly, the consequences have been dire. Our education system needs to address our social problems directly. Educators, parents, students, and community entities must be at the table, advocating for quality education for all. In the words of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (The Politics of Education), “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Using the Schools to Combat Residential Segregation?

In the mid-1960s, urban unrest and continuing racial injustice saw cities and their schools unraveling across the country. In Seattle, the Black-led Central Area School Council proposed making every school a place where people would want to come to learn. It called for voluntary integration and making concrete improvements in the schools serving the Black community, starting with increases in Black teaching corps, as well as other support systems. The council believed that if all schools were considered equal, integration would occur through a natural process. However, in our city, subsequent decisions about school integration were made based on expediency and appearances, not on principles about the human element and educational equity. Most of these decisions regarding our schools were geared toward perpetuating inequality based on wealth and race.

In 1965, before court-enforced busing, co-author of this article Michael Roy Dixon voluntarily paid bus fare to travel from the Central District to Catharine Blaine Junior High School in Magnolia, where he found a wonderland of learning — with challenges, but he received assistance as needed. He saw better-prepared students and a well-rounded music program in which he played first violin in the school orchestra. After a year at Blaine, Dixon returned to the Central District at Meany Middle School, hoping to find the same conditions in a school in his own neighborhood with his best friends. However, instead, he found chaos and fights and a poorly resourced campus concerned with discipline and not much else. He felt reduced to a statistic rather than a learner. In orchestra — without the teacher ever hearing him play — he was placed with the students who couldn’t play an instrument. Control and low expectations were the dominant operating conditions. Dixon went on to attend high school at Garfield and returned to Garfield for student teaching and later as a security specialist. In that capacity, he also ran after-school tutoring programs and organized educational programming, such as Holocaust awareness assemblies.

The Failure of Forced Busing to Resolve the Issues

In Seattle, forced busing, implemented districtwide after 1978, unfortunately had nothing to do with quality learning, and was used primarily for appearances; it was an opportunity for the district to receive significant federal funds, even while it was losing students. Many thousands of white parents moved their children out of the district, rather than subjecting their children to what they believed would be an inferior education. After white flight, busing primarily Black students meant being able to keep open buildings throughout the city that otherwise would have been closed; forced busing programs for Black students meant not integration, but being isolated where low expectations followed them. Schools in the Central District remained underfunded and neglected in terms of facilities and education, and initially (in the mid-1970s) attracted few white students. This inequity, based on neighborhood and racial distinctions, has persisted largely unchanged through the period of forced busing, and until recent times, it has resembled an apartheid system. It has meant a pathway straight to college for some, and to prison and hopelessness for others. Challenging and resource-rich programs in schools in the Central District, and later in South Seattle, were basically abandoned as neighborhood segregation continued and still does in terms of economics. Parent-teacher associations (PTAs) in primarily white and north end schools have been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to supplement education budgets based exclusively on student population numbers, funding librarians, music, and other electives, or even core classes to reduce class size. 

Two Central District schools were exceptions, and began to attract white students, starting in 1979. Washington Middle School and Garfield High School introduced two-tiered systems, basing the Advance Learning (AL) program, which primarily served the needs of white students, on site. They co-located mainstream classes, largely made up of Black students. AL students received the most challenging classes and arts opportunities. At Garfield, the students stayed largely segregated within the building, with the Advanced Placement program upstairs, and everyone else downstairs. Garfield’s nationally acclaimed jazz program rarely had any Black students. Asian students were largely grouped in the white tier, though Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians were not always included in this grouping.

School as a Site for the Struggle for Justice 

When co-author of this article Mark Epstein started teaching at Rainier Beach High School in the mid-1990s, he found a hollowed-out building and educational system. Parents and students seeking higher learning infused with the arts were fleeing; they no longer believed their children could receive a high-level education there. An unpopular principal was put there from 1994 until 2000, during which time she ended a popular teaching academy to train young teachers and terrorized the staff with random threats, driving away 50% of the teaching corps. Finally, popular pressure forced the district to pay her over $350,000 to retire. After this, the school’s Performing Arts Center rarely had consistent staffing. Occasional performances, like those produced in partnership with Broadway Bound, showcased some of the incredible talent in the RBHS community. However, budget cuts precluded RBHS being an Arts Magnet.

In short, SPS permitted the destruction of a strong educational program and infrastructure; subsequent years meant further decline and cuts each year to the arts, and even the core subjects. The Parent Information Center, responsible for assigning students, explicitly warned parents not to send their students to Rainier Beach; it became the school of last resort for most of Seattle’s population. The Seattle Times writers routinely disparaged education at the school. Even the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the segregated status of RBHS and Cleveland High School in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in 2007. By 2015, the school’s population had dropped to fewer than 350 students. This was accompanied by the decline in the surrounding neighborhood. 

