After experiencing a striking racial imbalance, Leschi Elementary altered a popular program that had drawn white families to a traditionally black school.

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From the outside, Leschi Elementary School seemed a model of diversity. Black, white and brown students filed through its doors each morning, and peace reigned on the playground.

Inside, the staff saw something different: Two schools, one mostly white, one mostly black, separate and unequal.

In one, eager parents donated money for fancy classroom equipment. In the other, many parents picked up provisions at the school food bank.

“The school was segregated, man,” said Gerald Donaldson, the school social worker, who dispenses donated groceries and clothing from his office. “It wasn’t right.”

Donaldson wasn’t the only one concerned about the split. It ate at teachers, too, and many parents — black, white and brown. The teachers, dealing with two very different sets of challenges, often felt at odds.

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While de facto segregation exists in many schools — here and across the nation — a coalition of activist parents, concerned teachers and a passionate principal decided they couldn’t live with it at Leschi.

Over the objection of some parents, they are transforming the school this year to ensure better racial balance in every classroom. They are modifying a special all-day Montessori program that had drawn many white families to the traditionally African-American school — and offering it to all.

“We wanted to be one school, one community,” said Brynnen Ford, whose son is a Leschi second-grader. “Being separated was bad for the staff’s morale, and it didn’t enhance their ability to make one great school for all kids.”

Students now spend half the day focusing on math in a Montessori classroom, where the learning is hands-on and kids have freedom to learn at their own pace. They will spend the other half in a regular classroom working through a curriculum used in many Seattle schools called “Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.”

They call the new approach “The Best of Both.”

Similar experiments are under discussion in other Seattle schools where tracked classes or special programs have exacerbated racial separation. At Washington Middle School, for example, all sixth-grade students from Spectrum, one of the district’s programs for the academically gifted, are being mixed with mainstream students this year.

The Spectrum classes were overwhelmingly white and Asian, said Susan Follmer, the Washington principal, and the regular classes were filled with students of color.

“The practice of rigid tracking is very antiquated and not supported by research that tells us how we can have success for all,” Follmer said. “It is a strange practice for district that says its number one goal is equity in education.”

Neither school has an easy path ahead.

The efforts underscore the challenges of uniting a school where socio-economic differences are vast — and a sensitive racial history hangs over every decision. They take place against the backdrop of increasing re-segregation in the Seattle schools due to the dismantling of school busing and a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed assigning students to schools on the basis of race.

At Leschi, several Montessori parents moved their kids to private school this year, and one even raised the specter of a lawsuit. It’s too early to say whether the school’s experiment will result in academic gains. But many parents and staff believe they will occur — and that the social gains will be immediate.

“I want my kids to have access to all different cultures and to be with kids from different backgrounds,” said Shana Abner, an African American who grew up across the street from Leschi, and whose younger son is in second grade there. “That’s the real world.”

A changing neighborhood

Leschi is located in a historically black neighborhood whose complexion has been rapidly changing due to gentrification.

When Donaldson, the school social worker, arrived 16 years ago, both students and staff were overwhelmingly black, and the school played a central role in the life of the African-American community, doubling as an informal community center.

“It was a safe haven,” said Donaldson, whose office is filled with Obama posters, food donations and secondhand clothing for students in need. “People just came in and felt at home.”

Over the years, many of the white families moving in chose to send their children to private schools or found other public-school options. But that started to change with the arrival of Montessori, an effort to boost Leschi’s sagging enrollment.

Along with the new program came a new principal. The old one, an 11-year Leschi veteran, was African American. The new one was white.

“People thought, ‘The white people are moving in,’ ” Donaldson recalled. “ ‘They’re going to get rid of us.’ ”

In the beginning, the Montessori classes were more racially balanced. But as word of the program spread, more white parents began enrolling their children, and the classes grew increasingly racially divided, with most of the black kids in conventional classrooms, known at Leschi as “contemporary” classes.

To illustrate the divide, Principal Rhonda Claytor opened a copy of last year’s school yearbook. On one page was a Montessori classroom with just two black faces peering out from rows of white students. Next to it, four white kids blended into a classroom that was predominantly black and brown.

Overall, the school population now stands at 368 — 48 percent black, 32 percent white, 9.5 percent multiracial, 7 percent Latino and 3.5 percent Asian.

Claytor, who is white, is in her third year at Leschi. She has two adopted African-American daughters, one of whom attends Leschi. Her wife is the former principal at Madrona K-8, a nearby school where racial tensions, also tied to rapid gentrification, erupted a few years ago.

