On the Other Side of the Canal:

Seattle's struggle with race, neighborhoods, and education

"The real understanding of equity is where we recognize that not everybody starts out on a level playing field."

- Caprice Hollins, former Director of Equity, Race, and Learning Support
for Seattle Public Schools

In 2016, when Ahlaam Ibraahim, 19, was a senior at Rainier Beach High School, funding for the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program was slated to run out. The district associate superintendent’s response was that the plan had been for the district to start the program and for the school and local community to eventually pay for it (Morales). Although this may have worked in other Seattle neighborhoods, Rainier Beach serves a neighborhood where over 15% of the adult population never finished high school – a neighborhood that did not have the resources to fund a program that could have been a pathway to higher education opportunities for its students (Statistical Atlas). For Ahlaam, the fight for funding became just another example of Seattle’s complicated relationship between neighborhoods and race.

“We work hard and we have the same education,” she said,
“But we don’t stand on the same playing field.”

“No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property or any building thereof, except domestic servants or servant may be actually and in good faith employed by white occupants of such premises.”

– property deed for North Queen Anne (1946)

Today, many Seattleites may consider the city to be a progressive and inclusive space. However, not long ago, racial segregation policies were the backbone of the housing market and written directly into property deeds. 

How did neighborhoods become separated?

Explore any known housing restrictions that existed within Seattle neighborhoods between 1927 and 1948. To think that just a few decades ago from today, the ability to live where we wanted was a privilege and not a right.

Click on the buttons on the right to see who was allowed or not allowed to live where.

Click on a neighborhood on the map to see more.

A neighborhood will be marked as restricted if any properties within it were restricted.

In 1977, decades before Ahlaam Ibraahim attended Rainier Beach and twenty-three years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Washington Ship Canal served as a “de facto racial dividing line” (Tate). Schools in north Seattle neighborhoods were filled with white students; students in the south were predominantly of color - a leftover legacy of housing discrimination, even though the practice became illegal in 1968. Seattle voluntarily undertook a district-wide mandatory busing plan, which, for twenty years, “unfairly burdened children of color; contributed to a widening achievement gap between white and minority students; [and] undermined public confidence in the schools” (Tate). In the late 1990s, the district implemented a new plan: open enrollment to any school, with a racial tiebreaker aimed at keeping racial demographics at any given school as close to the demographics of the district as possible. Except it didn’t do a very good job.

How were schools affected by neighborhoods?

In 1998, the district adopted open enrollment, hoping to combat the homogenous schools created by the neighborhood-based plan. See the demographics of the most and least diverse high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools at the time of the policy change, and again in 2005. Rainier Beach High School, where Ahlaam went, is also included.

Click on a school on the map to see how its demographics changed after the open enrollment plan was adopted, and how closely the breakdown aligned to that of the district. Hover over the dots to see the exact breakdown.

Schools with highest % of White Students Schools with highest % of Minority Students

In 2006, a group of parents sued the district over the racial tiebreaker, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the tiebreaker unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. And so in 2010, roughly 30 years after the mandatory busing plan was first implemented, the Seattle School District returned to its original school enrollment plan: by neighborhood lines.

“We gotta change these narratives. Because if someone in the north is not willing to come to the south out of fear, they’re not going to be helping change things in the south.”

– Ahlaam Ibraahim, Rainier Beach High School Class of 2016

Neighborhoods, race, and education are closely intertwined. Throughout the history of Seattle, numerous policies in housing and education have created racially and social-economically imbalanced neighborhoods within the city. Children in these neighborhoods face a higher risk at starting behind and being left behind, and, without the necessary support and resources, become part of a narrative that, for these communities, have been told too many times (Oyez).

What are the implications for today?

Seattle neighborhoods are still very much divided, separated not only by geography but also by what percent of their population idenfities as a specific race, brackets of income, and levels of education. Click on a neighborhood or two in the map to see how they rank in these factors; click on the dropdown in the middle to specify a race. Click and drag up or down directly on the axes on the right to highlight trends - where are all the people with higher education? Finally, choose a button on the left to see which factors are high and low in certain neighborhoods.

