Catching systemic racism in the act in Seattle Public Schools

Catching systemic racism in the act in Seattle Public Schools

Systemic racism is often hard to see in action.

It’s easy to look back and wonder, how did we get here? How do we have such deep-rooted opportunity gaps in our schools? How do we have so few Black teachers? How can there be such a thing as a “school-to-prison” pipeline? How do we have so few women of color in positions of elected leadership?

These systemic issues are not necessarily carried out by people of malicious intent. They are carried out by all of us every day as we make seemingly reasonable decisions, and through polices and processes that masquerade as neutral.

We are in the eleventh hour of one such process, but it’s not too late! Today — this very evening — we have a chance to catch the system in the act. So let’s do it.

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Shedding new light on the final three candidates for the District VII School Board position in Seattle

Shedding new light on the final three candidates for the District VII School Board position in Seattle

The Seattle School Board will announce its collective choice tomorrow for the Southeast Seattle district representative on the board. As a reminder, Director Betty Patu, who served in that role for the last 10 years, announced her resignation on May 15, a few days after a deadline that would have allowed the District 7 voters to choose her replacement. Instead, the remaining six school board directors then devised a process to solicit applications from interested district residents, and were wowed to receive 13 applications for what is widely known as “the most thankless job in Seattle.”

Through a series of applicant statements and public forums, we have learned much about the 13 applicants and now, the three finalists for the position. But through telephone interviews with each of the applicants, I sought to shed a bit more light on their qualifications, their priorities and to pose a few relevant questions that I have not yet heard asked.

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Three good candidates, but one clear choice to represent District VII

Three good candidates, but one clear choice to represent District VII

If you’re reading this, you probably know: Betty Patu resigned. It’s true.

You probably know that Betty Patu was the school board director for southeast Seattle (District VII) for a long time.

You may even know that the remaining six Seattle Public Schools board directors now have to appoint Betty’s replacement, which means we southeast Seattle residents will have our school board director chosen without our direct input.

Tonight is the final candidate forum, and we’re hearing from the final three candidates: Julie Van Arcken, a local education advocate who quit her job to run for this school board appointment, and I’m not sure what that job was; Brandon Hersey, a teacher in Federal Way Public Schools and a District VII resident; and Emijah Smith, a community and non-profit leader and longtime pillar of the South Seattle community.

So, I’m sitting in the audience at Rainier Beach High School, and I’m going to try something new. I’m just going to write about what’s happening as it’s happening. And about what I think about what’s happening, obviously. And this way, we’ve got pretty much no filter, which ought to be interesting. And very little editing, so beware.

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With this many good applicants to represent District VII, who will the Seattle School Board choose? And how will they decide?

With this many good applicants to represent District VII, who will the Seattle School Board choose? And how will they decide?

This unusual appointment process presents a quandary for the six sitting board directors, who were all in attendance at the forum. Patu announced her departure just before the elections deadline, effectively blocking District 7 voters from choosing her successor. Instead, the six school board directors, and not the Southeast Seattle community, will choose who represents the district on the school board for the remaining 2 years and 3 months of her term.

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Let’s meet the candidates for Seattle’s District VII school board position

Let’s meet the candidates for Seattle’s District VII school board position

I’m thrilled with the depth of this candidate pool and impressed with every candidate’s passion and good intentions. They are standing before us volunteering their time and souls to service on the school board. And they’re opening themselves up to everything that comes along with that process, including being considered by people like me who have thoughts and opinions. But the fact also remains that we have to choose one person, and that we don’t get to just take the whole field.

So, as we seek an equity champion, a change-maker with an unshakable sense of urgency and possibility and love, a hero with an understanding of the relationship between systemic oppression and public education, here are my first impressions of the candidates — my takeaways from the District VII Candidate Forum. I look forward to seeing how tonight’s forum at RBHS shapes my thinking even further.

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Twelve candidates have applied to represent District 7 on the Seattle School Board. Here's what we know so far ⁠— and what to watch for.

