As the Seattle school tries to help underprivileged students, some parents say their ideas for school programs have been rejected, and they've sent their children elsewhere. The clash of visions is a district-wide challenge.
A large photo of smiling children hangs at the entrance of Madrona K-8. Superimposed across their faces is the caption: “This is who we are.”
Most of the children in the photograph are African American.
A block away, a different portrait emerges — that of a gentrified neighborhood where residents meet to chat at the corner bakery and young mothers push strollers along a main street of small shops and restaurants.
On any given day, most of them are white.
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In recent years, the school at the center of this neighborhood in Seattle’s Central Area has undergone its own gentrification of sorts, as small numbers of middle-class white families began enrolling their children in a school that remains largely black and persistently poor.
The resulting conflict spotlights a challenge the Seattle School District faces as it tries to attract and keep middle- and upper-middle-class families, while intensifying efforts to help disadvantaged students achieve.
Some parents, even before their own children were old enough for Madrona, had tried to improve the school. That left some parents with children already at the school bristling at the suggestion that somehow it wasn’t good enough.
The newer parents helped revive the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), started after-school programs and volunteered in classrooms. But in the end, some gave up, saying they didn’t feel welcome, and last fall, several withdrew their children.
Madrona’s principal, Kaaren Andrews, believes some left because, ultimately, they were uncomfortable with the school’s racial balance. And she believes some of their expectations were unreasonable in a school whose most pressing priority is to help disadvantaged students succeed.
Some supporters of the principal agree, saying some who left expected private-school extras at an inner-city public school.
The result is a clash that speaks to race and class and achievement — where everyone seems to want what’s best for the children yet is divided over how to get it.
In this school of 442 students, about 75 percent are black, 11 percent are white, and the others are of other races.
The hurt feelings are so widespread that the head of the PTSA asked Mayor Greg Nickels for help and the school district agreed to pay for a facilitator to bring the sides together.
The result was a meeting Tuesday night that drew about 175 past, present and future Madrona parents who, in often emotional comments, tackled the issue of race at the school. They spoke of Madrona K-8’s role in meeting the wide-ranging needs of all their children.
Some white parents talked of wanting to feel that a school only blocks from their homes could be a place where their children could get a well-rounded education and where they could feel welcome donating their time.
Some black parents pointed out that their ethnicity is appreciated at a school like Madrona and expressed concerns over white families changing the school in the same way they’ve changed the neighborhood.
Ed Taylor, University of Washington dean of undergraduate academic affairs, helped establish a partnership between the school and the university. In an earlier conversation, Taylor said, “Here, you have an interesting confluence where kids living in Section 8 [low-income] housing are brought together with what might be the children of Microsoft millionaires.
“There are fundamental questions for that neighborhood: Can you thoughtfully have a multiracial school in which the needs of all kids are being met?”
“The saddest day”
Andrews’ academic background and Ivy League credentials — Princeton, Stanford and Columbia universities — impressed some of the neighborhood parents when she came on board in 2004, and the white principal’s race left a few to hope that she would embrace them.
There were already signs of change by the time she arrived. That year, the kindergarten class of 52 kids was one of the most diverse in years, with an almost equal number of black students and white.
Steven Orser’s son was one of them.
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The Seattle School District’s efforts to “eradicate” racism create a divide.
Orser, who is white, has lived in the neighborhood 12 years. He had gone to school in Baltimore with children of all races and income levels, knew the racial mix at Madrona and wanted that for his kids, too.
He became active in the school three years before his eldest was enrolled. He was among those who helped revive the PTSA, serving as its treasurer for four years and volunteering in classrooms.
But in the end, he said, he never felt welcomed. Orser said the principal seemed to dismiss suggestions for reducing class sizes or incorporating art and music programs into the curriculum — something he felt would benefit all children.
“We had financial resources and people with all kinds of skills willing to help,” Orser said. “It was clear she didn’t want our money and was reluctant to give us direction.”
Disillusioned, Orser transferred his son at the start of this school year to Lowell Elementary School, where he tested into the gifted program.
“The saddest day of my last 10 years was the day I realized my son would no longer be at Madrona — despite everything I’d put into it.”
