When I was 9 years old, I left my father's Interbay rental every day at 7:30 a.m. and trudged to the top of Queen Anne Hill, where I caught an orange school bus on a silent, tree-lined street. The bus was filled with white public school students, and the journey southward was 12 miles, taking me through downtown and Georgetown and then up to Cleveland High School atop Beacon Hill. At Cleveland, the older kids were dropped off. Then the bus turned back northward for a short ride to Beacon Hill's Maple Elementary School, where it dropped off some of the younger kids. After that came a somewhat longer ride north to my own elementary school, Kimball, where the rest of us got off. It took an hour to get me to school, all told, and along the way I would read Gary Paulsen or anthropomorphize container cranes. When the bus door opened at Kimball, I stepped out onto a stark concrete playground. From other buses, other kids would emerge. There on the playground we pooled: Vietnamese kids from South Beacon Hill, black kids from the Central District, rich kids from Mount Baker, poor kids from Rainier Valley, and more white kids from Interbay. It was as diverse as downtown Seattle but with one key difference: We interacted.
In total, 10 of my 13 years in Seattle Public Schools involved long rides on a school bus. Between the ages of 6 and 9 alone, I logged thousands of miles looking at the city from a green vinyl seat. This is true for thousands of Seattleites. Seattle Public Schools used busing from the late 1970s through the mid-2000s in the hopes of achieving racial integration. To give just one snapshot of the program's breadth: In 1980, mandatory busing involved 12,000 of the district's 54,000 students.
These days, when I tell my busing history to the white and usually privileged around me, most have no idea that Seattle once prioritized integrating schools. I do my narrative best to convey how rich my Seattle education was. It was standing in line to get up in tetherball and cheering with Mario and Keeghan. It was reading in between a girl who had been to Paris and one who had fled Vietnam. It was watching the OJ verdict with black kids and getting so caught up, I joyfully sprinted in the halls with them for a second. I had front-row seats at the intersection of race and class for all of my formative years, and I am a better person for it.
"So what happened?" people ask when I tell this story. I downshift. I tell them that Seattle gradually phased out the integration-through-busing program. I sense their doubts and wonders. Was my busing experience just that of a lucky outlier? Is mine the story of a privileged nostalgist who doesn't recognize that he yearns for an ineffective and outdated policy that failed?
That last doubt always stresses me: What if they're right?
In order to understand the current state of Seattle's public schools, it's necessary to know Seattle's history with integration.
The work of integrating Seattle's schools was rooted in the US Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, in which the high court ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and unconstitutional. In 1962, the NAACP, citing the Brown case, sued the Seattle School Board, claiming that the ship canal was a de facto racial dividing line creating segregated schools. The NAACP settled out of court when Seattle created a voluntary transfer program to lessen racial imbalance, and from then until 1977, Seattle tried to "dip its toe" in integration, enacting initially small policies like voluntary busing, then a small-scale middle-school desegregation plan, and then magnet programs. None of these programs significantly integrated schools.
In 1977, due to the threat of additional lawsuits from the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others for perpetuating a segregated system—not to mention the looming threat of federal intervention—the Seattle School Board took a more drastic step. With a vote of 6–1, the board expanded its busing program to include all schools in the district as a means of racially integrating schools. The Seattle Plan, as it was called, first sent particular students to particular elementary schools in order to create racial balance. Middle and high schools followed suit.
Violence characterized mandatory busing across the country in the 1970s. In Boston, police had to escort black students to white schools as onlookers threw bottles and stones at them. The Ku Klux Klan blew up buses outside of Detroit. However, physical contentiousness was completely absent in Seattle. My own grandfather, Daniel Riley, the district's director of student relations at the time, was quoted by the Seattle Times in 1978: "We haven't had any screamers. We've had some seethers—a stew kind of boiling—but no significant tantrums."
