Over the past few weeks, National Public Radio ran a story about issues of race in Seattle public schools and the Seattle Times ran an eye-opening story on race as it plays out in my own neighborhood’s Madrona School. Both stories prominently featured Madrona’s “star” principal, Kaaren Andrews. Though the NPR piece allowed her to put her best foot forward, she came across in a different light in Lornet Turnbull’s school profile in the Times.
When my wife and I first moved to Madrona in 1998, we heard there was a group of dedicated, mostly white parents who were trying to revive the School’s fortunes my both sending their children there, raising funds for enrichment programs and staffing, and volunteering. There seemed to be a good faith effort to return Madrona School to its roots as a true neighborhood school (at that time it was over 75% African-American and the vast majority of students did not live in Madrona). The prevailing spirit that informed this effort was, to quote Jesse Jackson, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” We hoped for the best for this effort. We hoped we would send our own child to Madrona when he entered kindergarten.
This passage from the Times especially caught my eye since I was personally involved in the incident it describes:
Last year, Andrews said, she was escorting a group of black students from nearby Madrona Park after two got into a fight.
She wanted to get them back to school to talk about responsibility, about how what they do in the neighborhood reflects not just on them but on the school, when she encountered several white parents.
She said one asked: “How can you keep trying with those children?”
Her response: “How can I not?”
My three young children were visiting the Madrona Playfield with their two nannies when a fistfight broke out between a white and black middle school student. The fighters were surrounded by scores of other students (also of mixed races) who were swirling uncontrollably around the scene. There were no school staff supervising these children. Besides the profanity coming from the students’ mouths, the nannies was frightened that our children were in physical danger of being trampled. So they removed them from the park and came home to tell me of the incident. On their way out of the park, they met a school staff member who they did not know at the time was the principal. Our nannies did not exchange a word with Andrews.
I immediately called the principal concerned not only for our childrens’ safety, but over the lack of school supervision. When I reached her she explained that on one day each month the middle school had a late start. She claimed that the school had no responsibility to provide supervision at Madrona Playfield since it was not school property. She also dismissed our concerns lightly telling us she had already addressed the students involved and “taken care of it.” I was so taken aback by her glib and dismissive tone that we resolved that I could never get any satisfaction from her.
I immediately wrote a post to our local Madrona Moms listserv about the incident. While many parents understood our concerns intuitively, interestingly a small group of Madrona school parents reacted hostilely. They accused us of fomenting ill will for the school, of washing its dirty linen in public. They accused us of injecting race into the incident (even though we never mentioned the word or anything remotely to do with race in the Madrona Moms post or the conversation with Andrews).
The Madrona Community Council then invited me to address its monthly meeting about the incident. The president firmly promised that the subject under discussion would be Playfield safety and not protecting the reputation of the school. Instead, the actual meeting was hijacked by the presence of Andrews, her assistant principal, the district’s race and equity coordinator, a first grade teacher and several parents who proceeded to excoriate me for my safety concerns and my interpretation of the incident. They persisted in claiming that because I was concerned for my children’s safety that this was code for a racist attitude toward the school’s students.
It was at this point in the meeting that Andrews trotted out the above quoted story about the two mysterious female white women who accosted her in the park and questioned her commitment to the school. In the context of the meeting, it appeared to us that she was claiming, without explicitly saying so, that our nannies had been the ones who browbeat her about the students. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As we wrote above, they never exchanged a word with Andrews at the Playfield. I was the only one who exchanged words with Andrews and even when I did I never remotely questioned her commitment to her students. This is all a mirage made up by the mind of a school principal who feels deeply protective about her students. So protective that she is capable of making up dramatic stories to curry sympathy with a community or newspaper audience. The fiction she has created may be good theater but reflects nothing of what really happened. I am sorry to use such an incendiary term but unfortunately it is fitting under the circumstances: this is racial histrionics. A school principal and District staff who out of misplaced defensiveness turn every incident into one involving race. Race is undoubtedly a crucial element both in public education and our society. But we do such an important issue no service by insinuating it into situations where it does not belong.
Before this incident, we scheduled a Madrona school tour in contemplation of sending our child to kindergarten there. After the incident, we would never send him there. He is now happily enrolled at TOPS in a racially diverse classroom at a school whose principal is African-American. The School’s curriculum focus is social justice and race equity is one of the prime elements in school lesson plans. Jonah is also going to get enriched elements like art, drama and music which he would unfortunately never experience at Madrona.
I have absolutely no problem with the Seattle Public Schools‘ mandate for Madrona School to serve its largely African-American student body. But in doing so, it should make this School an alternative school with a special District-wide mandate. To call Madrona School a true neighborhood school does a disservice both to its students and to the neighborhood in which it sits. This School does not serve is neighborhood. Pretending that it does is what causes half the tension and misunderstandings that currently arise between school officials and neighborhood parents like us and Danny Westneat.