Parents and Students Self-Organize At the Horace Mann School Building

12 Aug

Africatown Horace MannOn Thursday Aug 8th, I attended a packed meeting at the Horace Mann school building on 24th and Cherry in the Central District of Seattle.  People gathered to discuss the fate of this building, which the African/Black community has turned into a vibrant educational facility called the Africatown Community Innovation Center.

Over the course of the summer, various organizations such as the Umoja P.E.A.C.E Center and the Amistad School have reinvigorated this dormant building, and have welcomed parents, educators, and youth from the community to organize programs in the school, teaching everything from how to raise bees to how to program computers.

At the meeting, youth of all ages spoke about the benefits of these programs, and how they were learning vital skills they would not be able to learn anywhere else, including in Seattle’s mainstream public schools.   They also spoke about the sense of confidence, pride, and self-awareness they found learning from folks who understand them and where they’re coming from.

Parents spoke about how they had struggled to find culturally relevant summer programs for their kids, and had eventually decided to pool their resources to create their own programs at Horace Mann.  They described the building as a “village” where they could collectively support each other raising their kids to face all the challenges Black youth face in this racist society.

All of this is a testament to the creativity, resourcefulness, intelligence, and self-activity of the Black community in the historic Central District.  It reminded me of a point that my friend John Garvey made –  students are able to learn better when there is trust between parents, youth, and the school itself.

It was clear from this meeting, that such trust does not currently exist between this group of parents and the leadership of the Seattle Public Schools.

Wyking Garrett, who chaired the meeting, reminded everyone of the urgency of the issues of the table, considering that the Seattle Public Schools are currently being investigated by the federal government for racism against Black youth.  Black students are three times as likely as white students to be suspended from Seattle schools.

Parents and educators who spoke had various perspectives on how their efforts to build the Africatown center relate to the issue of racial equality in the public schools as a whole.  Seattle Public Schools superintendent Jose Banda and several other SPS staff sat in the front of the room listening to the various speakers who addressed them. One person put the issue pointedly: “We believe you want to educate our youth.  We are not confident you know how to educate our youth.”  Omari Tahir-Garrett,  a former teacher in the district,  outlined a long history  of corruption and racism in SPS, situating the current efforts to build the Africatown Community Innovation Center as part of a much longer struggle against white supremacist institutions that  have systematically denied an education to Black youth.  He held a banner honoring Trayvon Martin.   Other community leaders spoke about how the programs in the Horace Mann building could be pilot programs, examples of what is possible, which could then be spread into the public schools themselves.

Port worker Leith Kahl read this statement from the African-American Longshore Coalition supporting the Africatown center.  He also emphasized that public education itself was started in meetings like this one; people who had been denied an education by the system organized themselves to educate their youth, and launched a movement demanding free education for all.  He said that Horace Mann was part of that movement, and ended by asking “What would Horace Mann do?”

The very existence of the Africatown Community Innovation Center poses these questions to any observant listener.  However, the contradictions are sharpened by the fact that the bureaucrats who run Seattle Public Schools want to take the Horace Mann building away from the community.  In a recent letter, they had imposed an August 15th deadline, saying that the community needed to be out of the building by then.   As superintendent Banda reported on Thurs night, they plan to renovate the building so that Nova can reoccupy it. (Nova is an alternative school that serves a majority white student body) .

In his attempt to explain why it is necessary to displace Black students to make way for white students, Banda described an elaborate Tetris game of funding and management.  He said that Seattle Public schools are facing growing enrollment, and overcrowding.  He said Nova needs to be moved from its current location so that  location can be expanded as a middle school, to take the pressure off of the currently overcrowded Washington Middle School.  SPS reps encouraged the parents and educators present to find private funding to pay rent to house their programs elsewhere.

In response to these points, Wyking Garrett pointed out that Nova is a commuter school; its students are not primarily from the Central District, they come from all different neighborhoods and are used to commuting long distances.  In contrast, the Africatown Community Innovation Center primarily serves people from the immediate neighborhood.  Another person emphasized that the community was not going to leave the building – period.  He said that he’d be willing to aid superintendent Banda in pressuring Olympia or the corporations for more funding to deal with overcrowding, but that this problem could not be solved by displacing the Africatown Community Innovation Center.

This is all happening in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified, going from majority black to majority white in recent decades.  Black parents and community members are attempting to reverse the tide of displacement of Black people from the neighborhood by focusing their programs at Horace Mann, in the heart of the Central District, turning it into a Black/African community hub.