There was contentiousness nonetheless, Seattle style, which in some ways was more insidious. That contentiousness was conveyed through voting, the specter of "white flight," and white people working the system to their advantage. Six weeks after the school board's vote to expand Seattle's integrated busing program, the Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee (CIVIC) launched a ballot initiative to prohibit students from going to schools that were across the city from their homes. Sixty percent of Seattleites voted "yes" for this initiative. Though the initiative was deemed unconstitutional two years later by the US Supreme Court, its broad local support revealed deep fissures among Seattleites and, in general, insufficient dedication to integrating our city's schools. The episode also suggests that when Seattle avoided federal intervention, many residents got the idea that school integration was "optional" and that there were ways to work around it. All of these problems eventually contributed to the slow, decades-long death of integrated busing in Seattle.
Over that same period, white families also discovered ways to ensure integration worked mainly for them. Magnet programs exploded to try to attract white families to minority schools. In 1977, there were 27 magnet programs in Seattle's public schools. In 1982, there were 57. As a result, segregated classrooms came to exist within technically integrated schools—white kids in the magnet classes, kids of color in the "regular" classes—a problem still very much present in many Seattle schools today. According to Laura Kohn's Priority Shift: The Fate of Mandatory Busing for School Desegregation in Seattle and the Nation, white families were more likely to manipulate the system by pulling strings, simply putting their children in private schools, or moving to the Eastside. In 1965, there were roughly 80,000 white kids in Seattle Public Schools; in 1975, there were 50,000; by 1985, there were 25,000. Cities like Detroit were stark reminders of the direst scenarios of white flight, and that specter hung over all of the Seattle School Board's decisions. Consciously or not, white families leveraged this fear.
By 1989, public support for busing waned despite then-mayor Norm Rice's support for the policy. The district abandoned the Seattle Plan and instead adopted "controlled choice." This new policy permitted families to rank their choices from a menu of schools. They would get their top choice, as long as it created racial balance. Though vocally supported by city leaders, an antibusing initiative soon appeared on Seattle ballots, promising to provide 6 percent of city tax revenues to Seattle Public Schools if they got rid of mandatory busing. Voters passed the initiative, but the school board refused the money, so the initiative had no effect.
Many people, particularly from the African American community, argued during these years that kids of color were disproportionally bused. For every seven kids of color bused, only one white kid was. (Data shows that English language learners—kids from families that could not advocate in the system—were the most disproportionally bused of all.) The fact of disproportional busing was exacerbated partly by the logistics of integrating schools in a white-majority city, but it was also due to the fact that white students were much less likely to attend their assigned school. Instead of attending their assigned school, the families would enroll their children in a magnet program, complain to the school district until they got the placement they really wanted, or send their children to private school. (Currently, 30 percent of all students in Seattle attend private school, one of the highest private school percentages in the nation, and a legacy of white flight.)
In 1995, school superintendent John Stanford—skeptical of integrated schools—suggested kids of color on buses were actually achieving less than kids who didn't take the bus. It was a dubious statistical claim, but the media did not challenge it, nor did the district. A sea change began. Some even started arguing that the Brown decision, in retrospect, was racist. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."
In 1997, Seattle Public Schools replaced "controlled choice." It was time for another new model, in which any student could attend any school, as long as there was space. The district created a series of tiebreakers to be used when space at a particular school was at a premium; one of those tiebreakers was race. This new plan was in no way a meaningful strategy to integrate schools effectively, but it was immediately controversial. In 2000, a group in Seattle called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the district, claiming the policy violated a ban on using racial preferences in public education. Their case, which became paired with a similar Louisville case, arrived at the US Supreme Court in 2006. The high court, drastically altering the legacy of Brown, concluded that public schools couldn't use race as the sole determining factor for assigning students to schools. Though Louisville—with waves of public support—vowed to figure out another means to integrate its schools, Seattle shrugged. Here, the new Supreme Court decision was welcomed. Our city's attempts at using busing to integrate our schools ended—not because integration failed, but because Seattle failed integration.
The worst part is this: Integration worked in Seattle. In fact, it worked across the United States.