Twelve candidates have applied to represent District 7 on the Seattle School Board. Here's what we know so far ⁠— and what to watch for.

Over the weekend, the Seattle School Board finally released the applications of the 12 Southeast Seattle residents who filed to replace Betty Patu on the board. The District 7 seat, which Patu held for 10 years, was vacated July 1 and will be filled when the six remaining board members cast votes for their preferred applicant at the Aug. 14 board meeting.

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Dear Leslie Harris... I wrote you a song.

Dear Leslie Harris... I wrote you a song.

Leslie Harris is the president of the Seattle School Board, and she will preside over an important decision this summer as the board appoints a new representative for District 7 in southeast Seattle. Here Matt Halvorson asks for a transparent, inclusive process... in song!

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The portal is now open. Seattle, our time is at hand.

The portal is now open. Seattle, our time is at hand.

The portal is now open. Our time is at hand. 

It sounds like science fiction, but alas, the portal is online rather than interdimensional, and the opportunity we now face would allow us to completely revamp our school board before the end of the year.

So the machinations of the Seattle School Board might involve fewer lasers than you were hoping for, but it’s important nonetheless. 

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Betty Patu is resigning from the Seattle School Board. We're just asking for a legitimate, transparent process... (that results in appointing a champion for equity)

Betty Patu is resigning from the Seattle School Board. We're just asking for a legitimate, transparent process... (that results in appointing a champion for equity)

Betty Patu, our longtime school board director in Southeast Seattle, will resign her position at the end of the month, but the timing of her announcement has cast doubt on the integrity of the entire process.

Patu announced her resignation at the May 15 school board meeting, which wouldn’t be remarkable except that if the announcement had come three days earlier, her replacement would have been elected by voters.

As it is, the school board will take applications from the public, and the board will have the final say in appointing Patu’s replacement.

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A quick thought about the Seattle School Board

This is the year, if there ever was one, to really change Seattle Public Schools. In addition to the four seats up for election this fall, two additional school board members in Seattle (Betty Patu and Zachary DeWolf) have announced their desire to resign this year and vacate their seats early.

The school board only has seven members to begin with. By the end of this year, we could essentially have a completely new school board. I've written more about this that I'll share tomorrow, but I just want to plant the seed for now.

Our school board has been a dysfunctional roadblock to change for too long. Imagine six new champions for equity filling these school board seats. Think of what's suddenly possible!

This is a rare opportunity. Let's make the most of it.

Principal Drake is leaving Emerson Elementary

Dr. Andrea Drake will be resigning as principal at Emerson Elementary at the end of the school year to take another position with Seattle Public Schools. Her two years at Emerson were marked by high staff turnover and a leave of absence last fall that sparked controversy.

Here is the letter that went out by email to Emerson parents:

Dear Emerson Elementary Staff and Families,
I am writing to let you know that after much consideration, I have accepted a position in the Seattle Public Schools district office to support the Eliminating Opportunity Gaps work. It was a difficult decision because I have enjoyed serving as your principal so much and I am proud of the progress we have made together; but I am excited to approach this new chapter. I will still be a part of Seattle Public Schools, as I take on a body of work that I am personally passionate about. In my new role, I will have the opportunity to help design culturally responsive school supports and aid the entire district in eliminating  opportunity gaps. My start date will be July 1, 2017.
Leaving Emerson staff, students, and families will be difficult. In a short time, we have made great progress in implementing our vision and goal to maximize daily instruction, reengage our families and community, and improve student attendance, in an effort to accelerate the academic achievement of our scholars. Emerson Elementary is an amazing learning community that prides itself on working together to make a difference in the lives of students, and I have valued being a part of it.
As we work together to finish out the school year, the district office will begin the process of working with staff and families to identify the qualities the school community is looking for in its next leader. Staff and families will both be represented on the hiring team to ensure a good fit. I am confident that Emerson Elementary will be in good hands. I will finish out this year and work closely with staff to ensure a smooth transition to the 2017-18 year; I know our staff will also continue on the path we have laid together.
Thank you for embracing and supporting me these past years. Emerson Elementary will always have a very special place in my heart. I know Emerson Elementary Eagles will continue to SOAR higher because of families and staff like you. I will truly miss you and wish you all the best and look forward to supporting you in my new role.
Sincerely,
Andrea Drake, Ed.D.
Principal, Emerson Elementary School
 