One of the white SPS administrators completely ignored this context, and the long history of  community struggles around education and gentrification in the neighborhood when she said that the Africatown community had “not been present yet” when SPS had developed its multi-year plan for the neighborhood schools.   She flippantly disregarded community members’ attempts to defend their neighborhood from displacement when she suggested the programs in the Horace Mann building could just be parceled out to other schools as after-school programs.

This is typical of bourgeois Seattle thinking, where everything can be redesigned at whim to fit some  abstract macro plan for “development”, ignoring the wishes, desires, and concrete, real-life activities of everyday people, especially Black people, who actually live in this city.  The histories of entire communities become “not present” in the imaginations of these bureaucrats.  And these are the people we entrust to run a school system that is supposed to teach history to our kids!   If they can’t even recognize what’s been going on in the Central District in recent years, how many other aspects of Black and African life will they erase from their history books?

In this technocratic, bureaucratic Seattle, everything  becomes standardized, from the architecture of the condos and the coffee shops that move in, to the pacification plans of the police who defend them, to the curriculum and testing in the schools where Black students are three times as likely to be expelled.   And of course, it’s not just Seattle, the same problems are going on in different ways across the country and around the world.  Capital colonizes everything it touches.

As a teacher who is forced against my will to implement these bureacrats’ “plans”, it was particularly interesting to watch the district administrators stumble  over themselves, attempting to answer basic questions from such a well-organized and thoughtful community.   They  try to count and measure everything via standardized tests and rubrics.  And yet, it seems like they simply had not accounted for the possibility  that folks from the Black community might have their own, well-organized plans.  They seemed  overwhelmed by the militancy and resolve of people in the room.  As a teacher who interacts with young intellectuals from this neighborhood on a daily basis, I was not at all surprised – I was cheering folks on.

I’m sure the administrators are now working overtime to prevent the outcome that was in the back of everyone’s mind in that meeting – the possibility of the community refusing to leave the building.  This would mean that if the SPS officials want them out, they’d have to rely on the police to try to force them out, and the Seattle Police are not exactly a popular institution these days, especially in the Central District.  Of course, if it comes to that, all of the contradictions of race, class, gentrification, differential suspension rates, etc. would come right into the forefront of Seattle politics.  It might be hard to start the school year with business as usual.

In the end, Superintendent Banda offered to delay the eviction until the 31st, and to form a task force to negotiate with Wkying and other community members about the fate of the building.

Of course, this does not resolve anything, it simply gives each side more time to organize and prepare for the next encounter.  Whatever the outcome of that encounter, it will have historic implications for anyone connected to education in this city.  The Africatown Community Innovation Center has already become a  focal point for the community to self-organize, to figure out how to challenge racism throughout the schools and to brainstorm concrete alternatives to the forms of teaching and institutional organization that are failing Black students.  The community that has gathered there seems intent on making sure this project is not repressed or dispersed, and teachers, parents, and students throughout the district should support their efforts.


9 Responses to “Parents and Students Self-Organize At the Horace Mann School Building”

  1. holly homan August 12, 2013 at 3:36 am #

    Good or bad SPS is becoming more ‘equal opportunity’ when ti comes to gutting programs/communities.

    For example, rather than work with lower income schools to add program present at schools like Bryant, they gut Bryant’s program so there’s nothing to gripe about/compare to. If they are willing to do that in school full of the children of UW faculty, and media types-it does not bode well for a school full of first generation immigrants-now does it

    • mamos206 August 12, 2013 at 5:49 am #

      In contrast to the dynamic parent organizing described in this post, it seems to me that a lot of parent activism in the Seattle Public Schools right now is dominated by white middle class parents who are primarily looking out for their OWN kids. This is unfortunate for exactly the reason you are speaking to. It leads to a stagnant situation where they are not fighting back, even when they themselves are attacked, because they still are working within the illusion that the system is looking out for them because of their relative privilege. As a result, they are loosing. If they fail to act in solidarity with working class and racially oppressed communities, white middle class PTSA activists don’t help us get to the moment where we can all unite against the system to reverse the attacks on all of our youth. Even their own kids will eventually suffer for it as the system gets more and more stratified. Working class white people still have privilege relative to working class Black folks. But EVERYONE short of the upper crust is getting screwed and this won’t stop until we all fight back. Going to a white schools or a middle class school does not completely exempt folks from this, especially if they’re working class. They are still facing boredom, testing, control, depression, mental health crises, budget cuts, and a future full of debt and dead end jobs. As someone mentioned on Thurs night, that’s why Nova exists in the first place – because the mainstream schools aren’t working for a lot of youth. The parents and educators who are self organizing at Horace Mann are showing all of us what needs to be done – don’t expect the administration and politicians to automatically work with you, just organize to take over what you need so your kids can learn, which is only possible if everyone’s kids can learn.

