The Seattle Times Looks Back At Seattle’s Efforts to Desegregate

/ August 3, 2023

In May, the Seattle Times ran an extensive two-part story detailing the Seattle School District’s efforts to desegregate what was in 1960, and has again become, a highly segregated school district. The articles, by Seattle Times reporter Dahlia Bazzaz, include a variety of interactive charts and graphs with multiple sources of data, from the historical racial makeup of every school in the Seattle School District to the past and current effects of redlining. Both articles contain historic photographs and a score of links to relevant articles, court cases, and policy decisions involving desegregation efforts, as well as efforts to undo them. Both articles note the district’s return to levels of segregation not seen in forty years and serve as proof that the efforts of RARE and other racial equity groups are as important as ever.

Also included are thoughts and recollections on their Seattle Schools experiences from RARE’s Lea Vaughn, and Michelle Osborne. Michelle is featured in a video recounting her time at Roosevelt when she was a victim of a counselor’s low expectations that caused her to miss an opportunity to attend UC Berkeley, her dream school.

The first article, “Why Seattle Schools are more segregated today than the 1980’s”, details the District’s busing efforts. The first began in 1963 when 250 students volunteered to bus out of their neighborhoods in order to integrate. All but 17 were Black. Voluntary busing peaked in 1970 when 2,600 students voluntarily bused, all but 400 were Black or Asian. Several current RARE board members were in that historic wave of voluntary transfer students.

When the District enacted a mandatory busing program in the late 1970s, Seattle Public Schools became the nation’s first large school district to voluntarily desegregate. Unlike the deep south, where schools were once segregated by law, Seattle’s were segregated due to redlining and racist property covenants that resulted in a clear racial dividing line at Seattle’s Ship Canal.

The integration effort was successful. By the early 1990’s only 14% of white school kids attended majority white schools. However, as the article notes, other factors impeded integration of the city’s youth. These included “White Flight” and the “Advanced Placement Program” later named “Highly Capable Cohorts”, designed to stem white exodus but resulted in primarily white honors classes.

Desegregation efforts have always been contentious. Stark black and white photographs from the time highlight the angst over the District’s efforts to desegregate. One telling photo shows a packed auditorium of mostly white parents at Eckstein Junior High School in 1970, gathered en masse as school board members discussed proposed integration efforts.

The second article, “Seattle chose integration. But then it fell apart”, includes videos and quotes from those affected by the District’s efforts to address inequities and those opposed to them. In a linked KUOW article, Busing Blues: When Seattle Sent Black Kids To White North End, Anthony Ray, who grew up in the projects at 19th and Yesler, praised busing. It took him from a poor Central District neighborhood to Eckstein and later Roosevelt, both in northeast Seattle. The experience afforded him a music education that helped launch his successful professional career as Sir-Mix-a-Lot.

In a powerful video, Michelle Osborne describes her experiences at Roosevelt where she excelled in the classroom and in track and cross country. As college decision letters came in, her first-choice, UC Berkeley, said her application was incomplete as they hadn’t received the required letter from her high school counselor. When she went to see him, her counselor told her he hadn’t sent the letter to any of her choices, because he didn’t think she was “college material”. Even without his recommendation, Princeton thought otherwise, and Michelle headed east.

The District’s attempts to integrate were dealt a death knell when a group of white north end parents sued to have the District’s racial tie-breaker tossed, prompting Ballard principal David Engle to resign in protest. In defending the District’s policy Engle said, “How do you address long-standing historical disparities without paying attention to race? It can’t be done.”

The Supreme Court would later rule for the Ballard parents, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Seattle’s neighborhoods are still segregated; a legacy of redlining, racist covenants, and inherited wealth. And Seattle’s schools have reverted to segregated levels not seen since the early 1960’s. Lea Vaughn echoed many of today’s business and education leaders when she said, “It’s still going to be a multicultural world when those kids graduate.”

Busing is not an option for today’s equity efforts within the schools. SPS superintendent Brent Jones stated that “Families have told us that serving students close to home is a community value and important.” The article does provide a few looks into various efforts within the District toward equity in the schools. One is to phase out the Highly Capable Cohort model by 2028.

Former RARE Open Discussion guest and School Board president, Brandon Hersey called for a better “prioritization” of District funds, such as those going to build a new Rainier Beach High School. West Seattle Elementary Principal Pamala McGowan-Conyers has seen a turnaround in her school’s low scores after receiving a federal grant. She plans to open an academy within her school focusing on science and arts. The founding of RARE was noted as one of several community efforts to advance racial equity.

RARE is a product of Seattle’s historic attempts to integrate. The meeting of students of different races and backgrounds over fifty years ago was a positive first step toward racial equity in our city. RARE, with its Connections Program, James Davis Scholarship, and its Open Discussions, is continuing those steps.