Both Garfield and Rainier Beach have had strong traditions of community involvement and social justice work among their student bodies. As described by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in the new book Our History Has Always Been Contraband, co-edited with Robin Kelley and Colin Kaepernick, student activism has been connected with community movements since the 1960s, when “young activists, fresh from the struggle in the streets against police brutality and substandard housing, brought the same militancy to their battles on campus, but with the intent of leveraging the resources on campus to build a stronger movement in the neighborhoods.” 

At Garfield, Black students, who were also committed to maintaining a multiracial student body, led a walkout of the entire school to the University of Washington in 1969 to increase Black student presence on campus, in conjunction with Larry Gossett and the few Black students on the UW campus at the time. Dixon later became senior class president in a campaign based on equity and achievement for Black students, demanding more Black staff and administration. The next year, he was part of a wave of 250 Black youth admitted to the University of Washington. 

In 2017, Garfield staff and educator Jesse Hagopian were instrumental in expanding the Black Lives Matter at School movement into a national effort. Garfield cheerleaders, the football team, the band, and others boldly followed the example set by Colin Kaepernick and then Megan Rapinoe, taking a knee during the national anthem for an entire season in protest of the police killings of Michael Brown (Ferguson), Eric Garner (New York), and Breonna Taylor (Louisville); Garfield included Seattle mother Charleena Lyles.

At Rainier Beach, the demand for a South End community performing arts space led to the building of the Performing Arts Center. Choosing to name it after Paul Robeson was meant to give students an example of a true Renaissance human who was exceptional not only in academics, the arts, and athletics, but also an outspoken activist for human rights. Breaking numerous molds and expectations, Robeson opened up countless opportunities in all of these fields for People of Color, and Black people specifically, from the 1920s forward. 

Justice is not like a limited pie, and reparations for past injustice should not be seen as a threat to other groups of people. A decade ago, Rainier Beach students, under the leadership of the WA-BLOC program, agitated for Orca cards. Two student leaders, Ifrah and Emily, invited the mayor and City Council to walk with them the just under 2 miles they had to walk in the dark to school, as they did not qualify for bus service. Eventually, they won free Orca cards for RBHS students. The next year, it was expanded to students from Cleveland and Chief Sealth High Schools, and now all young people in Seattle can ride public transit for free. 

Advanced Learning for All?

Starting in 2015, Rainier Beach High School’s community partner WA-BLOC has run a summer institute of the Freedom Schools. For its first six years, it worked with 60 rising ninth and 10th graders at RBHS, bringing up some students’ reading levels by two or three grades, and featuring a literature-rich, multicultural experience based in the activist tradition. (Its past two years have centered on younger students at nearby Emerson Elementary.) During the late 2010s, WA-BLOC organized an annual day of activism for the entire student body. In 2012, in the spirit of the Central Area Educational council of the early 1960s, the Rainier Beach community and staff decided to bring advanced learning in a non-exclusive manner to the entire student community, and were determined not to create a two-track system. When the International Baccalaureate program was adopted, it was considered “IB for All,” with all students receiving Language Arts within the IB program. In 2017, IB History was added for all students. Last year, Rainier Beach increased its population to over 800 students, who are on site while the school is being rebuilt. IB Math and Science are now being given to all students. And, according to Steve Miller, the current IB coordinator, “It’s our goal to have IB for All firmly in place by the time our new school has been rebuilt.” Most recently, Rainier Beach has had proposals approved for career education through the IB program; this will restore some of the options that were taken away by the loss of student population in the past.

Will the new Rainier Beach High School retain the vision of Paul Robeson as a model? Will SPS and Washington State budget decisions provide the emotional and academic supports that all students need? What will the changes mean for the surrounding neighborhood? One possible danger is that the business community and neighborhood will revert to white dominance, and leave out or kick out everyone else. How will the community look in five years? In 20?

Often, the values guiding policy decisions are hidden behind smokescreens, which make it much harder to see what is possible, and these smokescreens can hide the effects of these decisions. To confront the social problems we face today, we need more understanding of our true history, not less, even if it makes some feel uncomfortable.

A recent editorial in The Seattle Times decried the loss of separate programs for the “Highly Capable Cohort.” Yet its conclusion was that district policy “could mean opening advanced learning opportunities to every child and doing the hard work to set them up for success.”

Creating these opportunities will require commitment of both programs and funding for all schools. It will require a change in Washington’s archaic tax system, which lets the rich off the hook. It will require district support of social workers, counseling services, restorative justice training, and a security strategy that teams these workers with students, parents, and security specialists. It will require the teaching of a representation of our history that does not gloss over the legacy of oppression of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and immigrants. It will require developing a spirit of empathy in our young people for those in need.

In the words of noted educator bell hooks, “If we want a beloved community, we must stand for justice.” In its absence, we can expect the sounds of disaffection and gunfire to come closer and more frequently. Our youth are our most precious resource. Time is of the essence.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Mark Epstein taught social studies, ELL, and elementary school for 35 years in the Rainier Valley and is currently a substitute teacher for Rainier Beach High School.

📸 Featured image by wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com.

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