Racism Tough To Tackle—Or Even Talk About—For Seattle School Board

Alex Fryer, Seattle Times, March 29, 2007

Midway through a January meeting about choosing a new superintendent, Seattle School Board member Darlene Flynn suggested candidates have a “clear understanding of institutionalized oppression” when it comes to improving grades of African-American students.

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In the end, the board agreed to a compromise in the job description that referred to “institutional factors contributing to the achievement gap,” but the anecdote reveals how school leaders often grapple with how to talk about race.

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Compared to many other districts around the country, Seattle has staked out strong positions—its strategic plan, for instance, promises to dismantle institutional racism in the city’s public schools. A district administrator is paid $102,086 to accomplish that task, though there are disagreements on the board about whether widespread discrimination exists in the classrooms and administrative offices.

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Trying to close the gap

White enrollment in Seattle’s public schools has dropped precipitously since the 1970s, and ethnic minorities are now a majority of the 46,000 students.

Since 1986, the district has launched at least three plans to close the achievement gap between African-American students and other groups. An effort in 2002 pledged to erase racial disparities in three years. But last year, 73 percent of white 10th-graders passed all three parts of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, compared with 23.8 percent of black students.

The district has sought to determine how discrimination affects student learning, and its mission statement, adopted in 2004, reads: “We must recognize the impacts of institutional racism on student success and question any excuses for not making necessary changes.”

Institutional racism, as defined by the district, is “an indirect and largely invisible process that operates automatically and results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race.”

To combat bias, Superintendent Raj Manhas in 2004 created the Office of Equity and Race Relations and appointed its first director, Caprice Hollins, a licensed psychologist, charged with examining curriculum, textbooks and other policies.

She also runs workshops on cultural diversity for administrative staff and oversees teams of teachers, principals and parents who monitor race relations in schools.

In a recent interview, Hollins said she found no specific district program that was institutionally racist, but she pointed to summer break as an example of systemic problems. Initially devised to allow school-age children to help with farm labor, summer break serves no educational purpose, Hollins said, and the disruption puts struggling students further behind.

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Last year, Hollins’ Equity and Race Relations Web site attracted national attention when she defined “individualism” and a “future time orientation” as “those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and whiteness and devalue, stereotype and label people of color. . .. ”

After an outcry, she removed the statement, and has yet to finalize a new one. Her interim message reads: “Our intention is not to put up additional barriers or develop an ‘us against them’ mindset; nor is it to continue to hold onto unsuccessful concepts such as a melting pot or colorblind mentality.”

Can only do so much?

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While districts across the nation struggle with raising test scores of minority students, it’s difficult to find language similar to what’s in Seattle’s official statements.

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Profile for candidates

On Tuesday, the board selected six superintendent candidates to interview, and it hopes to announce finalists next week.

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Flynn, one of the board’s two African Americans, said hopefuls should be able to provide specific answers on how racism affects student learning. “If a candidate can’t answer that question, I would have a really hard time with that candidate,” she said during the January meeting.

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