I wish Dr. Drake all the best in her new role, and I look forward to hearing about the progress she and the district are able to make in closing our persistently appalling opportunity gaps. This is all about the principle, not the principal.

Dr. Drake stepped in less than two years ago as principal of a school long suffering from systemic neglect. That's not exactly an easy job. She also took a mysterious and much-discussed leave of absence last fall. In the end, her tenure as Emerson's principal was short and tumultuous, just like all of her recent predecessors. She wasn't able to beat a broken system.

Drake's replacement will (if you count Barbara Moore, Drake's temporary replacement last fall who has remained on staff) be Emerson's fourth principal in four years. Think about that. My son will, as a third grader, have his fourth different principal at the helm next fall.

So, clearly this is nothing new. It's no surprise, then, that my questions are also recycled (from my Oct. 24, 2016 post):

"It seems clear that our [last] state superintendent (Dorn), our region’s ED with SPS (Aramaki) and our locally elected school board rep (Patu) are all well aware of the problems at Emerson.
Our leaders know that our school is failing us. This is, in theory, why we elected them, why our taxes pay their salaries. They are our advocates, a mouthpiece for the students and families in the communities they serve. And they know that our kids are being treated inequitably.
So, what’s going to be different this time? What will be done to change Emerson’s future and give our kids access to the education they deserve from their neighborhood school?"

Of course, if we keep asking the same questions, we can expect to keep getting the same answers. I don't expect the broken system that created and perpetuates this inequitable environment to magically turn around and start working in Emerson's favor.

This is why school accountability is so important. Our leaders know that Emerson's needs are not being met, that it is struggling with intense staff turnover and operating on scant resources, all while trying to serve a high-need population of students.

Our system is failing to hold our schools and districts accountable, and we as parents and community members have no true levers to force change.

So, in the end, it comes back to hope. To searching as parents for a reason to believe that this is the time things will be different. We will have a new principal at Emerson again next fall. Hopefully he or she will be a transformational leader who will guide Emerson all the way into some new and brighter days. It can be done, that much I know. But history tells us not to hold our breath.

I suppose the real question is whether or not it's worth more years of our children's lives to find out whether Emerson can turn around. For now, we just keep hoping for the best. At what point does hope become willful ignorance?

A grassroots coalition just stopped the Seattle School Board from adding $11 million to the deficit

The dynamics of the Seattle School Board perfectly captured in one photo: the four white people are smiling as the three people of color look less thrilled.

 

A truly grassroots coalition of parents and community leaders swooped in last week to stop the most recent example of dysfunction on the Seattle School Board threatening to fortify and perpetuate inequity in the district.

With Seattle Public Schools already facing a $74 million budget shortfall, and with many district schools in dire need of more teachers and support staff, the board’s chronic commitment to inequity was on full display last week as it prepared to allocate $11 million for new textbooks.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), learned about the board’s proposed expenditure and sent an email to a group of friends and colleagues. By Tuesday, when the vote to approve was scheduled, her letter to the board and district staff (below) had signatures from 27 concerned stakeholders.

To: Seattle School Board Directors and Leadership Staff
We are asking you to defer approving and purchasing English Language Arts Curriculum. Educators need to be prioritized over books – Educators Not Books. Purchasing $5-million in new curriculum means money will be taken from elsewhere. Students will bear the burden if new curriculum is purchased; adding another $5-million to the already devastating deficit will mean students of color will see more loss of educators in their schools.
We recognize curriculum hasn’t been purchased in 20-years — this is not the year to make such a hefty investment. The investment made will be on the backs of students who will benefit more from stable relationships with educators than from new books.
The board and school district has publicly said they will prioritize and protect educators in this budgeting process. Purchasing curriculum is counter to this public commitment. Our message is simple: Educators before books.