In the fall, two years after Andrews came to Madrona, nine families with those or other concerns followed him out of the school, withdrawing 11 students in all.
They were allowed to transfer under a federal law that requires the district to offer them a choice of other Seattle schools because so few of Madrona’s fourth-graders passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) last year.
They were among 21 families — professionals and stay-at-home moms, double-income spouses and single parents, black families and white — who wrote letters to the district expressing a variety of concerns. Some live a block or two from the school, others live on the neighborhood fringe.
They wrote of crowded classrooms, harried teachers and other problems not necessarily unique to Madrona.
Some said that as the school focuses on the basics of math, reading and writing to ensure students pass the WASL, it denies others a richer educational experience.
But several of the white parents expressed less-tangible unease — that the administration seemed intent on keeping the school predominantly black. A few have all but accused the school’s white principal of being racist against them.
The sense of rejection some were feeling was confirmed by an e-mail sent to a parent that appeared to come from vice principal Brad Brown. It admitted that the school intentionally misassessed a white student’s reading skills to rid the school of his family and others critical of the administration, then bade them a “wonderful educational experience aboard the Mayflower.”
Brown and Andrews have vehemently denied sending the e-mail, saying those are not their sentiments and they’re unsure just how the e-mail got sent. Andrews said the school also apologized to the family.
To be sure, there are satisfied parents of all races at Madrona, many of them at last night’s meeting, who believe administrators are trying to serve all children there, and fault those who left for giving up too soon.
Tasha Baker, an African-American parent, said her children have done well at Madrona — the oldest going from failing to being an “A” student.
Andrews, the principal, has called academic achievement the most important civil-rights issue today and speaks of building confidence through learning.
Too often, she said, schools have failed the poor and disenfranchised.
“And we often don’t admit those have anything to do with race, but they are so intertwined.”
At Madrona, Andrews said, “We know all our students and can develop programs that meet all their needs. What we can’t do is give all our parents everything they want.”
“Every minute counts”
At 6 feet, Kaaren Andrews towers over most of the kids in her school. She moves in long, easy strides through the halls each morning, stopping in each classroom.
She checks first on kids with pressing personal matters — a child newly in foster care, another struggling with tragedy at home. Her hugs, when they come, sometimes seem awkward, given her height.
In the building’s middle school, she banters easily, urging a few hallway stragglers back to class, intoning the school’s oft-used motto: “Every minute counts.”
Principal at Blaine K-8 in Magnolia the previous two years, Andrews, 35, had headed schools in California and coached girls basketball at Seattle Preparatory School.
She believes some parents may have been unprepared for the hard realities of this school, where kindergartners and eighth-graders are under the same roof, and three out of every four students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Her 12-hour days are spent not just on curriculum, but on other forces inside and outside the building: among students, parents and teachers, police and social workers — even the cupcake shop on the corner or the convenience store down the street, whose employees know to call her if they have problems with a student.
Last year, Andrews said, she was escorting a group of black students from nearby Madrona Park after two got into a fight.
She wanted to get them back to school to talk about responsibility, about how what they do in the neighborhood reflects not just on them but on the school, when she encountered several white parents.
She said one asked: “How can you keep trying with those children?”
Her response: “How can I not?”
Gentrification moves in
There are few places in Seattle where the dichotomy between school and neighborhood exists to the extent it does in Madrona.
Once considered a working-class black neighborhood, gentrification came gradually to Madrona over the past couple of decades, and the neighborhood prides itself on its diversity.
Its homes include million-dollar dwellings that stretch toward Lake Washington and more modest houses to the west.
Throughout Seattle, school choice and middle-class flight have meant that many families send their kids to private schools or to public schools outside their neighborhood.
Madrona is no different.
Grace Schlitt Lenz, a white parent who has lived in Madrona for 17 years, said none of the 13 children living within a block of her goes there.
According to the district, 29 percent of the children living within the district’s boundaries for the neighborhood go to school there.
Many of the black children who do attend arrive by car or bus from the Central Area or elsewhere in the Seattle area. Many are kids or grandkids of people who went to Madrona school but later moved out as more whites moved in.
In the 1970s, an Advanced Placement Program (APP) for gifted students was started at Madrona, an attempt to desegregate the school.
