Does a Quest for Diversity Mean Giving Up Better Education?

In a quasi-segregated city, Tonya Mosley tries to find the right place for her children to thrive

When my husband and I moved to Seattle from Louisville, Kentucky, eight years ago, we were quickly given the scoop on the city’s culture. “It will be hard to find friends,” we were told (the Seattle freeze is real), people drink a lot of coffee, and depending on who you’re talking to, it may or may not rain all the time.

But there is one aspect of Seattle culture that rarely came up in these early primers. In fact, most Seattleites seem to shy away from direct conversations about it. It wasn’t until our daughter reached school age that the race/class/education divide reared its ugly head.

These issues aren’t new to me. I grew up in Detroit where working-class black people lived within the city limits, white people stuck to the suburbs, Asians owned the grocery stores, and Hispanics rarely ventured outside of a 10-block radius known as Mexicantown. I went to school with only a handful of people who weren’t black; I still know all of them by name, starting from kindergarten. My education was subpar—I got a rude awakening when I went to college and realized how behind I was compared to my classmates. So when my husband and I moved here, we were eager to shed the disparities of our Midwestern roots. We first looked at Bellevue. Too suburban. Kent? Too far from the city. West Seattle? The Viaduct!

We landed on Ravenna; it was safe, close to our jobs and happens to have some of the best public schools in the city. Between 95 and 97 percent of the students at Wedgwood Elementary are performing at or above Washington state standards. What we didn’t factor in, however, is how culturally isolating living in a neighborhood like Ravenna could be. Not for us, but for our daughter. Out of 446 students at Wedgwood, our daughter was the only black kindergartner and one of four African-American students in the entire school. It’s difficult enough being a kid and experiencing all of the social challenges out there—it breaks my heart to think of my 5-year-old constantly feeling different because of her skin color.

The lack of racial diversity is not lost on the parents in mostly white neighborhoods with primarily white schools. I’ve learned that many of them yearn for more diversity, including consistent exposure to families of color in an engaging and meaningful way. What the neighborhood lacked, my husband and I tirelessly worked to make up for on the weekends, hustling our daughter across town to activities where she could interact with other kids of color. It was a system that seemed to work well—until we had another child and decided we needed a larger house to fit with our growing family.  

We began our search last winter, scanning real estate ads for houses on the market that fit our budget. There always seemed to be maybe one or two that were quickly scooped up before we could make it to the open houses. After about two months, my irritation turned to angst; by spring, we were in full panic mode. There literally weren’t any homes near my daughter’s school that we could afford!

“Maybe we can use this opportunity to look at more diverse areas,” my husband suggested. And so we did—keeping our thoughts positive as we began our search in Columbia City. We loved the cool vibe, the growing Rainier Avenue core and the mix of cultures. But when I began searching for details on schools, I was shocked. This vibrant community sits smack dab in the middle of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

“Maybe we need to bite the bullet and look outside of the city?” I asked my husband. “No,” he said confidently, “we will find something in the city. There’s got to be something out there.” And so we continued looking, finally settling on the neighborhood of Leschi. The area is both urban and suburban with a diverse racial and socio-economic mix. On most days, the nearby Starbucks at 23rd and Jackson is a bustling mini–United Nations. Less than a mile away is the International District. The downside? While the reputations of the schools are not as dire as those farther south, there are still major disparities. My daughter has left Wedgwood, one of the top elementary schools in the state, for Leschi Elementary, a school with significantly lower standardized test scores. In the quest for diversity, are we giving up a better education?

What I learned is that Leschi school has undergone major changes in the last few years, perhaps because of the challenges families like ours have faced. The parents have an active voice in the district, helping to hire a new principal (who resigned to take a post in Seattle Public Schools administration in June), and assembling an engaging and eager PTA; and the district introduced a highly regarded Montessori program. The school’s standardized math test scores are also steadily improving. During my tour, a PTA mom told me that even if her kids had an opportunity to attend a higher-performing school, she’d still choose Leschi. “Great things are happening here,” she said. “Yes, there are challenges. Some kids come from privileged families; others are on free or reduced lunch. A lot of cultures are represented here. I’d say my child is also learning valuable lessons about real life.”

In that moment I realized that maybe, in my effort to find this perfect mix of racial diversity and stellar academics, I’d lost focus on the bigger picture. Maybe we could have moved to the Eastside or stayed in a neighborhood with great public schools, but ultimately we chose a path that we could afford and that would provide the best life lessons for our children. We hope that, over time, our efforts will pay off. Here’s to a year of learning and new beginnings for our daughter—and for us. Listen to Tonya Mosley’s recent three-part series “Black in Seattle” at KUOW.org.

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