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Schoolyard Standoffs: The Tale of Whitworth Elementary

Whitworth Graduating Classs 1928

Whitworth Graduating Class, 1928.

 

One day in the fall of 1988 bulldozers arrived at the corner of 45th and Dawson, just west of the new Whitworth school building, and began razing seven houses in order to expand the school’s playfield to the west. The old Whitworth building had just been replaced and the school’s footprint had shifted to the west, all but eliminating the already cramped playground.

The neighbors had known this was coming for months; indeed, some of them had been fighting it for years. Still, the demolition was shocking. “You know how you have to jump through all these hoops to get a permit for a ‘permanent structure’ on your property?” one neighbor said. “It took them half a day to raze those homes. Nothing is permanent.“

The original Whitworth School opened in 1907. The land to the west of the school was empty at that time, though the area -- close to burgeoning Columbia City and Hillman City -- was developing rapidly. Whitworth’s first principal, Emma Hart, was respected and beloved by parents and students alike. On at least one occasion, however, she drew the ire of her bosses: in April 1913, according to School Board Minutes, “the Principal of the Whitworth School closed said school for two days on account of diphtheria, without authority from the office.” [The Board considered docking Miss Hart’s pay as punishment, but in the end they voted “to allow the full salary for the month, the Superintendent to caution against the closing of any schools without proper authority.”]

Miss Hart survived her little quarrel with the district and went on to serve another 25 years as principal of Whitworth. By the time she retired in 1938, the lots to the west of the school had houses sitting on them, and the children in them headed into Whitworth School every morning, just like all the other kids in the neighborhood.

The principals who followed Miss Hart kept order, supervised teachers, and oversaw the steady growth of the school. One of them also wrote poetry: Frank Henderson’s verses reveal a gentle man with an eye for the long view. The general sentiment seems to be: “Nothing is permanent, and we’ll all be dead in the end, so the best we can do is live each day.” Which is probably the kind of attitude you have to have if you are a school principal -- especially if you are a school principal on the eve of a world war.

 

Rivers to the Sea

 

I’m floating down a river that will take me to the sea;

A swift and winding river that will not wait for me.

Its banks are steep and rugged, its course beset with woe;

I’m launched upon its waters and with them I must go.

 

You’re launched upon a river that hurries to the sea,

That great expansive ocean that will hide both you and me.

‘Tis the home of the forgotten and the home of those to be;

So live and drink the sunshine as you travel to the sea.

 

-- Frank Henderson, Whitworth Principal, 1940

The war years were full of tragedy and sacrifice, of course. Whitworth students practiced for air raids, worried about uncles and brothers fighting overseas, and ate more than their fill of Victory Garden kale. But the expansion of Seattle’s defense industries during and after the war also brought thousands of jobs -- and thousands of people -- to the city. South End schools soon overflowed with the children of these new arrivals. The district moved Whitworth’s 7th and 8th graders to Sharples Junior High when it opened in 1952, and in 1957 it opened Graham Hill Elementary in portables a mile south. Still Whitworth’s enrollment continued to climb, peaking at 853 in 1958. A new wing was added that year, with six classrooms and a gym.

In the 1970s the enrollment trend reversed as the “Boeing Bust” plunged the area into deep recession. White middle-class families moved away, and more African American families moved into the neighborhood. Whitworth’s population went from 89% white and 1% black in 1964 to 39% white and 45% black in 1975. (Asian enrollment also increased during this period, but only slightly.)

Still, Whitworth retained enough white students that it was not included in the district’s desegregation plan in 1978. Any school whose “minority” population exceeded the district’s average by 20% was paired with a mostly white school in the north end for mandatory bussing. This was a fairly straightforward standard in the mostly black Central Area, but in the South End, where racial balance hovered closer to the qualifying line, the policy pitted schools against each other in an effort to keep their white populations high enough to avoid bussing. Parents at neighboring schools complained that Whitworth parents used their gifted program to “poach” white kids away from their schools, and as a result the “minority” percentage at schools like Graham Hill edged just over the trigger point for bussing. Whether this perception was true or not, the district was quite clear that it was using gifted magnet programs as a tool to attract white kids to “minority” schools: the cynical assumptions behind this desegregation strategy were not lost on the parents of gifted children of color who lived in the Whitworth neighborhood, but were told they would be bussed to magnet programs at schools in the North End where their presence would improve “racial balance.”

The principal at Whitworth during this period was Al Cohen, reportedly an idealistic, charismatic leader who led his staff in committing to “go the extra mile and support each other” in improving the school. The desegregation plan allowed parents from all over the city to choose Whitworth, and as Cohen’s vision came to fruition, they did, in droves. By the mid-‘80s, Al Cohen was long gone, but Whitworth was among the most popular – and crowded – elementary schools in the city. In 1986 the school received an award for excellence from the federal government. It was the first urban school in the nation to receive this honor.

