As with many other state funded programs we have studied this semester in “Race, Gender and the Welfare State,” education in Seattle has some serious weaknesses and only families who can supplemented what the state provides end up with satisfactory results.
So the question “What to do about our public schools?” is one of the most popular topics for local politicians and journalists to discuss even though there is a proven solution: Rainier Scholars. In this post, I’ll tell you a bit more about the “achievement gap” then I’ll go through Rainier Scholars’ methods for closing that gap. After that I will give some historical background to the racial make up of Seattle’s schools and link this situation to Katznelson’s theory from “When affirmative Action Was White.” I will conclude with a proposal for eliminating the achievement gap.
Here are some statistics:
· In the class of 2008, less than 50% of African American and Native American students graduated on time, whereas more than 75% of white students did (SRSJI).
· 43% of African American and 50% of Native American 3rd graders did not meet state standards for reading during the 2010-11 school year (SRSJI)
· Only about half of Samoan, Native American, Latino and African American students graduate from Seattle Public Schools (SRSJI).
· While students of color compose 2/3rds of all students in the Seattle School district, by high school they make up just 10 percent of the students in the district’s advanced learning programs (Rainier Scholars).
Students, often from low income, minority families, are blamed for this “achievement gap” in thinly-veiled, racist terms. There is some insinuation in the question “why is that minority children are underachieving? that the students are somehow not as smart or hard working as the high-achieving students, who are statistically more likely to be white. But as professor Bensonsmith said, “When there are big gaps in statistics between groups, we must look for the institutional failing.”
Rainier Scholars works to close the gap. This rationale was taken from their website and it relates the program back to a conception of a just society. “Whatever the cause of that disparity, the outcome is clear: Fewer of Seattle’s students of color get the education and mentoring they need to gain admission to college and become leaders as adults. The disproportionately low numbers of students of color on college campuses, as well as the lack of men and women of color in positions of leadership nationwide, point back to a lack of equitable opportunities at a foundational level. Education and opportunity for all committed and capable students is essential for a strong, just society. That’s why we created Rainier Scholars.”
But I want you to ask yourselves, if opportunity is not being provide for all, should the non-profit sector be the answer?
The Rainier scholars program begins with the results of the fourth grade WASL. Every student in the district who passes the reading section gets a letter introducing them to the program during their fifth grade year. Those who come from families which face societal barriers to college are invited to apply. Eighty percent of Rainier Scholars students come from low-income families and 85% will be first generation college graduates. Parents of prospective students are invited to attend information sessions, which have translators in Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, Amharic and Tigrigna.
I interviewed a friend who went through this the program for this project, and I’d like to tell you what she said about each stage:
“For phase one, along with summer school for 5th and 6th we also had Saturday school. During the 6th grade year I applied to private schools and AP program and rainier scholars was the one which transferred that knowledge to my family. They’re really a comprehensive, detail oriented program. For example, they taught me Latin during the recess part of the summer program because they knew my middle school, Explorer West, offered it and since I’d be coming in 7th grade they didn’t want me to be behind….
…They emphasize the importance of work and of trying hard and of perseverance and of not giving up because things don’t go your way the entire time. They are with you until you graduate from college, there’s a lot of academic enrichment programs all around through college, but it makes sure students are ok throughout whole educational experience. I’m only the 2nd generation so we’re still guinea pigs….
…I never imagined going to a private school, made me and my family aware that the opportunity existed. It has had such a positive impact on me, haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and critique it…
…They had academic counselors come to my high school once a month to check in, someone still calls me once a month to ask me how I’m doing. Especially for a lot of students who were the smartest kids in their middle school, it is really easy to still try to figure everything out yourself. They did a great job reminding people that its ok to ask for help and have a tutor. They also have a counselor on staff to deal with emotional/psychological issues which come up; the counselor deals with students AND their families. Rainier Scholars really understand that it takes the entire family to make sure students are successful in their academic career: parents need to make sure the kids are doing their doing their homework, they have to organize carpools, check their homework planners, etc…Rainier Scholars makes sure the parents are doing all of that stuff and going to parent-teacher conferences….
…Rainier Scholars is all about transferring social capital—a lot of people lack that, even at college. Students of color who had a program like Rainier Scholars behind them learned how to navigate white spaces (so it is not their first time in college) because that would be the worst time to face this! We [students of color] are away from our family and finances are often stressful, and students don’t understand completely why they feel the way they do. I’ve been able to help out other Latinas, because I have been there.
However, the program needs to create a way for us [Rainier Scholars students] to be able to talk to each other during the school year so we can be a support system for each other.
…Rainier scholars had college counselors, financial aid; I found out about [the college I now attend] through Rainier Scholars, internship program for sophomores. Interned at a law firm in downtown. Becoming very well known, because the city is so huge on diversity right now. It is really scary to almost be tokenized. That’s a huge tension, to some extent its good for me, but even being here, sometimes feel like I’m here because the college needed women of color, there is that feeling of why am I here?
