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.
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.
“The saddest day”
But several of the white parents expressed less-tangible unease—that the administration seemed intent on keeping the school predominantly black. A few have all but accused the school’s white principal of being racist against them.
Gentrification moves in
There are few places in Seattle where the dichotomy between school and neighborhood exists to the extent it does in Madrona.
Once considered a working-class black neighborhood, gentrification came gradually to Madrona over the past couple of decades, and the neighborhood prides itself on its diversity.
Its homes include million-dollar dwellings that stretch toward Lake Washington and more modest houses to the west.
Throughout Seattle, school choice and middle-class flight have meant that many families send their kids to private schools or to public schools outside their neighborhood.
According to the district, 29 percent of the children living within the district’s boundaries for the neighborhood go to school there.
Many of the black children who do attend arrive by car or bus from the Central Area or elsewhere in the Seattle area. Many are kids or grandkids of people who went to Madrona school but later moved out as more whites moved in.
In the 1970s, an Advanced Placement Program (APP) for gifted students was started at Madrona, an attempt to desegregate the school.
Instead, it created what amounted to a two-tier system—the APP program drawing mostly white kids while many of the black students remained in the regular elementary system.
To try to remedy that, the school district moved the APP in 1997 to Lowell Elementary School—leaving Madrona, in the words of one longtime resident, “black and poor.”
Changing their minds
This new contingent of families was impressed by Andrews at first, but gradually grew disillusioned.
A particular sore point came when Andrews canceled the Spanish-language program the group had sponsored.
One parent who organized neighborhood fathers to build a shed and chairs for a learning garden said the school refused them weekend access to power and didn’t even thank them when the work was done.
From the beginning, “we were met with arms stuck out: ‘We don’t want your money, we don’t want your volunteering,’” said Lenz, who eventually took her child out of Madrona. “‘No art. No music. Just let us do our jobs.’”
A few fret about their children having to sing what’s known as the black national anthem at assemblies. Its lyrics, which begin, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing . . .” are printed on the gymnasium wall.
Students spend 60 to 90 intense minutes each morning on core subjects like math, language and reading, and some parents believe Andrews is so focused on ensuring students pass the WASL that other areas of enrichment—such as music and art—are short-changed. Another complaint: Only kindergartners get recess breaks. Tensions boiled over at the start of this school year when the closing of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School contributed to overcrowding in some Madrona classes.