As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out in last summer's award-winning report "The Problem We All Live With," in 1971 there was a 40-point gap between the achievement of black students and white students in America. In other words, black students scored 40 percent worse on reading tests. In 1988—the apex of busing, and the year I was getting on my bus to Kimball—the gap was slashed to 18 percent. In addition, one of the major fears of white families—that white kids in integrated schools would receive worse educations—did not come to pass.
Numerous other reports from five decades of research, whether from the Atlantic or Harvard or KUOW, demonstrate significant gains during the integration movement.
For example, Harvard's Gary Orfield found that kids who attended integrated schools in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s report greater confidence in interacting with diverse groups of adults. They demonstrate greater willingness to talk about controversial topics across racial lines. Almost all black and Latino students who made it to elite law schools in the 2000s attended integrated K–12 schools. When in college, young people who attended integrated schools demonstrated more complex thinking.
According to Columbia's Amy Stuart Wells, integrated schools helped people overcome fear and distrust of people who were different. "They found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives," Wells wrote.
The Century Foundation found that students in integrated schools have higher test scores, are more likely to enroll in college, are less likely to drop out of high school, are more creative, and solve problems better. Furthermore, students who attend integrated schools are less biased and more likely to seek out integrated settings as adults. On top of that, integrating schools is more effective than providing supplemental funding to "poor" schools.
Louisville, which maintained integrative policies despite the 2006 Supreme Court ruling, has seen significant positive changes in the city. In 1970 in Louisville, 98 percent of suburban residents opposed the integration plan. In 2011, 89 percent supported it. Furthermore, their constancy with integrated busing and their moves to eliminate ways out of integration (the death knell in Seattle) in fact helped housing across the Louisville area. (In 2008, Seattle School Board members suggested schools couldn't integrate until neighborhoods did.) Because home buyers in Louisville knew that all schools had the same racial composition and were provided the same resources, housing segregation in Louisville actually decreased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010.
Locally, graduates from Seattle Public Schools who attended integrated schools include Hari Sreenivasan, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Macklemore, Lindy West, Eli Sanders, Monisha Harrell, and countless others working to make Seattle a better city. These individuals epitomize SPS graduates of the era: culturally flexible, complex thinkers.
Sir Mix-A-Lot, who was bused from the Central District to Eckstein and later Roosevelt, called busing "the best thing that could have happened to me."
Nationally, momentum is rebuilding around integration, particularly in light of the failures of education's so-called Era of Accountability. Constant use of metrics has not, as promised, "moved the dial" on issues such as the achievement gap and college completion. President Barack Obama included $120 million in his most recent budget to support district work to integrate schools, and the New York Times editorial board argued in February for a new wave of integration. Much of their advocacy is framed by the fact that the United States will be a "minority-majority" nation by 2044. In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Somali parents and the superintendent collaborated to redraw school boundary lines to ensure more racially balanced schools. Districts in Champaign, Illinois; Louisville, Kentucky; Berkeley, California; and Cumberland, Rhode Island, have used algorithms to create socioeconomic balance in schools.
Much of this work is a reaction to extreme resegregation in America. For example, 53 percent of African American students in this country attend schools where whites make up less than 1 percent of the school.
While 32 states are doing work around reintegrating schools, Washington State is not one of them. Rather, Seattle is doing the opposite of integration.
Racial balance is long gone in most Seattle schools. Schools that in my childhood were nearly half white and nonwhite (Brighton, Dunlap, Van Asselt) are nearly all-minority again. Twenty of Seattle's schools consist of 90 percent or more students of color.
Seattle isn't only resegregating; the district as a whole is becoming less diverse.