The Seattle School Board has been dysfunctional for many years. It is currently controlled by a four-member white majority whose common thread seems to be a shocking willingness to articulate their basic ignorance for issues of racial and socio-economic inequity in our schools.

To be clear, much of this budget shortfall will evaporate as soon as the legislature passes its funding package and closes the levy cliff, whether temporarily or forever, so there is some understanding that this $74-million issue won’t truly mean carving $74 million out of the existing budget.

But at the same time, the board still has to balance the books. They still have to pass a budget. And many schools in the district, especially on the south end, are staggeringly under-resourced. Emerson Elementary, as just one example, is running two long-term substitute teachers out there every day in two different classes all year this year. This textbook gambit was just the most recent case study in the board’s oblivion to the racial and socio-economic implications of their decisions and positions.

Rick Burke, District II School Board rep, is passionate about math textbooks.

Rick Burke, who represents north-end District II, ran on a “better textbooks and curriculum” platform. In fact, first on Burke’s list of his “educational passions” is “providing explicit, effective instructional materials for our classrooms. Instructional materials are the shared communication tool for students, educators, families, and student supports. Good ones are an asset, ineffective ones slow down learning and take more time from already-busy teachers.”

Jill Geary (District III) articulated a similar concern that teachers are spending evening and weekend hours preparing lesson plans, thinking this math expenditure would lessen that burden. Maybe it would, to some extent, but teachers have to differentiate their instruction anyway, so a new textbook does not take the place of preparation.

This is how much of the board dysfunction plays out. Board President Sue Peters (District IV) and Vice President Leslie Harris (District VI), along with Burke and Geary, form an all-white, all-un-woke voting bloc, and so naturally they all agreed on this particular issue.

Stephan Blanford, District V school board rep, must wish he was't so alone on this crazy board.

Betty Patu, who’s my rep in District VII, and at-large member Scott Pinkham seem to be swing votes, so they’re not fully part of the bloc, but they’re not reliably there for us either.

Stephan Blanford (District V) is the only consistently bold voice for equity we have on the board, and in the days leading up to the Jan. 24 vote, he had heard from the Bloc in no uncertain terms that, despite his vocal opposition, he would be outvoted and the textbooks would be purchased. This seemed doomed to be another 6-1 board vote serving evidence of his perpetual solo mission.

Instead, this particular story has a less-lopsided ending. After hearing from Okuno and company, the board temporarily changed directions. They came to a consensus to put the curriculum on the buyback list, meaning when they get money back from the legislature, it will be one of the top things to spend on at that time. That’s reasonable.

But the board also quietly showed they were willing to sacrifice staff for these math textbooks without ever quite owning up to it. Had they bought this curriculum, they would have had to displace staff.

The board indicated they would probably be able to bring those teachers back in the fall. But if you’re a first-year teacher who has worked hard, you’re about to get a notice telling you you’re on the chopping block — that you might not have a position to return to, no matter how hard you’ve worked, no matter how successful you’ve been. Are you going to stay and wait for that maybe, or are you going to go down to a district like Highline and get a job under stronger leadership and a functional board of directors?

That type of ripple effect multiplies the negative effects of our board’s oblivious decisions. Each individual vote has its own ramifications, but collectively it also builds a district-wide culture of inequity.

Seattle Public Schools are extremely segregated racially and are producing one of the country’s largest opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. Letting this kind of leadership guide our schools is what dug this hole and created these gaps to begin with. Letting it continue is to openly fail to represent the kids who most need a voice in their corner.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Erin Okuno and everyone who joined her to swoop in from their regular life and intervene on this small issue. Like with everything else, we can’t count on anyone else to take these bold actions. If our kids are going to have better schools, it’s up to us to make that happen.