  2. Charlie Mas August 16, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    The NOVA Project was housed at the Horace Mann building for over thirty years. The school was foolishly moved out fo the building (for no legitimate reason) to the Meany building in 2009. When the School District leadership changed the new leadership announced their intention to return The NOVA Project to its historic home, the Mann building. That has been the District’s stated intent for at least two years. It was the District’s stated intent before any of the programs now in the Mann building ever existed. As the author noted, these programs became active “Over the course of the summer”, long after the District announced their plans for the building.

    Seattle Public Schools owns the building. Seattle Public Schools needs the building to house high school students. There is a shortage of high school capacity throughout most of the city.

    The author writes that “the bureaucrats who run Seattle Public Schools want to take the Horace Mann building away from the community” but the building never belonged to anyone but the school district and the school district still owns it. The District actively used the building from the time of its construction until 2009 and had announced their intent to use the building again soon thereafter. The District isn’t taking the building away from anyone. If anyone is trying to take the building it is the people behind the Africatown Community Innovation Center who are trying to take the building away from the school district. The ACIC has no legitimate claim on the building – none.

    The overcrowding in Seattle Public Schools is real and no amount of wishing will make it go away. Living in a neighborhood does not grant any rights to a building. None. Neither the demographics of the NOVA community nor their home addresses is relevant in this discussion.The fact is that NOVA is a non-geographic community and therefore there is no building that is close to their homes. The author’s perspective does not appear to allow for the legitimacy of any non-geographic communities nor afford them any home. The author claims that “This is all happening in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified, going from majority black to majority white in recent decades.” If that is the case then the claim that White students have less right to the space based on the demographics of the neighborhood is false.

    The contention that the programs now renting space in the building could be relocated was not disputed. Instead, the author could only try to discredit the source of the idea with ad hominem attacks, calling her a “white SPS administrator”, “flippant”, and “bourgeois”. There was no attempt to address the fact that she was right.

    Here are the simple facts; The building belongs to the school district. The school district, as the owner of the building, has the authority to determine its use. The school district decided, long ago, to return NOVA to its historic home in the building. The programs now in the building moved in AFTER that decision. The programs that moved into the building after the decision were – or should have been – aware of the decision. They agreed to a lease with that knowledge. They should comply with the terms of their agreement and leave the building when their lease terminates. The programs can find another space somewhere else. The district needs the Mann building for The NOVA Project, the historic occupants of the building. Everything else is off-topic and without merit.

    • dontbuyanthing August 17, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      As a parent of a recent Nova graduate and a returning Nova student, this is a critical issue that strongly resonates with me.

      Personally, I respect and completely support the self-directed actions of the ACIC community to create a model for education and engagement that works for young people of color in the Central Area. (The current Seattle School district practices and the larger culture as a whole are clearly NOT working for young people of color.)

      I personally support the ACIC remaining at the Mann building because it is critical for communities to reclaim common spaces in the face of an increasing economic marginalization (economic violence) that has pushed poor communities out of the way to make room for white-condo-rei-disneyland Seattle.

      Given the behavior of the district and their lack of accountability over the botched 2009 school closure and a long succession of fumbles, I have zero belief in the legitimacy of their authority over what happens to the Mann building. They change rules at their whim because that is what power structures do. (Charlie, you of all people have seen that first hand. Stating that everyone should “respect their authority” as if you believe the district is always right seems disingenuous to me.)

      My family chose Nova because we believed that the model of horizontal, democratic decision making would allow students to work on social issues in a way that is deep, authentic, and addresses the real conditions of their community. We felt this would be a positive contrast to the hollow and abstract self-declarations of “social justice” that we have all hear preached, but rarely see put into practice.

