A new principal's implementation of a routine Seattle Public Schools policy has ignited a debate over the meaning of an "international school."

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When Haley Sides moved to Seattle after four years in the Air Force, she chose to settle in Wallingford so her 6-year-old daughter could attend John Stanford International School — an educational community promoting the same type of multiculturalism Sides has tried to instill in her half-Jamaican daughter.

Sides was outraged when the school’s new principal announced this week that students will be asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each day. The practice, which has long been mandated by district policy and state law but has not traditionally been observed at John Stanford, will start Monday.

“It pains me to think that at a school that emphasizes thinking globally we would institute something that makes our children think that this country alone is where their allegiance lies,” said Sides, her voice oscillating between disappointment and anger.

While Seattle Public Schools has required daily recitation of the pledge for decades, implementation has historically been left to individual schools. PTSA presidents reported a variety of practices: Some schools broadcast the pledge over the PA system; some ask teachers to lead it in classrooms; some do it weekly, some do it daily and some don’t do it at all.

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Many parents said they had never really thought about the practice before.

John Stanford, which offers dual-language immersion programs in Spanish and Japanese, has traditionally let teachers decide whether or not to do the pledge, said Kelly Aramaki, a former principal who moved to Beacon Hill International School this year.

But Aramaki’s replacement, Jesely Alvarez, decided to change that. In a pair of letters sent to parents this week, Alvarez acknowledged some opposition from teachers but said that after a month of internal debate it was time “to move forward” in “following state law.”

“As adults in this school community, I believe it is important that we follow rules,” wrote Alvarez, who declined to comment for this story.

The pledge will be read over the PA system every Monday and recited in individual classrooms the other days of the week. Students who don’t want to participate will be allowed to sit or stand respectfully.

Many in favor

Many parents are delighted with Alvarez’s decision, and it is fully supported by district leadership.

In fact, the administration sent an email to all district principals reminding them of their legal responsibility regarding the pledge — the first such reminder issued during the school year “in recent memory,” district spokeswoman Teresa Wippel said.

The district doesn’t have the resources to enforce the policy on a day-to-day basis, Wippel said.

The reminder may make principals across the district rethink how the pledge is handled in their schools, Aramaki acknowledged.

School Board President Steve Sundquist said he plans to talk with interim Superintendent Susan Enfield about enforcement of the pledge policy.

“The School Board’s policy is clear. State law is clear. And our job is to follow the state law and to follow our policy, so I’m firmly in the camp that says we need to be doing this,” Sundquist said.

But in Wallingford, that explanation isn’t playing particularly well.

“What if the law’s a bad law?” asked George Ptasinski, who has a first-grade son at John Stanford. ” ‘Separate but equal’ was the law of the land for a while. Was it right to enforce?”

Still, Ptasinski said his biggest complaint is that this decision was “thrown on” parents “without any discussion.”

Executive Director of Schools Marni Campbell disagreed, noting that Principal Alvarez spent a month coordinating its implementation.

“I know she is highly committed to the global mission of the school,” Campbell said of Alvarez. “In a community where you’re talking about global citizenship, it’s also important to talk about American citizenship and what that means.”

Schoolwide debate

At John Stanford’s weekly coffee hour Friday, the pledge was a hot topic of conversation among the dozen or so parents in attendance.

Janet Robinson, the PTSA treasurer, argued that its recitation would be an opportunity to talk about an important representation of American freedom and liberty.

“It’s a symbol of our country,” said Robinson, who said she was not speaking on behalf of the PTSA.

“But it’s ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag,’ not even the country,” answered Jessica Rose, who has a fifth-grader in the school’s Japanese program. “I don’t think we should be making kids stand up and pledge to any one thing. It just totally goes against what this community is about.”

Students can decide not to participate, Robinson noted.

“But then it forces a kid to be ostracized,” chimed in Patrick Durocher, who has a son in kindergarten. “And a 5-year-old doesn’t have the ability to understand what they’re doing.”

While there are strong feelings on both sides, many other parents don’t really care and don’t understand why it’s a big deal.

Alayna Setter, who has a first-grader at the school, is one of them. “If people have a problem with it they have the right to opt out, so I don’t know why parents should have an issue with it.”

“It’s political correctness run amok,” she added. “People are bending over backward to make things issues that really aren’t issues.”

But for parents like Sides, it’s a very real issue.

A 26-year-old graduate student and single mother, Sides started crying as she described why she is so opposed to the pledge being recited in her daughter’s school. The explanation goes back to her partner, a Jamaican-born Navy serviceman who died just seven months after obtaining U.S. citizenship — and when his daughter was 1 ½.

Since then, Sides has worked hard to teach her daughter to think about the world as an integrated community, she said.

“This is an emotionally charged issue,” she said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com

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