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Friday, May 19, 2006 - Page updated at 09:34 AM

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Race may be a key topic in school closures

Seattle Times staff reporters

Making sure school closures are fair to all families has played a strong role in efforts to reorganize the Seattle district — and the focus on racial and economic diversity may only intensify.

At eight of the nine schools on a proposed closure list, a majority of students are poor enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, and at most of the schools, students of color are the majority. About half of the 59 traditional elementary schools in the district share those characteristics.

The Community Advisory Committee on School Facilities and Programs on Wednesday night recommended 12 buildings close in all. Of those, three school programs would move in their entirety, while students at the remaining nine would be dispersed to other schools. Two other programs would relocate, but their buildings would stay open, and two schools would merge.

"It looks pretty obvious that schools and families of color are impacted more. I think people are going to have to explain their rationale, why so many schools with minority populations are impacted," said Barry Dorsey, principal at Martin Luther King Elementary, which is slated for closure. "As an African-American male, that concerns me."

What's next


Citizens Advisory Committee seeks community input over the next week

Saturday: 3:30-5:30 p.m., Madison Middle School, 3429 45th Ave. S.W.

Monday: 6:30-8:30 p.m., Aki Kurose Middle School, 3928 S. Graham St.

Tuesday: 6:30-8:30 p.m., Meany Middle School, 301 21st Ave. E.

Wednesday: 6:30-8:30 p.m., Hamilton International Middle School, 1610 N. 41st St.

May 25: 6:30-8:30 p.m., Aki Kurose, for the bilingual community.

Other dates to watch

May 30: Committee gives its final closure list to Superintendent Raj Manhas.

June 2: Manhas issues preliminary recommendations.

July 3: Manhas submits final recommendations to School Board.

July 26: School Board votes on closure list.

A similar but failed proposal last year included more schools from parts of Seattle that are less diverse and more affluent, including the neighborhoods of Green Lake and Alki.

Neither School Board members nor Superintendent Raj Manhas would comment Thursday on the committee's recommendations.

Throughout the committee's deliberations, several board members expressed concern that few people of color had participated. And diversity, whether in closing the academic achievement gap among white students and students of color, or in ensuring resources are distributed equitably, has been a priority of the board.

Paul Hill, director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, said he talked with School Board members after the closure list was announced and found uneasiness about the process.

"School Board members are now saying they don't like the criteria and wished they'd done more upfront work," he said. Now he wonders if the board will vote for the closures, or if the district will have to start over.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there was another round of it," he said.

Committee co-chair Ken Alhadeff said the recommendations affect poor and minority students in part because that's the demographic profile of many Seattle students. His committee looked extensively at data about location, capacity and programs, he said, and choosing the schools to recommend was "a balancing act."

"We agree that there's something right with every one of these schools," he said.

But he said the committee's recommended changes would not widen the gap in resources and achievement among district schools. Each kid in a school that closes should end up in a better program, he said.

"One of the overriding issues from the first breath spoken was equity, and it has been kept in mind in every instance," he said.

Students at a school facing challenges might move to one that isn't. That would improve diversity, he said.

$4.8 million savings

The district has estimated that closing its original goal of 11 school buildings would save about $4.8 million a year. The 47,000-student district has not closed a school since 1989 despite declining enrollment.

The committee tweaked one closure proposal suggested by the community. Over the winter, the principals at Martin Luther King and T.T. Minor came up with a plan to merge their schools starting next year.

The committee agreed that current King students should move this fall to T.T. Minor, a school that is demographically similar, and finish elementary school there.

But in 2007-08, they said, to increase diversity, the enrollment boundaries for King would merge with those of McGilvra, a high-achieving, more affluent, mostly white school that is nearby.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary has shared a challenge with schools all over Seattle and the country: Test scores were falling among African-American boys.

Six years ago, the school decided "to take charge and say we're going to do something about it," Principal Winifred Todd said.

The school's innovative response was to divide boys and girls in most of their classes. Discipline problems dropped because kids were less likely to show off, and teachers could try different strategies for each gender. Test scores shot up, said district Education Director Pauline Hill.

But it didn't last. Despite the ingenuity, Thurgood Marshall, which is two-thirds black, was one of the schools targeted for closure in 2007-08. A major reason: falling test scores among African-American boys.

As news of the plan spread through the district Thursday, students at Thurgood Marshall gathered in front of the school around a plywood sign urging the community to come to a meeting next week.

Todd said she can't explain her students' academic performance, but she doesn't make excuses about it. She said she'll continue to seek ways to improve it.

"This is a school on the move. This is a school that is focused, that is intentional about its teaching."

Thurgood parents are organizing to fight the closures. PTSA President Mary Meullion said she was "caught off guard" by the threat of closure.

"I think focus is going to be on race," Meullion said. "Before, it was more global, like everyone got a piece of it. Now it feels like it's tilting, not 50-50 anymore. That's what is going to bring up the race card with a lot of people."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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