      However, I believe that the Nova community has become negatively conditioned by a ‘siege’ mentality. For 30 years, they have fought near constant threats of closure and hostility from the district for refusing to follow top-down mandates and listen to the needs of their students. Unfortunately, the cost of this ‘siege mentality’ is high, and may be partially responsible for the extreme lack of solidarity with other communities that I have seen Nova exhibit in recent years.

      For example, during the brutal 2009 closures, schools were clearly pitted against each other by the district. One community had to lose for another to win. Schools came to district HQ begging the district overlords to “close THAT OTHER school – not ours!!”. Nova had opportunities to stand up for schools like Meany (the building Nova now occupies), the African American Academy, Summit K-12, and others and they did not. (In fact, Nova refused to consider merging with Meany, AS#1, or Summit – all of which would have given it the middle school that they now want to add!)

      At a recent district meeting, students from the Center School gave impassioned testimony to try to prevent one of their teachers from being transferred for teaching an Anti-racism curriculum. Nova students also appeared, but testified about recycling, without mentioning (or even seeming to notice) that there were real people 20 feet away from them that needed support. Just a passing shout out would have shown humanity and helped create solidarity.

      I have been disappointed that this type of on-the-ground social empathy and solidarity has not been more ingrained in the school culture at Nova. I have heard at least one teacher and a handful of students and parents recently voice concerns that Nova is not doing enough to address the needs of ALL students in the district.

      It would be fantastic if Nova students reached out to the ACIC to learn the value of what the ACIC is creating. The principle of community-empowered and self-directed education that Nova espouses is what ACIC is DOING! The repatriation of public space to the African American community is the embodiment of of the “social justice” that Nova claims to pursue.

      I personally would hope Nova students could see this value and create an internal movement to show solidarity with the ACIC and try to stop or alter the move of Nova to Mann.

      No one reading this article can deny that the district has demonstrated sheer incompetence in managing school capacity and a callous disregard for the needs of communities of color. The Nova community and other communities in the city should be standing with the ACIC to de-legitimize district authority and fight the social and educational structures that funnel all of our young people into the role of either the oppressor or the oppressed.

  3. CHM August 17, 2013 at 4:28 am #

    Your information, while impassioned, does not accurately describe the situation.

    The Mann building was deemed surplus and was leased on a short-term basis. The NOVA school community was devastated by the loss of its home in the Mann building.

    The recently approved school district levy set aside funds for capital improvements to the building. The construction timing was set particularly to coincide with the end of the lease with its short-term tenants.

    BEX IV Levy – NOVA Alternative HS at Mann

    The same levy also has funds for facility improvements to the Meany building, where NOVA has been housed for several years. Meany Middle School will reopen in a few years, in order to meet capacity needs. NOVA has to relocate to make way for Meany MS.

    In case this doesn’t make sense to you, how the district can go from one extreme of under capacity to over capacity enrollment, yes it boggles the mind. But Seattle Schools had 500 more kindergartners last year than it had projected and they have presumably improved their methods of projecting enrollment.

    School Closures: Math that Doesn’t Add Up

    The MLK building in Madison Valley was sold as surplus property to First AME. Part of the terms of the sale was that it would provide community programming. Perhaps the organizations that are coming to the end of their lease term would find appropriate space there to continue their endeavors.

    MLK Restrictive Covenant

    You might also consider contacting the local SCORE office for business planning advice, as we as recruit more experienced board members, so that you don’t find yourself in this situation again.



  1. Fate of Horace Mann, Class Sizes to be Debated at School Board on Weds | Creativity Not Control - August 17, 2013

    […] District community, called the Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC).  We had posted last week about the struggle over the future of the Horace Mann building, and supporters of the ACIC are […]

  2. Thoughts on Horace Mann and the ACIC from a Nova Parent | Creativity Not Control - August 21, 2013

    […] respect and completely support the self-directed actions of the ACIC to create a model for education and engagement that works for young people of color in […]

  3. Response to the debate about the ACIC on Save Seattle Schools blog | Creativity Not Control - September 8, 2013

    […] the Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC).  For background about the ACIC, see here and here.  The moderator of the Save Seattle Schools blog closed down comments and ended the […]

  4. Statement by Nova Staff and Families on Horace Mann Building | Seattle Free Press - September 19, 2013

    […] Over the past year, residents and neighbors in Seattle’s Central District have been organizing alongside organizations like the Umoja P.E.A.C.E Center and the Amistad School to reclaim the historic Horace Mann building for the black community.  Some background information on their struggle can has been provided here. […]

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