8 Key Insights from 'The Only Black Man on the Seattle School Board'

Stephan Blanford is the outgoing school board rep for District 5, and as he leaves the post, we bid farewell to our strongest, most consistent voice for equity on the otherwise disastrous Seattle School Board.

Stephan talked with KUOW's Ann Dornfeld for about half an hour recently: "On being the only black man on the Seattle school board." They touched on race and equity in Seattle's schools from just about every angle. The entire conversation is absolutely worth listening to. I can't possibly share every detail here, as much as I wish I could. Still, here are eight key insights from their chat (I originally planned to do five, but I couldn't contain myself):


1. The dysfunction of our school board continues to drive good people away from Seattle Public Schools.

Stephan Blanford: “I’ve come to realize that you get the opportunity to put a brick in the wall. You don’t get the opportunity to just totally transform systems. That said, I’ve struggled with the fact that I’ve been on the losing end of way too many votes on issues that affect our achievement and opportunity gaps, and that’s part of the reason that I chose not to run again.”


2. Seattle’s “unconscionable” opportunity gaps are not closing yet.

SB: "It’s hard to know what the baseline was, but I do know the study that came out last year from Stanford that said that we are the fifth-worst large urban school district in the nation in terms of our achievement and opportunity gaps between our white students and our African-American students. And I believe the numbers are similar for the other subgroups of students. I believe really strongly that in this community, that is as wealthy as it is, and as committed to public education as it is, and as educated as it is, that is a pretty unconscionable metric, that we would have such large opportunity gaps for a school system that serves all of the city."

Ann Dornfeld: "And, of course, it’s hard to know what the current status is, right? Because the Stanford data was looking back only to 2012 and earlier."

SB: "Right. But I would believe that number hasn’t changed significantly because, again, it’s difficult to all-of-a-sudden make huge change happen."


3. Some teachers are on a mission for equity, while others aren’t. The district’s cultural pendulum needs to swing toward the teachers focused on closing the opportunity gap.

SB: "In my three-and-a-half years on the board I have seen very excellent teachers who care very deeply about the achievement and opportunity gaps, many of them were inspired to go into the classroom because they saw the disparities. We also have teachers that that’s not their primary concern, so trying to figure out ways to make it part of the culture of the entire school is the work of those racial equity teams inside of schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them, and I see them as catalysts for moving that conversation forward and then making sure that it changes the culture of the school. I would argue that we’re not moving fast enough on that issue, but I also recognize that it takes time."


4. Seattle is home to the same latent white fear as all other U.S. cities. We need to air this out.

AD: "Of course, it could be argued that part of the quality of the school is, in fact, how diverse it is. It’s not just who’s teaching and what’s being taught."

SB: “I would agree wholeheartedly to that notion. I wonder sometimes, though, if our community as a whole doesn’t recognize how important that is. That part of education, particularly in the 21st century, is going to be the ability to work across culture, work with people who are not like you. Many of our schools are not very diverse, and many of our constituents are pushing toward efforts to ensure that that is happening. When we try to promote the idea that a diverse school and classroom is beneficial, we actually get pushback from folks and communities.”


5. Our own individual decisions must reflect our principles. White parents in Seattle in particular are making decisions that perpetuate segregation and opportunity gaps.

SB: “I hope i don’t get myself into trouble, but I believe that in many ways, for our parents — many of our white parents — there is a disconnect between what they believe in their heart of hearts and how they act. And, you know, as  parent myself, I know that my first and primary responsibility is to advocate for the best possible situations for my child, and I believe that is what all parents do all of the time. There is a fundamental dissonance between if you have a preconceived notion that black and brown kids can’t learn at the same rate as white and Asian kids, then I think there is automatic default to wanting your child to be in a diverse class, but not too diverse.


6. Segregation and discrimination aren’t always easy to spot from the outside looking in.

AD: “Do you see issues of segregation within school buildings that on paper would appear to be diverse schools?”

SB: "Yes. There are three schools in the district that I represent, and I would believe that probably in every district in Seattle, there are a number of schools where the teachers have come to me and said, ‘There is rampant segregation in our building. When we line up all of our kids and we send the highly capable kids in one direction and we send the general ed kids in a different direction, you can see the racial segregation play out just by kids lining up.' That has played out in several of the schools in my district, and so again, I believe that probably plays out in most districts. Where it’s profound, and it’s right in your face, where you see all the black and brown kids on one side, and all the white and Asian kids on the other side."


7. We have to look at every issue through an equity lens.

SB: "In school board meetings, in the email campaigns that go on, and in lots of other ways, parents articulate and advocate for their individual school, but sometimes at the detriment of other schools. And I try to figure out ways to get folks to see the big picture, and that if we pit one school versus another, eventually those who lose are those parents who are not organized.

"There are winners and losers with every decision that we make, and if you are truly an advocate for educational equity, you have to factor that into your advocacy."


8. Our only African-American school board member experienced a long line of racial microaggressions during his tenure. We all have to do the personal work if we want our community and our country to change.

SB: "There have been racial microaggressions manifested by board members on other board members and on staff and on community members who’ve come to testify. Those have been well-documented. It’s not very hard to find. But I think they highlight the fact that there’s a need for the board — and I think for the boards of most communities, so not singling out Seattle specifically — but there’s a need for us to do lots of personal work in order to fulfill our role on the top of the org chart of a billion-dollar organization that impacts the lives of 54,000 students. And because we are a district that has more students of color than we do white students, there is some sense of urgency around that. It’s not something that we should do at some point in the future. There is, in my mind, because of the huge disparities that we have, there’s a requirement that we do that soon."

I just want to reiterate that if you have even a passing interest in Seattle’s schools, it’s important that you listen to this entire interview. We need more and more conversations like this, and we need our actions to start reflecting our words and our thoughts.

Thanks, Stephan, for your time and energy on behalf of all kids over the past four years. You must be exhausted.