There were issues, of course. The PTA had to work to bridge the (real and imagined) socioeconomic gap between the gifted program and the neighborhood families – figuring out, for instance, how to distribute holiday food baskets donated by wealthier parents to the school’s needier families, without causing embarrassment on either side.

More general concerns about overcrowding and understaffing surfaced again and again. At the time the district gave all elementary schools the same allotment of administrative staff regardless of the school’s size. Whitworth parents and teachers argued, reasonably enough, that with 647 students, many of whom had intense emotional and social needs, their school should get more support staff than an elementary school with 250 children. Even basic playground supervision was a challenge: at a School Board hearing student Costa Singer testified that, due to budget cuts, “there no longer [were] teacher aids on the playground to prevent fighting and injuries. When he broke his arm on the playground there was no adult to walk him to the office.”

Whitworth parents also worried about the safety of their aging building. In July of 1984, the PI reported that “Whitworth’s overcrowding is exacerbated by its old, outdated building… classrooms are tiny, children must troop downstairs to use the bathroom, and the plumbing and wiring systems are on the skids.” A district study had noted that the building’s masonry would not withstand a major earthquake. “The main building is on the critical list of potentially unsafe structures to be remodeled or replaced if the Sept 18 bond issue is approved,” the PI article continued. This was good news -- but many parents balked at the idea of sending their kids to school in an unsafe building every day for another three years, crossing their fingers that the Big One wouldn’t strike before the reconstruction could take place.

The 1984 seismic safety report pushed Whitworth parents from frustrated advocacy to focused action, and that summer they threatened a boycott of the school in September, if the district failed to meet what PTSA member Monica Wooten called “non-negotiable demands”: more staff, seismic retrofitting of the existing building, and emergency supplies for every classroom. Parent volunteers polled Whitworth families and found “over-whelming support for taking this action to get the things we felt we needed, to make Whitworth safe this year.” The PTA worked with staff to present a unified front to the district, and new principal John Morefield supported their efforts. “’Look,’ I said to my boss,  ‘I’ve got to side with them, it’s my first year here. Besides, you know the district is wrong anyway. There are 700 kids in that building!’” (Morefield, like Emma Hart, knew when to put the needs of his students above his duty to the authorities downtown.)

Other parents coordinated a letter writing campaign, provided legal advice, organized pickets, and planned for day care should the threatened boycott become a reality. School Board hearings were packed with Whitworth staff, parents, and students testifying passionately about the needs of their school. Sixth grader B.J. Santos told the Board that Whitworth students “had presented a talent show which had grossed over $135. That money was used to repaint the boys’ lavatories. He said they could not take care of all such problems without help from the School Board.”

In August the district proposed a compromise: Whitworth would get a counselor, an additional part-time teacher, and two aides. Money would be allocated to reinforce the building’s masonry, and to provide emergency supplies.  The PI reported that the district’s offer “was unanimously accepted by an auditorium full of many of the same parents who earlier this summer had vowed to keep their youngsters away from classes.”

In September Whitworth teachers and families returned to school in triumph. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the staff additions that were a direct result of our negotiations with the district over the summer,” crowed PTSA presidents Kay Godefroy & Eileen Berlin in the first school newsletter of the year. “This is the way staffing standards should be. I hope we can convince the School District and the School Board to concentrate more money on teachers and support personnel in the future.” “What a difference a non-boycott can make,” commented principal John Morefield, who masterfully channeled all this energy and excitement into support of the school’s academic and community-building programs.

Monica Wooten chided the school board for its failure to respond to years of polite requests, and encouraged the district to adopt a more inclusive process so disruptive confrontations could be avoided in the future.

Alas, it was not to be.

Whitworth’s active PTA continued to work on facilities concerns after their triumphant non-boycott in the summer of 1984. The school newsletter from the 1984-1985 school year documents the activities of an Overcrowding Committee, a School Size Committee, and an Ed Spec Committee, charged with developing a list of criteria for the new school building. The result of all this committee work – “hours and hours and hours and hours of meetings,” according to Kay Godefroy -- was a determination by the district that Whitworth needed more space, and a larger playground in particular. A number of options were presented for expanding the site; the district eventually decided to annex land to the west. The plan required the acquisition and demolition of twelve homes.

Now, in the case of the threatened boycott, advocacy by Whitworth parents had been fueled by the certain knowledge that they were standing up for what was right -- their kids needed a safe building, and adequate adult supervision and support. They must have been aware at some level that the extra resources Whitworth got that year had to come out of some other part of the district’s budget, but they didn’t have to confront the effects of those cuts directly.

When it came to the expansion of the school site, however, the people who stood to lose were right there on the other side of the fence, and they were not happy about the sacrifice they were being forced to make. Some of the people living in those houses had attended Whitworth when there were 850 kids there, and they couldn’t see the need to tear down their homes in order to give a mere 650 kids more room to run around. They didn’t trust the district’s public process, which one neighbor referred to as a “dog and pony show” designed to disguise a decision that had already been made. They banded together as CAWSE (Citizens Affected by the Whitworth Site Expansion) and came up with an alternative plan for a new school that did not require the district to tear down their homes.

