Liberating Structures: Why Black Male Educators Leave the Field (part 1)

Liberating Structures: Why Black Male Educators Leave the Field (part 1)

The structures and systems are shackles. We have to remind ourselves that we the people are the system. Our participation keeps the gears turning.

It’s time we break the shackles!

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Black History Today: Rashad Norris, more than meets the eye...

Black History Today: Rashad Norris, more than meets the eye...

This post is part of an ongoing Black History Month series written by Marcus Harden, a truly unsung hero of South Seattle, as he honors the living legacy of Black history in his community and beyond, and recognizes the people who are shaping the future.

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Black History Today: Lull Mengesha, inspiring innovator and influencer

This post is part of an ongoing Black History Month series written by Marcus Harden, a truly unsung hero of South Seattle, as he honors the living legacy of Black history in his community and beyond, and recognizes the people who are shaping the future.


Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.
-Will Smith

Living life fearlessly and authentically are values often espoused but rarely actualized. Not because people don’t have the desire or the skill, but oftentimes because we’ve rarely paid attention to the people who have done it. To live absent of fear is almost impossible, yet to choose to live a life allowing your fears to fuel your passions and doing it in a way that inspires to do so as well — that’s authentic living!

Lull Mengesha lives authentically and fearlessly! Born to immigrant parents in Seattle, raised in the glorious South End, proud alumni of Rainier Beach High School and later the University of Washington, Lull has never been afraid to embrace thinking and being different. Lull began to discover his fearlessness as an undergrad at the UW, beginning to openly challenge his own thinking and the shortcomings of systems, specifically for African-American people and people from the African diaspora.

Lull’s strength coming in his nature to engage others across difference in those conversations, questioning not only the systems of oppression but people who have been oppressed themselves, realizing early that the breaking down of one requires the empowerment of the other.

In 2009, Lull penned his first book, The Only Black Student,” exploring life as a Black student navigating the public education space in a majority Black school, and then learning how to navigate life and academics at a college that was predominantly white. Fearless in his honesty and introspection, Lull used his life to create an actionable workbook for others to follow.

Lull’s greatest attribute may indeed lay in his fearlessness to just be. Whether gracing the stage at a local comedy shop, writing a screenplay, hosting a vegan Eritrean food talent showcase, exploring and bringing new technology and thought products to market, or just Snap-chatting his Uber driver journey to a $39 Spirit Airlines flight to parts unknown, Lull’s commitment to truly LIVING inspires others to do the same.

At his best, Lull brings the environment of authentic thought, fearless living everywhere he goes, and through his constant joy pushes others to the possibility of the same for themselves. He is unafraid to challenge the status quo because he is unafraid to challenge himself. He’s a son who honors his mother, cherishes his sister and truly is a friend to all.

Lull gives of his time, talent and treasure in ways seen and unseen. Fear looks Lull in the face and lowers its gaze because it knows as we all do now that Lull Mengesha is indeed Black History, today!

To learn more about Lull:



Black History Today: Anita Koyier-Mwamba, brilliant mind and beautiful spirit

Black History Today: Anita Koyier-Mwamba, brilliant mind and beautiful spirit

This post is part of an ongoing Black History Month series written by Marcus Harden, a truly unsung hero of South Seattle, as he honors the living legacy of Black history in his community and beyond, and recognizes the people who are shaping the future.

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SOAR Academy in Tacoma ‘blows the roof off the myths’ about charter schools

SOAR Dancers Get Up
SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

Walk through the front doors of SOAR Academy these days and you’ll find the building teeming with life and energy, like a dream realized.

In many ways, that’s what the public elementary school in Tacoma represents: the manifestation of a set of beliefs and ideas about what’s possible in public education.

SOAR Academy’s founders sought from the outset to design a public school that would reach students being neglected by the larger system, those who are typically on the wrong end of the opportunity and achievement gaps. 

Just two years after first opening its doors to students, those ideas have become a way of life at SOAR Academy, and the dreams of a nurturing, equitable school open to all have become reality for an engaged, grateful community of students and families.

“Here at SOAR we’ve seen tremendous growth and a fulfillment of the whole concept and vision of the alternatives and options that charter schools can provide in a publicly funded setting,” said Dr. Thelma Jackson, chair of the SOAR Academy Board of Directors. “Those of us that have been with SOAR from the very beginning, we’re just pleased as punch to see the school, to see the full classrooms, the waiting list. As I was driving up, just the smiles on the children’s and parents’ faces — they’re glad to be here! They’re here by choice.”

In many ways and from many angles, that’s the key word here: choice.

More than 70 percent of SOAR students identify as students of color, and Black students make up 56 percent of the student body. Fourteen percent receive special education services, and at least 12 percent are homeless or housing insecure. They all chose SOAR Academy, and they did so despite the hyper-political climate that surrounds the charter school sector.

School choice can be an especially foggy issue in Washington, where propaganda and repeated legal attacks led by the Washington Education Association — the state’s teachers union — have attempted to undermine the ability of schools like SOAR to work hard and innovate in an earnest effort to close the gaps created by our traditional public school system. In spite of that, many parents are seeing SOAR for what it is: an ambitious, free, public alternative that just might work for their student where other schools have fallen short.

