As school starts anew in Seattle, we think of the families still forced apart

As school starts anew in Seattle, we think of the families still forced apart

Suddenly it's September. Somehow it's already the end of the first week of school.

Every summer goes by a bit too fast, but this was a special year for our family, so the past few months went by in a blink.

I began a summer-long break from writing at the beginning of June, and soon after that we welcomed a perfect new baby girl into this world. So, less than two weeks into my little hiatus, mom and baby Sojourner were home full-time along with me. In a matter of a few more days, the school year had ended for our two boys, and we were all home together in a little time-space cocoon spun of family ties. It's a rare gift to have such free and uninterrupted time as an entire family, and we made the most of it -- on the road, in the woods, and especially at home together.

But then, on the first day of school, the bubble popped.

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Columbia City's anti-bias, community-focused preschool is having an open house on Friday

Columbia City's anti-bias, community-focused preschool is having an open house on Friday

We’ve been navigating the ins and outs of assimilation and inequitable public schooling for our whole lives — and as parents for several years now with Julian. We’re being as conscious as we can be and going a day or a school year at a time, but I’m confused most of the time and not at all sure that we’re doing the right thing. The idea of now voluntarily giving our three-year-old over to the same system — of willingly starting this whole process anew, even knowing what I know — caused me such momentary near-panic that I wasn’t sure I would find a school for him that I could stomach.

Then one day last summer we stumbled onto a brand new preschool that was about to open in the south end of Seattle. Columbia City Preschool of Arts & Culture, we learned, would be centered around an anti-bias, anti-racist curriculum, with a focus on loving service to the community. And play, of course.

"We're looking to create the confidence that when these kids go into predominantly white schools that they can bring counter narratives to the school," Benjamin Gore, one of the preschool’s teachers and founders, told KING5 News last year.

If we’re being honest, that alone addressed most of my concerns.

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I'm glad I found this event flyer from Seattle's 'Radical Women' in the street today

I'm glad I found this event flyer from Seattle's 'Radical Women' in the street today


I was walking across the street in Columbia City with my younger son today when I saw a yellow flyer sitting face down in the road. It caught my eye for some reason, so I doubled back a couple steps and grabbed it.

Lo and behold, it was about two events being put on by the Seattle chapter of Radical Women. Here's the mission statement from their Facebook page, if you don't know about them. It's one of the best things I've read in ages:

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How Walter Chen Is Building a Charter School That Reflects the Diversity of Its South Seattle Community

Walter Chen, the founding principal of a new Green Dot public middle school set to open in south Seattle this fall, has a pretty simple vision for the school: “I want it to be a rigorous, joyful place,” he said.

Simple, on the one hand, but incredibly complex when you think about what it was like to actually be in middle school. In my experience, “rigor” plus “middle school” did not typically equal “joy.”

But the more I hear him talk about it, the more I get the sense that maybe Walter, if anybody, can pull it off.

For one thing, he understands that before they can feel joy at school, kids have to first feel safe and accepted. More than that, though, he understands through lived experience the nuances of inequity in education — especially in the Seattle area, where Chen was born and raised.

“My parents were immigrants from Taiwan and always deeply concerned about education,” Chen said. “When we were really young they moved us [from Kent] to Mercer Island because they had just heard about the great public schools there.”

It took a few years for the impact of that move and for an understanding of what had been left behind, both in Kent and in Taiwan, to fully unfold, but as a young college student in Southern California, an education class led to an eye-opening experience for Walter.

“Because I got the opportunity to go out and visit schools,” Chen said, “I really was for the first time opened to the idea that not everyone has the same educational opportunities and outcomes, that your zip code, your race, your family’s income can change the complete trajectory of your life.”

Coming to understand that truth was enough to push Chen into a career in education, and after earning his BA in Economics at Pomona College and Master of Education at UCLA, he taught middle-school math in a public school in South-Central Los Angeles for six years.

“I really got to see what it was like to work in an urban school and really partner with families,” Chen said. “I got to see the impact of not just being a school employee, showing up to work and teaching kids, but spending time in the community, going out on the weekends to the soccer games and to the swap meets and things like that. It was really a true community feel.”

When Walter and his wife moved to Seattle together, he sought another highly impacted school community to serve and to call home, but he also “started thinking bigger picture,” he said.

“How could I impact more students at a time,” he asked himself, “and really make a change in educational outcomes for kids?”

His answer led him back to school, and in completing the Danforth Program for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, he refined his view of education as an urgent social justice issue, and it marked the beginning of putting down new roots in the Rainier Valley.

After an internship at SouthShore K-8 in Rainier Beach, Chen has continued to invest in southeast Seattle, spending two years as the assistant principal at Aki Kurose Middle School and two more as the principal of Graham Hill Elementary. He and his wife and young daughter also live in the neighborhood.

“I’m just deeply invested in this community and the social, academic and emotional well-being of our kids,” Chen said, “because I know that strong schools make strong communities. Being someone who works in the community, who lives in the community, and as a person of color — specifically an Asian-American — I’m very aware that children of color don’t see many representations of themselves in their teachers and their school leaders. I believe it’s important to provide that voice.”

A rendering of the new Green Dot Middle School seen looking south on Rainier Ave. in Seattle.

For that reason, Chen hopes to build a staff at the new charter school that's as diverse as the community they will serve. He plans “as much as possible to provide opportunities for people of color to work in education, because if [students] don’t see themselves in their teachers, then we won’t have teachers who are people of color who are representative of the community. If you don’t have teachers of color, you’ll never have leaders of color either.”

It doesn't take much imagination to picture one of Walter's first students coming in this fall as a sixth-grader, leaving SPS in another seven years as a high school graduate, and then returning in another seven to teach middle school in his old neighborhood — maybe at the same school Walter's children will by then attend. And suddenly, as you consider the reality that we are always educating our babies' future teachers, building schools grounded in equity that infuse joy and acceptance into their curriculum sounds less like a pipe dream and more like the only way forward. It starts to sound like a vision for a holistic education that nurtures students as it pushes them to new heights.

“I think it’s possible to have very high expectations and high structure and a very rigorous college-prep curriculum, but when you demand that and you push kids to be the best that they can be academically and to really succeed, you also have to make it fun to come to school, and to help them feel a lot of joy in school. To take pride in their school and take pride in their community. I think that’s my ultimate vision for this Green Dot Middle School in Southeast Seattle.”


Green Dot Middle School is a tuition-free public charter school serving a diverse population in Southeast Seattle. Their mission is to help transform public education so ALL students graduate prepared for collegeleadership, and life.

Green Dot is currently enrolling incoming sixth-graders. Click here for more information.

Hate has no home in the 98118

I'm back home again in Rainier Beach after a whirlwind six-day trip to and from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, and I'm filled this week by appreciation for my neighborhood.

The 98118 zip code is known to be "the most diverse zip code in the nation," and that diversity is reflected in the messages on the yard signs decorating the blocks.

In just driving a few minutes around our neighborhood with my sons, we found more signs demanding social justice and declaring solidarity than we had time to photograph. Here are just a few:

"Black Lives Matter"
"Silence = More Deaths"
"Stop profiling Muslims."
"Refugees are welcome here."
"No matter where you're from, we're glad you're our neighbor."
"Here we believe love is love, no human is illegal, Black lives matter, science is real, women's rights are human rights, water is life, kindness is everything."


These are bold words sending powerful messages at a time when we need them most. What messages are you sending?

What messages are you seeing around you? Do you have photos to share?