Instead, it created what amounted to a two-tier system — the APP program drawing mostly white kids while many of the black students remained in the regular elementary system.
To try to remedy that, the school district moved the APP in 1997 to Lowell Elementary School — leaving Madrona, in the words of one longtime resident, “black and poor.”
Over the next few years, several factors changed the course of the school.
A baby boom of sorts among more-recent Madrona residents meant that by 2002, when a remodel was completed at Madrona, a new crop of kids was ready for kindergarten.
“We had a new facility and there was new excitement in the neighborhood,” said Orser, 39, the neighborhood father who withdrew his son last year.
Neighborhood parents, most of them white, largely ran the PTSA, and through donations from the community and other sources, raised more than $46,000 last year — money used for after-school programs, field trips and special projects.
At informal gatherings, they talked about whether this school could work for their kids. They liked that their children could walk there, and that they would be learning alongside kids from different backgrounds.
“I was happy as a clam that my son was going to school with others who didn’t look like him,” said Lenz, mother of a first-grader.
“It’s a great neighborhood and if [more neighborhood kids] went to the school, with all the volunteers we had, it would be the best in the city.”
There was enough interest among white parents that a waiting list sprouted for the first time three or four years ago — and grew.
Changing their minds
This new contingent of families was impressed by Andrews at first, but gradually grew disillusioned.
A particular sore point came when Andrews canceled the Spanish-language program the group had sponsored.
One parent who organized neighborhood fathers to build a shed and chairs for a learning garden said the school refused them weekend access to power and didn’t even thank them when the work was done.
From the beginning, “we were met with arms stuck out: ‘We don’t want your money, we don’t want your volunteering,’ ” said Lenz, who eventually took her child out of Madrona. ” ‘No art. No music. Just let us do our jobs.’ “
A few fret about their children having to sing what’s known as the black national anthem at assemblies. Its lyrics, which begin, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing … ,” are printed on the gymnasium wall.
Students spend 60 to 90 intense minutes each morning on core subjects like math, language and reading, and some parents believe Andrews is so focused on ensuring students pass the WASL that other areas of enrichment — such as music and art — are short-changed. Another complaint: Only kindergartners get recess breaks. Tensions boiled over at the start of this school year when the closing of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School contributed to overcrowding in some Madrona classes.
“Make it a good place”
Andrews acknowledges that she didn’t always respond to some of these parents or give them what they wanted.
“If I spent all my time meeting with parents, I wouldn’t be able to ensure my promise to them, which is that their children get the best education possible.”
She said some of what they wanted, like using PTSA funds to buy down class sizes and retain a Spanish instructor, are tricky — if not prohibited — given the district’s contract with its teachers union.
And the school does have extracurricular programs after school — from music, dance and ceramic art to hair-braiding — in which 65 percent of the students participate.
“I’m not prepared to pull kids out of math and let them go out to do gardening,” Andrews said. She dismisses the claim that teachers at Madrona teach to the WASL, saying they teach instead to a standard that benefits all children.
“The fact remains you have to pass the WASL to graduate from high school in this state,” she said.
And there are many parents who get what she’s trying to do.
Dozens recently signed a letter to the district celebrating the school’s achievements over the past year, including a 20 percent increase in benchmark scores for math and reading.
Jon Hughes, a white parent of two students, said he believes in the principal’s mission, and that “her heart’s in the right place.”
“That’s my kids’ school,” he said. “I’ll do all I can to make it a good place.”
Clifton Jackson, a black social worker who owns a martial-arts training dojo in the Central Area, last year transferred his son to Madrona, where he’s an “A” student.
And “socially, my son has progressed light years in coming to Madrona.”
Scott Houghton, a white parent of three and president of the PTSA, downplays the role of race in the conflict.
“It has nothing to do with color, but a great education for all our children.” The administration is on track to turn things around, he said, and parents just need to be patient.
The UW’s Taylor, who spent several years building a partnership between the school and the university, said “in the end, there are no villains or heroes” in this conflict.
“You have educators who want to serve all kids well,” he said. “And you have parents who want to send their children to the neighborhood school.
“The problem is, the work of integrating these visions so they become one is far more complicated than people have understood.”
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org