This week, Seattle schools have been putting an extra emphasis on Native culture because of Indigenous Peoples' Day.
But some parents at the school with the highest concentration of Native kids are frustrated with the school district. They say a shortage of classroom space in the brand-new facility for Licton Springs K-8 threatens their kids’ ability to learn.
The legal aid group Northwest Justice Project said on Monday that it will file a federal civil rights complaint this week if the school board fails to correct the situation.
In a statement, the district said it has made a strong commitment to the school, which has about 160 students.
Because of that small size, Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Kimberley Schmanke said the school has one of the district’s lowest student-teacher ratios and receives about $16,900 in per-pupil spending, compared with an average of about $9,600 for other K-8 schools.
Shared Space In A New Building
This is the first school year for Licton Springs K-8 at its new site in north Seattle, where it shares a building with the bigger Robert Eagle Staff Middle School.
According to the state, 14 percent of kids at Licton Springs are American Indian or Alaska Native. Parents say the percentage is quite a bit larger when kids who are multi-racial are included.
Katana LaSarte is a sixth grader in her third year at Licton Springs. She said she likes it better than the school she went to before.
“It’s less strict and more accepting,” she said.
LaSarte’s parents are both American Indian. Her mom, Myra Parker, is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes from North Dakota. She and her husband moved Katana to Licton Springs from a different public school in Seattle after what Parker said was a discouraging experience with a gym teacher.
“He asked the students, and at the time my daughter was in the third grade, to act like Native American chiefs in the gym class,” she said. “So they all ran around whooping and throwing fake tomahawks and shooting arrows and different things, and she really didn’t feel valued in that setting.”
Focus On Social Justice And Native Culture
Parker was glad to discover Licton Springs. The school combines an emphasis on social justice with a Native-focused curriculum. This is the kind of place where kids come home from school talking about the Standing Rock Sioux protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and where kids get to hear performances by drum groups such as Rose Creek, an ensemble from the Coeur d’Alene tribe.
These schools have been built on the site of the former Wilson-Pacific School, which used to house the American Indian Heritage School. The school district preserved the former building’s iconic murals of Native leaders including Chief Seattle and Sitting Bull that had been painted by the Apache and Haida artist Andrew Morrison, and the large artworks now adorn the new middle school.
But what the district failed to provide is enough space for Licton Springs, Parker said. Art and science are being taught in one room. The library is in the hallway. Middle-school math is being taught in an open alcove off another hallway.
Parker said it’s distracting for the kids and not fair to them.
“They’re doing their best, they’re trying to get to school and do the work that’s required of them and perform, because they’re taking all these standardized tests and have to meet these requirements, but without the tools that they need and that every other kid is getting in Seattle,” she said. “So it’s just inequitable.”
Licton Springs K-8 is small, but its enrollment has increased from last year after Parker and other parents worked to recruit more families. The school has had different names, including Pinehurst K-8, and has faced possible closure in the past. John Chapman had two kids go to this school and he fought to keep it open.
“This school is going to have to keep fighting, and it would be nice if we didn’t have to,” he said.
The principals for Licton Springs and Robert Eagle Staff Middle School declined to do interviews.
In a memo from Assistant Superintendent Flip Herndon, the district acknowledged that there are space constraints and said the school board didn’t allocate enough money to make all the changes people had wanted when the board decided to put both schools in one building.
Earlier this year, the board passed a measure to provide space for up to 250 kids at the school. School Board Director Rick Burke co-sponsored that amendment.
“My intent with the original resolution to explicitly call out 250 seats at Licton Springs was to recognize some of the places where they had been neglected or, I believe, underserved in the past,” Burke said.
He said small option schools such as Licton Springs serve an important role for kids who may not thrive in bigger schools. But he said he’s heard about space concerns at the middle school, and he doesn’t think he should dictate how classroom space is divvied up.
“I don’t believe it’s productive for me as a board director to say – they need one more classroom, they need one less,” he said. “I think that creates a really polarizing culture.”
Still, Native advocacy groups such as the Urban Native Education Alliance say they’re concerned. Sarah Sense-Wilson is chair of that group.
“The school is by far too small to hold as many students as it holds,” Sense-Wilson said. “When I did a walkthrough, I was shocked at how small the school was for the capacity that it was expected to accommodate.”
Licton Springs parent Myra Parker said her daughter’s school is being shortchanged. She said instead, American Indian and Alaska Native kids should be getting more support as they pursue their academic goals. She said there's a lot to overcome, considering the injustices Native families have historically experienced.
“There’s been federal policies that have taken American Indian children out of homes and as a result, families have been broken up,” she said. “They have been institutionalized into boarding schools and families were disconnected for many years and we’ve had to try to heal from that whole process.”
She said at a time when the district is focused on closing opportunity gaps, giving Licton Springs the resources and space it needs is a way to help Native kids succeed.
District spokeswoman Kimberley Schmanke said having two schools share one building isn’t new in Seattle and requires some adjustment on the part of students, staff and families.
“As Licton Springs grows, new decisions around space use will be appropriate,” Schmanke said.