Thursday, June 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Closing racial gap in student success

Seattle Times staff reporter

Perhaps the third time will be the charm.

In its third such undertaking since 1986, the Seattle School District has adopted a plan aimed at closing the gap in academic performance and discipline among students of different races.

The latest plan, presented to the School Board yesterday, resembles earlier plans in many respects. But it is a leaner, less detailed document that places more emphasis on the role played by parents and community groups.

Recommended steps

The Seattle School District's Disproportionality Action Committee made these recommendations yesterday aimed at eliminating differences in discipline rates and academic achievement among racial and ethnic groups:

1. The district should develop an annual action plan to eliminate disparate discipline and achievement at all levels, from the School Board to the classroom.

2. The district should fund an office to coordinate and monitor those efforts.

3. Required community-service projects should "demonstrate learning" and reduce racial disparities.

4. The district should continue recruiting an ethnically diverse work force.

5. Students suffering from racial disparities should receive academic and social support districtwide.

6. Staff should be trained to better understand students' cultural backgrounds.

7. "Stereotyping and other biases" should be eliminated in identifying students for special education and highly capable programs.

8. Agreements should be reached among the school district and the Seattle mayor, King County executive and directors of community organizations to boost the achievement of underperforming groups.

9. Involvement of parents and community organizations should be increased in every school.

10. Annual school reports to parents should describe the schools' plans and the effectiveness of those plans in closing the achievement gap.

The Disproportionality Action Committee's priority during the coming year will be to reach out to community groups, said committee member Maria Ramirez. "We need to have them take ownership of this plan. They are part of it. We can't do it without them. The school district can't turn the tide alone. We need everybody's help."

District administrators said some of the committee's recommendations, such as creating an action plan and training 240 staff members and 200 administrators to lead "courageous conversations" on race, are under way.

The district's action plan would create Future Teachers of Color programs in high schools, curriculum standards for inclusion of cultural diversity issues, and training of minority parents in "negotiating the system."

Recommendations also include more aggressive recruitment of minority teachers, better training of teachers about students' varied cultural backgrounds, and racially proportionate admissions of students to special education and "highly capable" programs.

District officials and those on the 38-member panel seemed undaunted by past failures.

Racial disparities in discipline and academic achievement have remained largely unchanged during 20 years of studies within the Seattle district. It is a problem that plagues schools nationally.

Standardized test scores of African-American, Hispanic, Native American and some Asian groups have consistently lagged behind scores of white students. Black students are suspended or expelled more often than whites.

"I was on the 1986 task force, I was on the 1996 task force. This is different — big difference," said Wes Harris, who represented the teachers union, the Seattle Education Association, on the committee.

"The big difference is each of those other times we gave a report to the board and it was over. There was no commitment on the part of the leadership — the board and the superintendent — to go forward. This board and this superintendent have said it ain't over."

The plan was well-received by the board. District Superintendent Joseph Olchefske said the report "acknowledges the long-term, complex nature of the problem."

He did not back away from a goal set by the administration last year of erasing the achievement gap by 2005 but acknowledged it will be a tough goal to meet.

Several committee members praised Olchefske for his commitment from the outset to make the group a standing committee. However, Phyllis Beaumonte, a committee member and chairwoman of the education committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Seattle branch, said, "I would hope that the district would be serious. I hope it's not just rhetoric."

Key issues for many committee members, she said, include the high numbers of black children placed in special education, low numbers of students of color in highly capable programs, and a failure of counselors to adequately track academic performance.

Although completion of the plan is a far cry from solving a seemingly intractable problem, the committee's smooth relations with administrators have given a much-needed boost to a district under fire from many parents in the predominantly minority South End who say they have little say in the fate of their schools.

After the committee gave its report to the School Board, about 100 students and adults rallied outside school headquarters on Lower Queen Anne in a protest organized by Youth Undoing Institutionalized Racism.

Police escorted a group of protesters out of the building after they entered by a side door while the School Board was holding its regular meeting. Demonstrators called for an end to military recruiting in schools, rehiring of union drivers who lost their jobs under a new bus contract, abolition of West Seattle High School's Indian mascot, and introduction of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" in high-school history classes.

Seattle Times reporter Gina Kim contributed to this story. Keith Ervin can be reached at 206-464-2105 or


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