Midway through a January meeting about choosing a new superintendent, Seattle School Board member Darlene Flynn suggested candidates have...

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Midway through a January meeting about choosing a new superintendent, Seattle School Board member Darlene Flynn suggested candidates have a “clear understanding of institutionalized oppression” when it comes to improving grades of African-American students.

Her phrase prompted discussion among board members who wondered how the ideal applicant should answer their questions about racism in education. Board President Cheryl Chow asked: “What would be the correct answer? A correct answer in whose definition? I don’t know if there is a 100 percent right answer.”

In the end, the board agreed to a compromise in the job description that referred to “institutional factors contributing to the achievement gap,” but the anecdote reveals how school leaders often grapple with how to talk about race.

The district has created a consciousness of race issues through policy statements and board priorities, but often without clear direction or explanation. This tense atmosphere will confront superintendent candidates, likely to face questions about race during the first round of interviews with board members this week.

Compared to many other districts around the country, Seattle has staked out strong positions — its strategic plan, for instance, promises to dismantle institutional racism in the city’s public schools. A district administrator is paid $102,086 to accomplish that task, though there are disagreements on the board about whether widespread discrimination exists in the classrooms and administrative offices.

Navigating the sensitive waters of race has proven a tough go. Despite the district’s bold goals, actions such as last year’s debate over closing schools easily turn into crises fueled by charges that the board is insensitive to people of color.

Trying to close the gap

White enrollment in Seattle’s public schools has dropped precipitously since the 1970s, and ethnic minorities are now a majority of the 46,000 students.

Since 1986, the district has launched at least three plans to close the achievement gap between African-American students and other groups. An effort in 2002 pledged to erase racial disparities in three years. But last year, 73 percent of white 10th-graders passed all three parts of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, compared with 23.8 percent of black students.

The district has sought to determine how discrimination affects student learning, and its mission statement, adopted in 2004, reads: “We must recognize the impacts of institutional racism on student success and question any excuses for not making necessary changes.”

Institutional racism, as defined by the district, is “an indirect and largely invisible process that operates automatically and results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race.”

To combat bias, Superintendent Raj Manhas in 2004 created the Office of Equity and Race Relations and appointed its first director, Caprice Hollins, a licensed psychologist, charged with examining curriculum, textbooks and other policies.

She also runs workshops on cultural diversity for administrative staff and oversees teams of teachers, principals and parents who monitor race relations in schools.

In a recent interview, Hollins said she found no specific district program that was institutionally racist, but she pointed to summer break as an example of systemic problems. Initially devised to allow school-age children to help with farm labor, summer break serves no educational purpose, Hollins said, and the disruption puts struggling students further behind.

“It’s a system that’s in place that’s not questioning itself,” she said.

Hollins said people of color are constantly judged by the dominant white culture, and, unlike other ethnic minorities, there is nothing they can do about it.

“Jewish folks hid their cultural identity. Irish changed their name. Some groups can assimilate and others can’t. There’s one thing that will never change — and that’s the way I look,” said Hollins, an African American. “When people target you [a white person] for being racist because you’re white, people associate you with their collective experience. It’s about the power dynamic, understanding how your whiteness impacts people of color.”

Last year, Hollins’ Equity and Race Relations Web site attracted national attention when she defined “individualism” and a “future time orientation” as “those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and whiteness and devalue, stereotype and label people of color … “

After an outcry, she removed the statement, and has yet to finalize a new one. Her interim message reads: “Our intention is not to put up additional barriers or develop an ‘us against them’ mindset; nor is it to continue to hold onto unsuccessful concepts such as a melting pot or colorblind mentality.”

Can only do so much?

Michael DeBell, the School Board’s only white male, said he was “uncomfortable [with the assumption] that we are institutionally racist or an institutionally oppressive institution.”

Elected in November 2005, DeBell notes that he was not part of the board that wrote the mission statement. Discussions about race can be valuable for teachers and administrators, he said, but in the big picture, the Seattle School District has limited ability to change perceptions or history.

“We are an institution in a nation that has many historical legacies, and we as an institution are not going to be able to transform those legacies in some kind of bubble we create in the Seattle School District,” he said.

While districts across the nation struggle with raising test scores of minority students, it’s difficult to find language similar to what’s in Seattle’s official statements.

The Portland School District doesn’t use the word “racism” in its strategic plan; neither does Los Angeles or Boston.

For James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, ending racism is a noble goal, but difficult to measure.

Kelly said that eight years ago, when he assumed leadership of the Urban League, he requested the phrase “eliminate racism and poverty” be left out of the group’s mission statement. There was no way to truly gauge success, he said, and the same could be said for the Seattle School District.

“You can’t monitor what you can’t measure,” Kelly said. “I beg the question: How will you measure that what you’re doing is making a difference in the lives of 46,000 kids?”

Profile for candidates

On Tuesday, the board selected six superintendent candidates to interview, and it hopes to announce finalists next week.

To find the ideal person, the board adopted a nine-point profile, which calls for educators who have led a diverse urban district and demonstrated an ability to improve grades, among other criteria.

Flynn, one of the board’s two African Americans, said hopefuls should be able to provide specific answers on how racism affects student learning. “If a candidate can’t answer that question, I would have a really hard time with that candidate,” she said during the January meeting.

That statement was met with caution from DeBell, who suggested the district not be bound by a specific philosophical test: “It’s good to be fairly broad on something like this.”

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com