The African American Academy (1991-2009)

The African American Academy Building in Seattle, 2010
Courtesy Joe Mabel

In the late 1970s after two decades of school desegregation efforts in Seattle, Washington, school administrators and parents of black children began to notice that average academic test scores for African American students began to lag behind those of white and Asian pupils in almost every grade level and despite varied socioeconomic backgrounds. As a consequence, reformers both inside and outside the Seattle Unified School District began to focus on cultural differences in teaching and learning styles for black children as well as the absence of African American teachers and in particular African American male teachers.

By the early 1980s, activists including James Kelley, president of the Seattle Urban League; Tony Orange of the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), a local anti-poverty agency; and Michael Preston, member of the Seattle School Board and an administrator at the Central Area Youth Association (CAYA) among others organized the Black Community Coalition. They and others such as the Black Child Development Institute of Seattle argued that all African American students and especially young black males would thrive in an educational environment where their teachers, the support staff, and the students themselves would be African American. They called for the creation of an African American Academy to meet the special needs of young black male students.  They originally envisioned an all-male academy but eventually decided that the academy should be coed to ensure that young black women would be exposed to the enrichment programs that would be offered. These activists created the Friends of the African American Academy and lobbied the Seattle School Board to designated one of the city’s ten alternative schools as an all-black institution.

The plan was controversial both within and outside the African American community as many older activists pointed to the three-decades-long campaign to racially integrate Seattle schools. The academy instead would feature an African-centered curriculum, small class sizes, and student uniforms. Although the school’s enrollment would be all-black, the academy would be publicly funded.

The Seattle School Board finally approved the African American Academy in 1990, and in September 1991 the institution opened serving kindergarten through fifth grade at Coleman School in the Central District. The following year, it moved to the Rainier Valley. In 1993 the academy was relocated again, this time to the Magnolia neighborhood where it remained until 2000 when it finally moved to its permanent home, a new three-story building on the south end of Beacon Hill designed for sin hundred and fifty students. Its permanent site was designed by African American architect Mel Streeter. Among the academy’s principals were former Seattle Assistant Superintendent Collin Williams and former Seattle Public Schools principals Rickie Malone and Chris Carter. The students were exposed to an interdisciplinary curriculum of African history, culture, and heritage. Through much of the academy’s history, the student-teacher ratio was 16:1.

District analyses of test scores showed growth in the elementary grades, but by the seventh grade, less than 4 percent of the academy’s students passed reading, writing, and math on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASAL). Fourth graders, however, at the academy did better than other African American students district wide. Nevertheless, declining enrollment and modest academic progress on the WASAL continued.

In 2009 Superintendent Maria Goodloe Johnson decided that the African American Academy and four other schools would be closed because of a $24 million deficit.

Despite some community protests, the African American Academy ended operations permanently in 2010.