It’s possible, Claytor said, that fewer white families will enroll at Leschi now that it no longer has a full-time Montessori option. But she hopes having a truly integrated school might actually draw more white families from the neighborhood.

“It’s time to do something”

Before Claytor arrived, the Leschi staff and many parents already had been worrying about the school’s racial split.

One of them was Abner, who had considered sending her older son, Jaisen, to a Catholic school, but changed her mind upon discovering that he would be the only black kid in class.

Leschi, she figured, would be more racially mixed. Her son started the contemporary program in kindergarten, and he was happy. But by the time he was in fourth grade, divisions had become stark.

On the first day of school, when he lined up behind his fourth-grade teacher, Abner noticed that every kid in her son’s contemporary class was black. “And I thought, it’s time to do something about this,” she said.

She got her chance when Claytor appointed an equity task force made up of teachers, parents and staff.

“We did a lot of talking about the school and the inequities that we saw,” said Abner, who co-chaired the task force. “We all kept coming back to the same idea: There were two schools under one roof.”

They collected information about the makeup of the programs, looking at race, socio-economic status and test scores. They sent questionnaires to parents, seeking their views.

Transitioning to an all-Montessori program was not possible. Each class requires $25,000 worth of special equipment and teacher training the district would no longer pay for.

Montessori, which has a fervent coterie of followers nationwide, uses a system of stations outfitted with the special equipment. Students move from station to station, choosing work that suits them, learning by doing.

Not all parents were enchanted by Montessori, said Andre Helmstetter, an African American who had chosen the program for his daughter. “Some of them thought it was too unstructured and that there wasn’t enough discipline.”

Helmstetter, a Montessori fan, sent his daughter to private school this year.

The task force considered adding a special feature to the contemporary classes, such as technology, to attract more white families, but abandoned the idea, fearing that a new program might compound divisions.

Then two K-1 teachers, Danielle Guzman and Valerie Chin, volunteered to pilot a blended Montessori and contemporary classroom.

“The happiest day of my educational life was when Valerie and Danielle told me they were willing to give a blended classroom a try,” Claytor said.

Chin, a Montessori teacher, and Guzman, who had a contemporary class, hoped the effort would promote unity not just among students, but also among teachers.

“My homeroom had seven English-language learners, Val’s had zero,” Guzman said. “I had four or five kids who lived in transitional housing, Val had none. Most of Val’s students had been to preschool, most of mine hadn’t.”

“It had become difficult to have healthy, positive staff meetings when essentially you had two schools with very different sets of problems,” she added.

At first, some parents had reservations. Would the kids be confused by having two teachers? Would communication breakdowns arise?

“There was some uncertainty,” Chin said. “But by the end, it was so fluid and smooth that we gained a lot of trust.”

Hopeful stories emerged.

Early in the year, Guzman encouraged a white Montessori kid to help out a black classmate in a wheelchair. The white boy declined, uncomfortable about approaching someone who seemed different. Two weeks later, she saw them cooking an imaginary dinner together in a play kitchen.

“They learned things from each other that we can’t teach — things that come from relationships,” Guzman said.

Abner was thrilled with the outcome. Her second son, Moriah, was part of last year’s blended K-1.

“He made new friends, and would come home and tell me about their traditions,” she said.

Bolstered by such stories, Claytor and the equity task force recommended blending the entire school. In November, the faculty approved the idea unanimously, and the School Board gave its OK three months later.

The task force held parent forums and the principal held a “Coffee with Claytor” to explain the changes. Not everyone was persuaded.

“They had been building something very successfully,” said Ari Brown, a white parent whose mixed-race daughter was in Montessori last year. “If they saw two different schools, with one approach being superior, then why not make more of an effort to figure out ways to recruit more students of color to enter it?”

The task force never collected sufficient data to make a compelling case, said Brown, a litigator. “If I’d made an argument like theirs with the evidence they had, I’d have been laughed out of court.”

His daughter’s combined fourth-/fifth-grade class was racially balanced — but the corresponding contemporary class of 31 children didn’t have a single white student.

Brown, who is sending his daughter to private school this year, is particularly bitter about one thing. “If you weren’t behind this blended program, you were viewed as being against racial equality. And that’s not right.”

He and other critics feared blending would gradually water down Montessori’s guided but independent learning.

But parents such as Steve Miranda view the change as a big improvement.

Intense and earnest, Miranda is a language-arts teacher at Franklin High whose daughter was in Montessori last year. He peppers his conversations with references to “social justice” and “institutional racism.”

“We have a long history in this country of separate and unequal, and that’s what was going on here,” he said. “The Leschi teachers had the guts to take a risk and try something different. That’s what I love about them.”