Erin Jones has spent her career working for equity in education, and her track record as an educator and as an advocate for all students has few peers in our state.
Erin was selected as a Milken Educator of the Year for Washington state in 2007, as one of 10 White House Champions of Change for Educational Excellence for African Americans in 2013 for her work promoting educational excellence for African-Americans in the community, and in 2015 as the Washington state PTA Educator of the Year.
In three years as the Assistant Superintendent of Student Achievement in the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), her work centered around developing policy recommendations and promoting instructional best practices for diverse student groups.
Erin is now running to be our next state superintendent, and I had a chance to ask her a few questions about her campaign and her vision for our schools.
Matt Halvorson: Hi Erin! Thanks for sharing a few minutes from your busy schedule with us.
First off, what motivates you? What drives your desire to work in education?
Erin Jones: I came to the US after being raised in the Netherlands with an expectation that I would get a law degree and return to the Netherlands to work as an international lawyer. After one year in the US, I became very aware that students who looked like me were not getting the same kind of education I had received in Europe. After my second year in the US, I knew I couldn't go home. I realized race, zip code and home language were the greatest predictors of the kind of school experience kids would get, and I wanted to be part of changing that.
After serving as a classroom teacher for 12 years and an administrator for 8, the desire to better serve all kids hasn't changed. I know this is the work I am called to for a lifetime. This is the greatest civil rights issue the 21st century!
Matt: What has it been like to transition from working in schools and administration to navigating the world of politics?
Erin: I absolutely must stay connected to schools in order to do the politics. The children and the teachers are in the reason I am running for election. In my opinion, when one becomes removed from school building and disconnected from the real work, one can no longer represent the people. We see evidence of this every day in the kinds of decisions legislators and other leaders make on behalf of people they don't know.
I am also still working as an administrator as I run for office... I will be resigning, however, at the end of my contract in June.
Matt: In what ways would you say the politics in our state and the political process for this role are contributing to the educational inequities in our state?
Erin: There are many ways the politics and political processes contribute to inequity in public service, whether that relates to healthcare, housing or education. There are many unspoken rules in the political process. There are ways that political insiders and those with money have an advantage - because they can take off work or not work at all, because they're connected to money and can get big donations. The challenge with political insiders and wealthy people getting elected over and over is that they cannot represent the voices of the most marginalized, so inequity is perpetuated. This is exactly how the Legislature could decide on opening day this year not to make a dent in McCleary. When the lack of funding doesn't impact your children, it's easy to push that decision off... so inequity continues.
Matt: Washington is one of a handful of states with a growing opportunity gap between students of color and white students, and between low-income students and their more affluent peers. In your opinion, what is contributing to those gaps in our state specifically?
Erin: 1. Inequity in funding and support. Who gets access to arts programming and electives? Who gets to take Advanced Placement or College in the High School classes? Who is able to benefit from Running Start? These things contribute to inequities in public education. Our poorest schools continue to struggle to pass levies and bonds, which means schools cannot be fixed and poor rural districts don't have the same ability to purchase FTE or access wi-fi.
2. Bias and prejudice. We all have it, but in the Northwest, we don't want to admit our issues with "others." Unfortunately, we have all been exposed to negative media and a culture that undervalues people of color, which shows up in our expectations for students and how they are provided (or not provided) with opportunities. We need to be willing to unpack our biases and the ways we have been trained to think about ourselves and others in order to better serve all students.
3. Lack of training and support. 20 years ago, our state was primarily white. Our teachers were trained to serve middle class white children. Now, suddenly, with an influx of students of color and recent immigrants, staff need to know how to more effectively communicate with and instruct a new demographic. It means we must begin to prepare students differently for the classroom. It means all teachers must know how to instruct students who don't show up in school with academic English.
Matt: What bold actions will you take for equity? What bold actions will you take for families?
Erin: Bold actions: I'm the first black woman to run for statewide office. That in itself is a bold move. I am aware of the power of modeling and the change I can create by rewriting the narrative about the potential of students of color or those "othered" for whatever reason.
I have a 4-step plan for addressing equity in our state:
Recruit, hire, train and support staff to increase the number of educators of color in schools, AND better prepare support white teachers to serve students of color and students who enter classrooms without fluency in English.
Create a model for authentic family and community engagement that recognizes the value of parent as first teacher and the need for schools to partner with community organizations to provide needed non-academic resources necessary to serve the Whole Child. Families are CRITICAL to the success of students, but we must listen and engage families in meaningful ways. OSPI used to have a family engagement office - CISL. That office must be reinstated. We find and promote what we believe has value. When there is no one at OSPI dedicated to family/community engagement, that sends a clear message.
Address the needs of the Whole Child - the academic, social-emotional, physical and cultural needs of our children.
Create a smooth pathway/pipeline for students to move from early childhood to post-high school. This pathway should help students and families navigate public education, help students connect early to their passions and then create a roadmap to ensure students develop the skills and have the experiences they need to be able to pursue their passions beyond high school (whether that requires 2/4-year college, tech school, apprenticeships, military).