Seattle is losing its students of color and students living in poverty at an appalling rate to the districts immediately south of here—or families of color aren't coming here at all. (For all of Seattle's vocal support of, for example, refugees, it must be understood that refugees no longer end up in Seattle due to the cost. They settle in Tukwila and SeaTac. This is an example of Seattle being verbally progressive without having to actually help or sacrifice.) The points of view, experiences, and intelligence of people of color should be encouraged and seen as assets in a culturally diverse school system. Instead, people of color are being priced out and ending up in South King County, in schools that are approaching apartheid status.
This increasing isolation of students devastates everyone, as I've seen firsthand on both ends of the disparate spectrum.
Starting in 2006, I taught language arts at Global Connections High School in SeaTac. For many years, it was, to me, the most special place on the planet. The student body was a blend of musicians, refugees, undocumented kids, gangsters, part-time students/full-time busboys, working-class white kids, and just good, sweet children. We did all the things we knew made for a strong learning community. We were small. We had a mentor school. We collaborated across grade levels and disciplines, included student voices in our decisions, and personalized teaching. We tried to cultivate a garden rather than solve a problem. There I earned my national board certification as well as the Evergreen State College Distinguished Educator of the Year Award.
During the Great Recession, three things happened in concert: (1) The grant money we had ran out. (2) The white students—the last vestiges of the white working-class origins of South King County—graduated. (3) The Era of Accountability arrived.
In recession America, those "nice-to-haves" (thorough training, including students in meetings, talking about feelings) vanished and were replaced by a methodical, empirical, efficient model of teaching. The sudden flurry to efficiently help poor kids resulted not in a radical reinvention of schooling, but a ratcheting up of tasks and stress. Notions of learning about one's self—learning about one's passions—were eradicated. We were going to save kids through clearer learning outcomes, strategic interventions, and research-backed practices. So what if our one copy machine was down for a week? We would not accept excuses. We wouldn't even trust our observations. We were going to help them. We were going to get the goddamn numbers up by any means necessary.
The only numbers that went up were the ones that reflected an inequitable, segregating society. From my first to last year at Global, our students of color went from 70 percent to 90 percent, our students living in poverty from 50 percent to 75 percent, our kids with special needs from 12 percent to 21 percent, and English language learners from 20 percent to 27 percent. Due to the 46 percent increase in total student population, we divided classrooms in half with particleboard. Our students got more poor and brought in more of the challenges that come with poverty at the exact same time we were being asked to increase graduation rates and test scores while decreasing suspensions. I can guarantee that if we'd had more privileged kids at Global, the parents would have rightfully demanded, and secured, more holistic approaches.
After nine years, I was fried. If I was going to be an active participant in maintaining the status quo, I was going to do it comfortably in my very own classroom for a change.
This year, I landed at Catharine Blaine K-8 in Magnolia. Like Global, the kids inspire, entertain, and cause hours of reflection. They love books, arguing, and analyzing. All the things we know improve kids' lives and brains are here: parks, community centers, tasty school lunches, read-alouds, extracurricular activities before and after school, ample support. Here there are three photocopiers. Sometimes the students do things that reveal their sense of privilege, and I do my best to help them understand other points of view, but it's difficult when that message comes out of a white guy's mouth. From 2006 until now, the number of Blaine students living in poverty dropped from 14 percent to 8 percent.
More than any other feeling—and I have many—when I think of the vast differences in Seattle's public schools today, I grieve more than I rage. All kids are missing out on the opportunity to know one another, to know "the other," to envision new ways to be and understand. My students at Blaine do not get to hear about the experiences of living in a Kenyan refugee camp; they are not forced to wonder why one group of people has so unfathomably little and another so unconscionably much. They don't often feel the discomfort necessary for self-examination, and they don't often feel the disgust necessary for righteous action. For my former students in SeaTac, dilapidated, harried schools are their ecosystem. Many have little understanding of what truly exceptional scholarship looks like. Many believe they cannot question power because those with power aren't even in the room, and never will be. Many internalize the institutionalized racism around them: This is what we deserve.
The kids at my new school and the kids at my old school will never, ever interact under our current model.
And this is what I find most disheartening: Kids at both schools seem to already understand what their positions will be in life. School? School is how you pass the time before you take that position on.
