David Montoya graduated from Foster High School in Tukwila, Wash., in 1989. The school was once surrounded by farms and orchards, and Montoya estimated that he was from one of maybe 10 minority families at the time.
Montoya’s son Max now attends the school, and it looks a lot different now. Minorities make up 71 percent of the student body, and The New York Times estimates that Foster is in the most diverse school district in the nation.
The shift at Foster is due, in part, to global wars and unrest, like the war in Bosnia, which sent a flow of refugees to Tukwila in the early ‘90s.
School principal Pat Larson, who grew up in the area, said that conflicts from home countries worked their way into the classroom.
“Counselors put a Bosnian and a Serbian student in the same class room,” she said, “a huge fight erupted in class because they didn’t let go of the war.”
Those who had lived in Tukwila for generations struggled to accept the influx of immigrants. Mike Shannon, a civics teacher who has worked at Foster for 40 years, said that there was a prevailing, “We were here first” attitude toward immigrants from Vietnam, Somalia and elsewhere.
Martin Luther King Day, normally a day dedicated to recognizing diversity, became a day fraught with conflict.
“Every year we came to the Martin Luther King assembly and it became a black-white fight day,” Larson said. “The Caucasian kids here began to say, ‘Why do they’ – the African-American kids – ‘get their day?’ We had kids demonstrating, stomping around out here.”
The school decided to counter the problems head-on with a diversity class, assemblies and open dialogues. The aim was to get students talking about culture, race, equality and changes in the community.
Since then, Foster’s culture has evolved. Max Montoya described the current atmosphere as being one of community.
“Even though there’s a lot of language barriers and people coming from different backgrounds – and all those things may come as a challenge sometimes – we still feel like a family all the time,” he said.
RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Fall Workshop in partnership with Neighborhood House - High Point Center. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.