Seattle Public Schools unveiled a new strategic plan based on targeted universalism! Will it be enough?

Good day, friends.

I’ve been doing some reading this week, as one does. Can I share a few things that have stuck with me? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Let’s start with this article in Crosscut: Seattle schools hope focusing on African-American male students helps everyone. There is so much said and left unsaid here that it’s worth reading twice. If you’re in a hurry, here’s the short version:

Seattle Public Schools is basing its new strategic plan on the principles of targeted universalism. Wow! Yes!

Briefly, this theory holds that if you find a way to fully meet the needs of the most marginalized group, you’ll not only meet everyone’s needs in the process, but everyone will actually be uplifted. In Seattle’s schools and in schools across Washington, Black boys face the highest discipline rates and bear the greatest burden of the opportunity gap, so this strategic plan includes the district specifically stating a focus on making sure Black students are uplifted.

The opportunity gap, as we all know, is a byproduct of systemic oppression playing out in our schools. The way to upend systemic oppression is to find a way to turn the system on its head. Targeted universalism applies that table-flipping mentality in a constructive way. I’m so surprised and pleased to hear this idea mentioned as our schools’ strategic north star.

But… there’s still an air of super-defeatedness to this whole article. Whether it’s Seattle School Board Director Jill Geary seeming to hem and haw about the need to focus on Black students, or the way Marquita Prinzing is already openly discouraged and pessimistic, this article sure didn’t have the usual reassurances that this time, it’ll actually work.

Also, don’t miss usual suspect Melissa Westbrook swooping down to naysay in this same article. It’s like, you know, shame on me for being surprised to see her name there talking about All Lives Matter type nonsense. It’s as if the sound of true equity work in Seattle’s schools triggers her anti-Spidey sense. With great privilege comes great fragility.

Anyway, here’s another quick reminder that Seattle’s schools are becoming more and more segregated, which only makes the news that Jesse Hagopian is being displaced from Garfield High School that much harder to take. Although to be fair, he’s just one of a number of educators of color struggling with displacement. Which doesn't help.

It’s strange — such extremes these days. It does feel like issues of inequity are being tackled and discussed more openly and boldly than ever right now. But when every step forward always seems to come with the revelation that we haven’t actually moved, it’s hard to know what’s real. Will this strategic plan be The One that guides us to Equity? Seems doubtful, even as optimistic as targeted universalism makes me feel.

In the end, we must abandon dogma, sector loyalty and tradition in the name of a truly loving, student-centric mindset. And then it’s time to honestly examine all options and see what’s out there for us. What can I choose with full integrity for my child? What can keep my child safe, nurtured and richly educated right now — as opposed to confined, sorted and schooled while we look to the future?

I wrote a few days ago about how close my son is to finishing elementary school. He started kindergarten around the same time the last shiny new plan for equity was put in place in Seattle Public Schools. Now, five years and three principals later, he’s on track to start middle school just as SPS rolls out a… shiny new plan for equity. Like Jill Geary said in that first Crosscut article I mentioned: "We had a strategic plan (in 2013) that said we were going to do work for all kids and that we were going to make sure each and every student was getting their educational needs met, and it didn't work.”

So, on the one hand, targeted universalism is the perfect strategic beacon for our schools. On the other hand, am I really about to knowingly make the same mistake again? Just hand over my precious kids — who only seem to keep growing in number — to good intentions that history tells us will certainly fall short?

It makes you think twice. (Or if you’re me, it makes you think sort of anxiously and endlessly, during which time you write long, strained diatribes like this one.) While you ponder, here’s an example of a Seattle family living and learning in ways that remind us that anything is possible when it comes to educating our kids.

Thanks for reading. And thanks for doing what you do. I’d love to hear from you.