Rainier Beach’s IB program was saved by a 3-year grant by the Seattle non-profit Alliance for Education, but the money won’t last forever (Morales). And when it runs out, the future of Rainier Beach’s program and its students will be once again in jeopardy. For Ahlaam Ibraahim, “Beach,” as she fondly calls it, was a family-oriented, supportive space where she felt safe and encouraged by her teachers. However, for Ahlaam and others in her community, the overarching narrative needs to change. “We don’t stand on the same playing field,” she says, and the history and the data certainly show the factors that stack the odds against them.

As a city, we need to find a way to level that playing field.
Because every child deserves a chance at success.


Our project aims to explore Seattle’s complex relationship between race and neighborhoods through the lens of education. We hope to provide a comprehensive narrative of what inequities exist within our city and why their implications are by examining factors such as racial demographics, median family income, median rent, and levels of education. Finally, we hope to make others more cognizant of the idea that inequity is not a simple issue of who has money and who does not, but rather a cascading cycle that involves history, policy, societal attitude, and geography – factors that often cannot be controlled by the people they impact the most.



Seattle Public Schools Enrollment by Ethnicity 1998, Seattle Public Schools

Seattle Public Schools Enrollment by Ethnicity 2005, Seattle Public Schools

Neighborhood Boundaries, Seattle City Clerk's Office

Neighborhood Demographics, 2010 U.S. Census

Median Income and Median Rent, City Data

Educational Attainment, Statistical Atlas

Housing Restrictions, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project

A note on the data:
From Seattle’s official city website: “City departments and non-City entities define neighborhoods differently based on many factors. Some districts and neighborhoods are informal with varying boundaries and names. Some neighborhoods may overlap and be referred to by different names by community members.” This meant we ran into a lot of data issues. Our neighborhood boundaries dataset came from Seattle City Clerk’s Office, whereas our population dataset came from the Community Reporting Areas (both official definitions under different departments). Both of these entities defined a set of neighborhood boundaries that partitioned the city but in different ways. For example, the Seattle City Clerk separated Broadview and Bitter Lake, while the CRA combined Broadview/Bitter Lake. Some neighborhoods were contained within others: Seattle City Clerk defined Harbor Island independently, CRA had Harbor Island within North Delridge. The Seattle City Clerk defined Rainier Valley as consisting of Mount Baker, Columbia City, Brighton, Dunlap, Rainier Beach, Rainier View. CRA had no definition of Rainier Valley, but did have a definition for Mount Baker, Columbia City, Rainier Beach. Read more here on how we connected neighborhoods across datasets.


Browse our README to see code resources.


Ahlaam Ibraahim is currently a freshman at the University of Washington. As a graduate of Rainier Beach High School, she continues advocating for her community: she leads Educating the Horn, an organization that aims to support Somali youth in pursing higher education, and is also planning Global Islamophobia Awareness Day, which calls for better understanding of the Muslim experience. Ahlaam, thank you for sharing your story. You have inspired us more than you know.



Seattle Schools Have Biggest White Black Achievement Gap in State, Gene Balk, Seattle Times

Saving Rainier Beach High's IB Program for the Long Term Will Take More Than a Grant, Tammy Morales, South Seattle Emerald

Busing in Seattle: A Well Intentioned Failure, Cassandra Tate, History Link

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Oyez


Seattle skyline Epicodus

One of the more diverse Seattle classrooms MOHAI, Seattle Post Intelligencer Collection

Aurora Bridge from south side of ship canal, Seattle 1939, MOHAI

March for open housing, Seattle 1964, MOHAI

North Queen Anne property deed, 1946, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project

Busing of Seattle students to improve racial mixes MOHAI, Seattle Post Intelligencer Collection

Whittier Elementary School - one of the least diverse schools in Seattle, 1946 MOHAI

Franklin High School sit-in defendents arriving at court, 1968 MOHAI

Magnolia Elementary School, 1942 MOHAI

Ernestine Anderson and granddaughter at Greenwood Elementary School, 1985 MOHAI