“We’ve been up against so much ‘fake news’ about what charters are and aren’t, and we’re defying all of that,” Jackson said. “Anytime they say, ‘Oh, they won’t take kids of color; oh, they won’t take special needs kids; oh, they’ll cream the crop,’ [SOAR Academy] just blows the roof off of all those myths. And against all those odds, SOAR is thriving. The kids are thriving.”

Far from creaming, SOAR’S school leader Jessica Stryczek readily acknowledges that many of the school’s students arrived having already experienced such significant trauma as abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Yet thanks to a trauma-informed approach to restorative justice, not a single SOAR student was suspended or expelled last year.

In Seattle Public Schools, on the other hand, disproportionate discipline rates show up from the very beginning, as even kindergarteners of color are suspended and expelled (yes, expelled from kindergarten!) at a rate far beyond their white peers.

Seventy-seven percent of the student body at SOAR is eligible for free or reduced lunch as well, so community meals are available to all students through the community eligibility pool.

SOAR’s staff, meanwhile, reflects the diversity of its student body. More than half the staff at SOAR are people of color, Jackson says, upending yet another myth.

“The traditional line is, ‘Oh, we’d like to hire them, but we can’t find them.’ So, where are the charter schools finding [teachers of color]?” Jackson asks. “And again, they are here by choice. They’re not here through involuntary transfers and the dance of the lemons and all that stuff.”

Enough people have chosen SOAR now that the school’s journey from vision to reality is all but complete, and the early results are showing that the young charter school is delivering on its promise.

In addition to a joyful atmosphere in a building full of well-cared-for elementary students, the school is home to impressive academic rigor as well. Just last year, more than 70 percent of students showed accelerated growth, testing beyond national grade-level expectations on the STAR Early Literacy assessment.

“The concept has taken on a life of its own,” Jackson said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Q&A with State Superintendent Candidate Erin Jones

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Address the needs of the Whole Child - the academic, social-emotional, physical and cultural needs of our children.

  4. 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).

Learn more about Erin Jones and her campaign at
Follow her on Twitter: @Jones4WA.

Most 4th-Graders in Washington Aren't Proficient Readers. Seriously.

By Matt Halvorson

That's right. Sixty percent of 4th-graders in Washington State do not meet the national standard for proficiency.

And it gets worse.

Before we get to the numbers, here's the foundation of what we're talking about (courtesy of

"Proficiency means working, in-depth knowledge of a subject. Setting the academic bar at proficiency ensures students are on track for college or a career after graduation.
" determines the adequacy of each state’s reading and math proficiency requirements. It does so by comparing the percent of students deemed proficient on state tests in 2013 versus the percent deemed proficient on tests administered that year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"[The] NAEP is considered the gold standard of measuring academic proficiency. A large gap in results indicates that a state needs to set the academic bar higher for its students."

Here's what that gap looks like in Washington State for 4th-grade reading proficiency (again from

Looking at all those numbers, my brain tries to take me in a lot of different directions at once. I'll get to a couple of those paths in a few lines. But first, here's how is looking at these figures:

"A proficiency cut score is an actual number (score) on an assessment that draws the line determining where a student is proficient. States use different tests and set different proficiency cut scores to determine the proficiency level for knowledge and skill mastery. When proficiency cut scores are set too low, it conveys a false sense of student achievement."

In other words, we're telling some of our kids (not to mention their parents, their teachers and ourselves) that they're ready for college when they're really not. And we're not setting a bar for any of our kids that's in line with national expectations.

That's not good. But it's good to know that it's happening. Seems like a good thing to speak up about.

But mostly, I look at all those numbers, and I can't help feeling like by focusing on the proficiency gap, we're just pointing out a particularly wet spot in a state that's completely under water. Look at those numbers!

Only 40 percent of 4th graders in Washington can read well enough to be considered proficient by national standards. Three out of five 4th-graders aren't proficient readers. What?

Only 25 percent of black 4th-graders and 17 percent of Latino 4th-graders are proficient readers.

That's so terrible! A full 83 percent of Latino 4th-graders can't read up to standard, and 75 percent of African-American 4th-graders are in the same boat.

White 4th-graders, on the other hand, are 49-percent proficient. Which is way better, and also still so terrible. More than half of white 4th-graders in progressive Washington State have not been taught to read as well as we believe they deserve.

Only 23 percent of 4th-graders whose families qualify as "low-income" have been taught to read to the national standard. How is public education the great equalizer if the wealthier among us are paying for better schools and better neighborhoods?

Not only can we not rely on our state government to fix this problem, they are (at best) years away from addressing it. We are (at best) a few years away from fully funding our public schools, and then it will be years from there before the data bears out the truth that money makes a difference, but it isn't everything.

Not only can we not rely on our teachers union to fix this problem, the WEA is actively clinging to this miserable status quo, fighting tooth and nail against racially conscious innovation in such forms as Teach For America and the establishment of a charter school network. And speaking of money, the WEA won't talk about anything but money until our schools are fully funded, so until we take that escape hatch away from them, they'll continue to use it.

We are not teaching our kids in this state.

Why are we doing anything but changing?