SPS put Emerson principal on leave after visit from school board rep

Last week was an exciting week in Seattle Public Schools. The city's teachers boldly came together to declare that Black Lives Matter, igniting support from the district and the community.

That all overshadowed a difficult week at Emerson Elementary, however. Parents were informed last Sunday (Oct. 16) that second-year principal Andrea Drake would be going on leave, and it's not clear if or when she will return. For now, Drake will be replaced on an interim basis by Barbara Moore, who will presumably do for Emerson what Frank Robinson did for the Washington Nationals a decade ago: come out of retirement to sleep-lead through a transition.

This is from the email to families from Kelly Aramaki, executive director of schools for SPS' southeast region:

“I am writing to let you know that Dr. Andrea Drake, Emerson's Principal, is currently on leave. During her absence, Ms. Barbara Moore, retired principal of South Lake High School, has graciously agreed to step in as acting principal. Ms. Moore is one of Seattle's finest leaders and will be a strong and steady support during this time. Ms. Moore and Ms. James, Emerson's Assistant Principal, will be working closely together and with the staff to ensure that everything moves forward smoothly. Your child's learning is our number one priority.”

As I understand it, Principal Drake did not volunteer to take a leave of absence. Seattle School Board member Betty Patu visited Emerson recently and met with some teachers. I don't know what exactly Patu was told or what she discovered, but something about the conditions at Emerson prompted Patu to go directly to Aramaki, who saw fit to place Drake on leave.

Drake had reportedly mismanaged the levy process as well, but whether or not there is any substance to that rumor, Drake’s brief tenure at Emerson has been far from smooth.

My son goes to Emerson. Principal Drake took the helm just prior to the start of the 2015-16 school year, and from one parent's perspective, the school has languished in low expectations for its students ever since. Last fall's curriculum night, for instance, was far more focused on the importance of attendance and uniforms -- essentially showing up and wearing the right clothes -- than anything academic, let alone anything rigorous.

Last summer, state superintendent Randy Dorn changed Emerson's designation from a "priority school," which it had earned due to persistently low test scores, to a "superintendent intervention school." This change gave the school's teachers an option to stay at Emerson or leave to pursue other positions within the district. Almost every teacher left.

Working conditions at the school seem to have remained unkind to its teachers this fall. Emerson still does not have a teachers union representative.

When SEA voted unanimously to wear custom Black Lives Matter shirts on Wednesday, Oct. 19, teachers at Emerson asked to take part. Principal Drake's response to her staff’s request to participate was a firm "NO." Then she explained herself by telling her teachers that "all lives matter.”

She’s entitled to her beliefs and her own ideology, but if that’s the culture being established at my son’s school, then I appreciate the change of leadership. It’s not that I take issue, necessarily, with this particular example of upheaval at Emerson.

I take issue with the larger pattern of constant turnover and consistent underachievement at the school. I take issue with the fact that we have every reason to believe this will just keep happening.

So, Barbara Moore becomes Emerson's third principal in three years and its fourth in the past five. For the most part, our neighbors with access to other schools will continue exercising that option and avoiding Emerson altogether.

And who could blame them?

The building is home to some excellent, dedicated teachers and support staff, but they need more help. Emerson is also home to a few hundred beautiful little kids and their families, and we’re depending on our leaders in the district and on the school board to step up and give our kids the education they deserve — or at least something equivalent to the education most students on the north end are already getting.

It seems clear that our state superintendent (Dorn), our region’s ED with SPS (Aramaki) and our locally elected school board rep (Patu) are all well aware of the problems at Emerson.

Our leaders know that our school is failing us. This is, in theory, why we elected them, why our taxes pay their salaries. They are our advocates, a mouthpiece for the students and families in the communities they serve. And they know that our kids are being treated inequitably.

So, what’s going to be different this time? What will be done to change Emerson’s future and give our kids access to the education they deserve from their neighborhood school?