The Segregation of Seattle’s John Stanford “International” School

About 15 years ago, John Stanford became head of Seattle Public Schools. He had a vision. Recognizing the demands of a global economy and an increasingly diverse student body, he proposed an international language school. Key components included: proficiency in English and at least one other language, global perspectives infused into all areas of study (rather than being “add-ons”), and partnerships with parents, community leaders, and international sister schools. His vision led to Seattle creating a network of international schools, featuring immersion programs and curriculum that prepare students to be globally competent in the 21st century. The first, John Stanford International School (elementary), opened in 2000 with two immersion tracks, Japanese-English and Spanish-English.


International public schools, now seen across the nation, are a huge departure from trends of the recent past which discouraged multilingual learning based on the assumption that it would be confusing for young children. Implicit in this assumption was an insidious message about assimilation to mainstream culture through fluency in English and abandonment of native tongues. Immigrant parents were led to believe their children would suffer, be slow, or “dumber” than their monolingual counterparts. Many Americans today are all too familiar with our history of educational pressure to conform, and can easily recount personal and painful stories about loss of heritage language and access to culture.

Research on dual language development has grown substantially since the 1970s. We now know there are actually many cognitive benefits for young children simultaneously exposed to more than one language. These children have greater brain activity and denser tissue in areas related to memory, attention, and language. They have performed better on measures of analytical ability, concept formation, cognitive flexibility, and metalinguistic skills. Evidence also suggests that children who continue to learn academic concepts in their native language while gradually learning English outperform academically and socially children who are immersed in English-only programs.

So, did John Stanford lay the foundation for global elementary education in Seattle? Not quite. In her long awaited second book Can We Talk About Race? Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., alarmingly spotlights the slow resegregation of our nation’s schools over the last decade. She shows how a series of recent legislations reverting school assignments to neighborhood have led to the undoing of much achieved by Brown v. Board of Education. Given that much of the U.S. is still severely divided across racial lines when it comes to housing, schools have naturally fallen back into segregated patterns.

Seattle is no exception. After a decade of other unsuccessful efforts to desegregate its schools, Seattle School District instituted mandatory busing in 1977. reaching its racial-enrollment goals 3 yrs later. However the District ended busing in 1989 and the racial balance at Seattle schools began to unravel. In 2007 Seattle parents played a pivotal role in legislative resegregation in the Supreme Court case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1. The Court prohibited assigning students to public schools solely for the purpose of achieving racial integration and declined to recognize racial balancing as a compelling state interest. For years, Seattle parents had been given wide latitude to pick and choose schools for their children. In June 2009 however, Seattle Public Schools adopted a new student assignment plan reverting to a community-based approach, sending students to schools closest to home. The plan was phased in from 2010-2011.

2010 Census results indicated that more than a third of Seattle residents were persons of color. This population grew 26% from 1990-2000, and 32% from 2000-2010. The largest non-White racial group in Seattle is Asian and Pacific Islander living predominantly in the South end (International District, Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill) and outside the city in parts of Bellevue, Redmond, Kent, Bothell, Auburn, SeaTac and Maple Valley. Despite these statistics, John Stanford’s visionary first International School and Japanese immersion program, is located in North Seattle, Wallingford. A predominantly White neighborhood. Originally parents from all over the city could apply to John Stanford. Children with Japanese heritage were given priority.

But since the district reverted to neighborhood assignment, only students within the assignment zone may attend. According to the School District’s own annual reports (before 2010) and school reports (2010-), while John Stanford’s Asian student body remained constant at about 23% from 2004-2010, its White student body grew from 41% in 2004 to 56% in 2009/10. When the neighborhood school assignment was phased in from 2010-2011, John Stanford’s White student body jumped up to 61% while it’s Asian student body dropped to 13% (though 10% newly identified as multiracial and some may have been part Asian). This racial demographic shift certainly doesn’t reflect what is happening in the city at large. When I called the school to confirm, an impatient woman curtly told me that the drop in Asian attendees was not true and that the school had just added a kindergarten class. When I told her my own son has Japanese heritage and I was interested to apply, she told me I couldn’t because we didn’t live in the zone.

Is John Stanford International School teaching students to be globally competent in the 21st century? Or is it teaching them racial exclusion and preferences of old?

Sharon Chang’s great blog is here.


  1. Joe

    Thanks for the great post , Sharon. Is there much sentiment in the
    Seattle communities of color now to organize against this resegregation trend, and continue to fight back against our right wing white judges?

    • Sharon Chang Author

      Such a good question. The answer is, I’m not sure. Not a good sign. If communities of color are pushing back against this resegregation, I have not heard about it – which means it’s probably not substantial. Preliminary Google searches on race at John Stanford result in practically nothing. Mostly what comes up is what a great school it is, that it’s recognized nationally, and has won awards. It’s widely praised for setting a precedent in global education. Although, as I’ve shown here, that prestige is in question. Google searches for the resegregation of Seattle schools result in widely varying viewpoints; some claiming neighborhood assignment has not impacted school diversity, others claiming a complete backslide since Brown v Board. I had to piece together my post across a lot of different sources. I have been angry for years that my own part-Japanese child could not apply to John Stanford. He is also part-Taiwanese and not eligible for the International Mandarin program in the S end either because we do not live in THEIR assignment area. Argh. So both public language immersion options that have ancestral significance to my child are closed off to us because of our address. It took an intense amount of research to pull together WHY exactly this is the case. There seems to be some denial, apathy and sense of resignation in the community currently. Many parents of color I know had no idea any of this was happening. And I think it’s also important to remember that it was a group of Seattle parents, who opposed racial balancing, that brought the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court and WON. So in some ways the community itself seems to be digging its own racial equity grave.

  2. Sharon Chang Author

    Btw as a followup to the above. I invited NW Asian Weekly to consider this blog post for publication (if they had not already covered the topic). I received an immediate response that day. The editor said they would discuss it. I never heard back.

    • Lynn

      There’s quite a debate going on right now regarding enrollment access to this Language Immersion program.

      The district is possibly proposing that this program be an option school available to a much wider area of the city. There’s a lot of highly visible/vocal push back from families in the neighborhood. There is little being heard from the demographic that can’t afford to live in the Wallingford neighborhood.

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