When Seattle school leaders announced plans to close 10 schools last month, they paused to note that no schools would get the ax in Queen...

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When Seattle school leaders announced plans to close 10 schools last month, they paused to note that no schools would get the ax in Queen Anne or Magnolia.

People in the crowd jeered.
“That figures!” shouted a woman seated next to me from Beacon Hill, a neighborhood in the south part of the city.

Now that the Seattle School District has shelved its plan to close schools, it still must figure how to balance its budget.

But the real challenge is this resentment of the north that seethes across South, Central and West Seattle.

We are a city divided. It’s not really a geographic divide, but one of race, class, and educational opportunity. Sometimes it’s real and other times just perception.

It may soon widen, unless someone steps up and leads.

Here’s a fact lost in the recent hubbub: Public school enrollment is falling across the south side of the city. Yet it’s rising in the north, quite fast in the richer, whiter enclaves.

North of downtown — Queen Anne, Magnolia and north of the ship canal — the number of public school kids will rise 17 percent in the next decade, the district projects.

It will drop 14 percent across Central, West and South Seattle, where there are more poor students and minorities.

Jeers notwithstanding, the district was right not to propose closing schools in tony Queen Anne and Magnolia. The number of public school kids living there is expected to skyrocket 36 percent.

These demographic realities put us on a collision course with the issues of race and class that bedevil this city.

The numbers say we still need to shutter schools in the years ahead. And those closures must be in the shrinking south. The district may be forced to open new schools in the booming north.

That’s nothing like the plan that just failed. School leaders need to level with us. Spreading the closures evenly around the city didn’t work because it was contradicted in the north by the district’s own data.

It makes sense to close schools where enrollment is falling. It’s politically volatile, but that means closures only in the south, West Seattle, and my own area, Central Seattle.

The district should make up for this inequity by simultaneously launching an aggressive campaign to improve the South End schools that remain.

Give Montessori programs preferentially to South End elementaries. Put magnet programs in south middle schools, and more advanced placement classes in south high schools.

No one likes school closures. But people are more apt to accept a new school if they know it’s better than their old one.

I find hope for this approach in a report a few years ago by two leading black civil-rights groups, the Urban League and the NAACP. They were willing to give up race-based admission to schools as long as they got real improvements to South End schools in return.

They made a point we all should take to heart. If we had quality schools throughout the city, they said, we’d have nothing to fight about anymore.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.