In April 1986, the organizing group SESCO (South End Seattle Community Organization) held a community forum at Whitworth, where parents and neighbors agreed to a “statement of unity,” challenging the School Board to “forward a plan for a new building that meets educational specifications and city codes, on the existing site.” They urged the district to consider the CAWSE proposal as a starting point.

By June this fragile unity had evaporated. Whitworth parents and staff were not unanimous regarding the need for a larger site, but those advocating for the expansion spoke loudly and eloquently. “Whitworth has been outmoded, outdated, seismically unsafe, too small and generally unacceptable for 25-30 years,” wrote Kay Godefroy in a letter to the district’s facilities department. “We cannot continue in the present facility.” Godefroy also cautioned against any plan that extended the construction period for longer than 12 months, because an extended sojourn at the temporary school in distant Ballard would “seriously jeopardize the Whitworth program as we know it. Staff, students, and parents will not stick it out.”

Meanwhile the neighbors were equally articulate in expressing their side. Josephine Baldwin, a 30 year resident of the neighborhood whose house was slated for demolition, wrote: “I truly feel like a tree being uprooted and wondering where am I going to put my roots where I can feel just as safe there as I do here.” SESCO member Oscar Hearde lived across the street from the threatened homes; he described the plan as “the most cruel and devastating act any government agency could ever impose on a community of some of the most disadvantaged people of the city of Seattle.” Hearde, the Baldwins, and others

were tireless in their efforts to push the School Board to reconsider its decision – which it declined to do. CAWSE finally sued the district to stop the plan from going through. In the end the neighbors succeeded in saving five of the twelve homes under threat, including Josephine Baldwin’s. Seven homes were demolished and replaced with a grass playfield.

 

We Face the Unknown

 

Today, tomorrow and always we face the unknown;

In spite of seers, prophets, and the wise, we met it alone;

With joy, sadness, jewels, or gold, our lot is the same;

We bring nothing and leave nothing, but a shriveling name.

 

Monuments erected, tombs carved crumble and fall;

Nature loans for our building, and then takes all.

The scars we make on earth’s gray and mottled face,

The waves of time, undaunted, soon will erase.

 

-- Frank Henderson, Whitworth Principal, 1940

So Whitworth got its larger site. But the ugly struggle over land acquisition sapped energy and time from the design of the new building. Whether due to budget and space constraints, or because angry neighbors had been so outraged by what they perceived as “luxuries” on the Ed Spec Committee’s wish list, the architects stripped the new building of many of the features the school community had requested, such as a PTA meeting room and other common spaces. All available square footage was devoted to classrooms, with hallways and entry areas minimized. The resulting building was so barren and forbidding, some neighbors suspected that the district was trying to punish them by putting the ugliest possible structure in their midst. Others, still furious with the district and its “PTA lackeys,” described the structure as “poetic justice.” Even today, a common myth about the building is that it was designed by prison architects. (It is true that WMFL Architects did some prison work, but they had also successfully designed schools, libraries, and other public buildings.)

Whitworth’s new building opened in 1989 with only 450 kids. This drop in enrollment was probably the result of two years at Monroe School in Ballard; as Kay Godefroy had predicted, it was difficult to maintain the school’s high level of parental involvement with the school so far away. Even after Whitworth returned to its neighborhood, it was difficult to rebuild the community. Many people felt that the new building’s forbidding appearance, along with the awkward entryways, constricted hallways, and dearth of common space, undermined the school’s tradition of parental participation. Kay Godefroy and Monica Wooten both lamented that “the school never recovered its spirit” after this disruptive period.

At least one student who attended Whitworth when the new building first opened reports that it was still a great school then, but acknowledges that by the time her younger brother went there eight years later, things had changed. Many of the talented, committed teachers who had served under Al Cohen and John Morefield moved on in the early ‘90s. Whitworth, like many South End schools, lost nearly all of its white kids in the wake of the district’s 1995 “Choice” assignment plan, which essentially ended proactive desegregation policy. By 2001 the school had 370 students, and only 5% were white. (The presence of white kids is not necessarily an indicator of a school’s success or failure, of course. But in this instance it shows that the neighborhood, which was 50% white in 2000, had largely abandoned the school.) Changes in the gifted program, attractive options at nearby schools, and the evolution of the neighborhood itself also played a role in Whitworth’s decline. The school was closed in 2007, and the building has since become home to Orca K-8, an alternative school.

Note: In 2010, a group of Orca middle school students researched the history of the seven houses that were torn down in 1988, and resurrected them on the playfield for an evening. For more information about the “No Place Like Home” project, winner of the 2011 Heritage Education Award from the Association of King County Heritage Organizations, visit www.sevenhouses.blogspot.com.

 

-- Mikala Woodward