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Image: James Yang

SARAH BOWEN plays a mean violin. For three years at Eckstein Middle School, she was her grade’s concert master, a desirable designation bestowed upon the top violinist in the entire orchestra. In other words, her path to higher learning is paved in half notes and treble clefs. Or it was until she found out last winter that, based on nothing more than her address, she’d been assigned to Nathan Hale High School, which didn’t even have an orchestra program. “We became very active last year in trying to have a reasonable discussion about this with the district,” says Sarah’s dad, Keith Bowen. “And basically we got snubbed each time.”

The neighborhood-school concept is so accepted—and entrenched—in most cities not named Seattle that it’s practically passe: If you live within the boundaries for Clark Kent Middle School, you’re going to Clark Kent Middle School. What that system lacks in options it presumably makes up for by encouraging neighborhood ownership of the school.

On the other hand, Seattle Public Schools’ decades-old open-choice program has given picky parents the power to apply, on their kids’ behalf, to any school in the district. And what that plan lacked in community building, it presumably made up for by encouraging niche curricula: Don’t think the science program at West Seattle High is challenging enough for your overachieving teen? See if you can get her into Ballard High—and the district will pick up the crosstown transportation tab.

At least that’s how it worked until the 2010–11 school year: From now on, all incoming kindergartners and sixth and ninth graders are assigned to their neighborhood school. At its core, it was a change jump-started in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down SPS’s method of integrating schools. But the district prefers to focus on the positive, pointing out that the new student assignment plan excises the complexities inherent to the open-choice system, which included tiebreakers for students who fought for spots at in-demand schools. “In the past, you had every choice except predictability,” says SPS enrollment manager Tracy Libros. But Sarah Bowen’s less-than-desirable school-assignment sitch underscores the ways in which the new plan is testing some families’ ability to adapt to change—and the district’s ability to meet every student’s educational needs.

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iPad illustration by Benjamen Purvis

In theory, the neighborhood-school plan wouldn’t be a problem if parents believed the educational offerings were comparable at every SPS high school. And although superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson says the district is trying to level the academic playing field across the city, it’s a work in progress. In Bowen’s case, it wasn’t until other parents like hers complained that administrators at Nathan Hale tuned up an orchestra there. But faced with the prospect of languishing in a fledgling program, Bowen decided her only choice was to go private and attend Bishop Blanchet.

Now, the neighborhood-school system hasn’t stripped parents and students of all of their options. In fact, this year 10 percent of the seats at each high school were left open for students who live outside their preferred school’s attendance-area boundaries. But unless they had an older sibling already there, they landed in a random lottery. And there’s no guarantee that the district will be that flexible in the future. The new student assignment plan mandates that each high school offer open-choice seats, but it doesn’t specify how many. A subsequent transition plan approved by the school board set the 10 percent target for this year, but even Libros isn’t sure what will happen next year. “The percentage of open-choice seats may decrease and it may increase.”