So what do we do?
We must prioritize getting different kinds of young people working and learning together again. Therefore, we must prioritize reintegration.
First off, the Seattle Public School District—a district that currently disciplines black kids four times more often than whites—must immediately increase professional development around culturally responsive and socially just instruction. When schools resegregate, staff stagnate. We must ensure that classrooms use all students' identities and knowledge as entry points. It takes incredible skill and openness to develop these abilities, and Seattle needs to commit serious resources to the work.
Seattle teachers should also blaze the trail on creating cross-district and inter-district collaborations. There is evidence, from groups such as Narrative 4 in New York City, that writing projects between disparate groups of students generate radical empathy, develop cultural flexibility, and nurture authentic writing skills. Writers in the Schools (WITS) and I are currently developing a collaborative writing project between Blaine and South End middle schools. As Seattle continues to segregate, these projects should extend beyond our district's borders. Seattle Public Schools should look into applying for federal grant money to facilitate this work.
In the long-term, I propose something called the Seattle Civics Academy. Pulling students from all over the district, this would be a semester-long program that all Seattle high-school students would participate in at some point in their school careers. They would get to choose when, but no student could opt out—the overwhelming flaw in Seattle's integration plan. Five days a week, all day long, students from across the city would attend completely inclusive classes that examine race, class, and gender through the lenses of math, language arts, and other disciplines. Teachers highly trained in socially just and culturally responsive teaching would emphasize and promote communicating across differences and fighting for a more just city and society. Each semester's cohort would create an activism project to improve the city and its citizens' lives. Such work would break down isolation, facilitate access to power, and promote harmony and empathy. Frankly, I also believe it would be fucking awesome.
Furthermore, the citizens of Seattle must demand more racially and socioeconomically integrated and balanced schools, supported by better funding from our state legislature. (This year, lawmakers in Olympia once again failed to fix Washington State's unconstitutional underfunding of its public education system. To fix Seattle's equity problems, we're going to have to address that outrage, too.) Locally, we need to be asking ourselves and our neighbors: Do we truly think we are better separate than together? Do we think it's healthy to have a public school on one side of our city with 8 percent free/reduced lunch, and on the other side of our city, a school where that number is 95 percent? As demonstrated in Louisville, integrating schools can be done more smartly than ever before, and with profoundly positive effects on other chronic urban challenges (such as housing segregation). Seattle should start analyzing census data for educational attainment, household income, and other factors. Based on that data, the school district should then map out—and, as needed, create—geographic clusters of schools that contain socioeconomically diverse blocks of students. Within those geographic clusters, the district should then use busing to create more socioeconomically integrated schools.
Finally, we must watch for Seattle-centricity. As our city grows, we must recognize the impacts this growth has on the county. Regional leaders from Seattle and across King County must examine the ties between housing affordability and school segregation. Even with Mayor Ed Murray's ambitions to build 20,000 new units of affordable housing in the next 10 years, Seattle runs the risk of being an overwhelmingly white and privileged city that espouses progressivism without doing anything progressive. Seattle, King County, and the 20 school districts in the county must develop new ways to collaborate and ensure equity.
When I was an elementary-school student roaming Kimball's playground and, later, a teenager roaming the halls of Garfield High School, I fell in love. I fell in love with difference. I wanted as much difference as I could get, and I was lucky: Seattle's public schools had a bounty of it then.
I assumed the rest of the city would be like my experience in Seattle Public Schools. I assumed that when I turned 18, I would graduate seamlessly into a city as eclectic, connected, and diverse as my fellow students were.
Instead, I arrived to a disconnected community. In a way, it makes sense.
Back then, we were learning at schools where integration had to be forced through external laws and policies. Of course we didn't emerge from those schools into an integrated society.
Now, given our schooling, we're the ones who must create one.
Sean Riley was raised in Seattle and has been an educator in Seattle and Highline Public Schools for 10 years.