But when it comes down to it, that’s when I need to be most engaged. You need to be more than ever engaged…
…Rainier Scholars had a huge impact on my life…as the 1st generation in my family to attend college and as a Latina….If you look at the racial gap its really evident that the public school system isn’t doing what its supposed to be doing which is offering a quality education to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status…”
The institution is financially backed by 30 corporate sponsors, including: Microsoft, JP Morgan, Safeco Insurance, Google, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs as well as private individuals. It has received considerable media coverage in Seattle [see sources below] and is one of the most well known non-profits in the city.
Ira Katznelson’s theory relates to this issue because there is an institutional failing which has never been corrected. The Scholars program has been successful in addressing this issue, but I believe the city has a responsibility to provide vouchers for similar programs or private tutoring to close this gap which they have created.
Check out Ira Katznelson, “When Affirmative Action Was White” here: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-36.html
Lets look at some maps which show the historic distribution of African Americans and whites in the city. This first map shows the center of the city in 1939…http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/segregation_maps.htm
Now, lets look a more recent maps: http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/segregation_maps.htm
This map shows that the lowest concentration of white people in 2000 was the central and southern part of the city, whereas this map shows that the highest concentration of African Americans lived in this area.
The city has always been very divided by neighborhood. The southern and central part of the city have historically and to this day had the highest proportion of African Americans.
Seattle has long struggled with the “achievement gap.” One way the district tried to mediate the awkwardness surrounding the fact that children from lower income, predominantly minority areas are assigned to their neighborhood schools, which often are low-performing, was through a weak affirmative action policy. This policy essentially said that if two students, one white and one non-white applied to attend a school which did not have enough room for both, the student who belong to the racial group underrepresented at the school would get the spot. A group of parents sued the district under the equal protection clause and the case went all the way to the supreme court, where the justices decided in a 5-4 decision that because Seattle Schools had never been EXPLICITELY segregated, the State did not have a responsibility to desegregate them.
Similarly, lets look at a map of elementary schools in the Seattle area. http://www.schooldigger.com/go/WA/city/Seattle/search.aspx
The balloons represent schools on a 1-5 scale, 5 being the best and 1 being the worst. Adjust the map so that only elementary schools in the Seattle school district rated between 0-1 stars are shown.
As you can see, the schools in the worst neighborhoods are predominantly black and minority. We can use Katznelson’s theory to argue that the city has a responsibility to address this failing because they caused specific harm by allowing neighborhood home owners alliances to have racist buying covenants which persisted in Seattle until 1968 (link). Almost every neighborhood barred African Americans from buying or renting area homes (in fact, the only people of color allowed in some neighborhoods were maids). Thus, the city was complicit in the segregation of the neighborhoods even if they didn’t pass a law mandating segregation, they allowed housing discrimination. It follows that if children go to their neighborhood schools, these schools will reflect the neighborhood racial composition and thus be racially segregated as well. The specific harm comes from the fact that these schools, like Brown vs. the Board of education were never “separate but equal” and in fact, to this day persist in being unequal (as do racially divided neighborhoods). However, since the city never MANDATED that they be separate, the supreme court did not find that the city had a duty to correct for any harm caused by their inequality. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court fails to take into account the realities/nuance/truth of the situation.
But our city can, and has a moral obligation to do better for all kids. Rainier Scholars can only take 60 kids each year. The city has recently launched a Race and Social Justice Initiative, which is pursuing the following three goals:
1. Every schoolchild, regardless of language and cultural differences, receives a quality education and feels safe and included.
2. Race does not predict how much you earn or your chance of being homeless or going to prison.
3. African American, Latinos and Native Americans can expect to live as long as white people.
I am pleased that Seattle is pursuing this initiative which aims to “lead a collaborative, community-wide effort to eliminate racial inequity in education, criminal justice, environmental justice, health and economic success,” but I’m concerned that this program will also fall short of what’s needed to achieve this goal.
I believe the initiative needs to fund widespread Rainier Scholars-type programs to meet its stated goal of providing quality education to all students (and indirectly affecting the other two). A new “educational welfare” program is needed to eliminate institutionalized racism—non-profits cannot meet demonstrated public need.
Large, Jerry. “Program Bridges Gap” The Seattle Times March 11 2012
“Rainier Scholars is a praiseworthy bandage on a wounded system. It is one of many programs, each with its own niche. Healing the system ought to be the goal, and programs like this show what medicines work best. When I say system, I don't just mean schools, but how the community affects children from conception to adulthood. Housing, health care, neighborhood safety, the whole package. Education is only part of that, but a central part.”
Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative: http://www.seattle.gov/rsji/