Racial and class differences splinter Madrona School
A large photo of smiling children hangs at the entrance of Madrona K-8. Superimposed across their faces is the caption: "This is who we are."
Most of the children in the photograph are African American.
A block away, a different portrait emerges — that of a gentrified neighborhood where residents meet to chat at the corner bakery and young mothers push strollers along a main street of small shops and restaurants.
On any given day, most of them are white.
In recent years, the school at the center of this neighborhood in Seattle's Central Area has undergone its own gentrification of sorts, as small numbers of middle-class white families began enrolling their children in a school that remains largely black and persistently poor.
The resulting conflict spotlights a challenge the Seattle School District faces as it tries to attract and keep middle- and upper-middle-class families, while intensifying efforts to help disadvantaged students achieve.
Some parents, even before their own children were old enough for Madrona, had tried to improve the school. That left some parents with children already at the school bristling at the suggestion that somehow it wasn't good enough.
The newer parents helped revive the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), started after-school programs and volunteered in classrooms. But in the end, some gave up, saying they didn't feel welcome, and last fall, several withdrew their children.
Madrona's principal, Kaaren Andrews, believes some left because, ultimately, they were uncomfortable with the school's racial balance. And she believes some of their expectations were unreasonable in a school whose most pressing priority is to help disadvantaged students succeed.
Some supporters of the principal agree, saying some who left expected private-school extras at an inner-city public school.
The result is a clash that speaks to race and class and achievement — where everyone seems to want what's best for the children yet is divided over how to get it.
In this school of 442 students, about 75 percent are black, 11 percent are white, and the others are of other races.
The hurt feelings are so widespread that the head of the PTSA asked Mayor Greg Nickels for help and the school district agreed to pay for a facilitator to bring the sides together.
The result was a meeting Tuesday night that drew about 175 past, present and future Madrona parents who, in often emotional comments, tackled the issue of race at the school. They spoke of Madrona K-8's role in meeting the wide-ranging needs of all their children.
Some white parents talked of wanting to feel that a school only blocks from their homes could be a place where their children could get a well-rounded education and where they could feel welcome donating their time.
Some black parents pointed out that their ethnicity is appreciated at a school like Madrona and expressed concerns over white families changing the school in the same way they've changed the neighborhood.
Ed Taylor, University of Washington dean of undergraduate academic affairs, helped establish a partnership between the school and the university. In an earlier conversation, Taylor said, "Here, you have an interesting confluence where kids living in Section 8 [low-income] housing are brought together with what might be the children of Microsoft millionaires.
"There are fundamental questions for that neighborhood: Can you thoughtfully have a multiracial school in which the needs of all kids are being met?"
Andrews' academic background and Ivy League credentials — Princeton, Stanford and Columbia universities — impressed some of the neighborhood parents when she came on board in 2004, and the white principal's race left a few to hope that she would embrace them.
There were already signs of change by the time she arrived. That year, the kindergarten class of 52 kids was one of the most diverse in years, with an almost equal number of black students and white.
Steven Orser's son was one of them.
Orser, who is white, has lived in the neighborhood 12 years. He had gone to school in Baltimore with children of all races and income levels, knew the racial mix at Madrona and wanted that for his kids, too.
He became active in the school three years before his eldest was enrolled. He was among those who helped revive the PTSA, serving as its treasurer for four years and volunteering in classrooms.
But in the end, he said, he never felt welcomed. Orser said the principal seemed to dismiss suggestions for reducing class sizes or incorporating art and music programs into the curriculum — something he felt would benefit all children.
"We had financial resources and people with all kinds of skills willing to help," Orser said. "It was clear she didn't want our money and was reluctant to give us direction."
Disillusioned, Orser transferred his son at the start of this school year to Lowell Elementary School, where he tested into the gifted program.
"The saddest day of my last 10 years was the day I realized my son would no longer be at Madrona — despite everything I'd put into it."
In the fall, two years after Andrews came to Madrona, nine families with those or other concerns followed him out of the school, withdrawing 11 students in all.
They were allowed to transfer under a federal law that requires the district to offer them a choice of other Seattle schools because so few of Madrona's fourth-graders passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) last year.
So much for racially-integrated schools.