Why do Seattle Public Schools feel the need to keep secrets from parents at Emerson Elementary?

Why are there so many mysteries at my son’s elementary school?

He goes to Emerson Elementary, a school in Seattle’s south end with a well-documented track record of systemic neglect. The past year has been particularly marked by a lack of meaningful communication with parents. We’ve seen little transparency and even less accountability from the district, even in the face of events that demand our attention.

Around this time last year, Emerson’s principal at the time, Dr. Andrea Drake, was put on leave of absence by the district. We as parents were never given an adequate explanation as to why. In fact, we were never even given an inadequate explanation.

Two weeks later, Drake was reinstated — still with no explanation, except to inform us that the interim principal would kept on for the remainder of the year as well. The district did hold a community meeting to discuss the concerns of the Emerson community, but it was all lip service and no meaningful action.

In the end, we still never learned why our elementary school’s principal had been put on leave in the first place, let alone why exactly the district decided it was okay for her to come back. Let alone why they thought Drake needed a second principal in the building for the rest of the school year.

Drake left Emerson as soon as the school year ended to take another position with SPS, and I allowed myself to hope that maybe these shadows and odd secrets would follow her into the night.

Instead, on Oct. 18, 2017, Seattle Public Schools sent this ultra-vague email to Emerson parents:


Dear Emerson families: 
You may have seen news coverage or heard from your student about news media being present at Emerson yesterday. Emerson staff make every effort to ensure our students are safe and minimize any disruptions that interfere with the learning environment. 
Last spring, the district became aware of and began an investigation into some alleged testing irregularities. The district also contacted the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to report these irregularities. The results of the district's investigation generated interest by local news media yesterday.   
The families that were affected by the situation were informed directly. If your family was not contacted by the district over the summer about this situation, your student’s test scores were not affected.  
At this time, the district remains focused on supporting our Emerson students and families and providing a safe, welcoming learning experience.  
Office of Public Affairs


For starters… what!? This email is so full of wisps of information, and yet so bereft of substance.

Once again, we as Emerson parents are being informed of a troubling situation at our school and are given no meaningful information. And in this case, the email was quite clearly sent only because a few media folks had shown up at the school — it was sent because suddenly a red flag had been raised, and we might have accidentally found out about this testing scandal ourselves. Otherwise, I can’t help but wonder when or if the district would ever have told us about this.

Just as problematic is the ludicrous idea that this situation only affects certain students at the school. This is my son's school. This impacts all of us. But the district is leaving it up to us, yet again, to dig up the truth and bring it to light ourselves. It's disappointing, but not particularly surprising given the district’s pattern of minimal communication with Emerson parents around significant issues. (Speaking of which, would this ever happen in whiter, richer north Seattle? I don't think so. Not this way.)

So, because we all deserve to know what’s happening inside the walls of our children’s schools, here’s what seems to have gone on this time.

Dustin Cross is a special education teacher at Emerson, and last spring he cheated on behalf of his students on their SBAC standardized tests.

From the Investigative Report into submitted by Jason Dahlberg, HR Investigator for SPS:


“It was found that Cross violated testing protocols by assisting students, and directing other staff to provide assistance, which provided advantage to some students over others.
It was found that Cross changed a student's answer on the SBAC test. [An instructional assistant] witnessed Cross change a student’s answer on the SBAC by using the computer mouse, and she had no reason to fabricate her account of the incident and was found credible. Although Cross denied changing the answer, this conduct was similar to additional findings of Cross assisting students on the SBAC test.
It was found that Cross directed [an instructional assistant] to ‘grammar check’ and ‘spell check’ students on the SBAC, which is not allowed. It was also found that Cross assisted a student when he told the student, "What does this sign ( division sign) tell you to do?" Ibrahim stated he was so uncomfortable by Cross' conduct that he immediately reported the conduct to testing coordinator Chung. The HR Investigator found Ibrahim to be credible.
It was found that Cross allowed students to use manipulatives, specifically fraction tiles, during the test and manipulatives are not allowed to be used during the test. Cross claimed that testing coordinator Chung provided him fraction tiles for use during the test, so he assumed that their use during the test was ok. However, Chung denied this, and stated she gave Cross fraction tiles for the use in his classroom and not for use during the SBAC. Chung had no reason to fabricate this account. The HR Investigator found Chung to be credible.
It was found that Cross gave direction to IAs, via a list, regarding how to assist students on the SBAC test and much of the assistance and accomondatinos (sic) he listed are not allowed for the test. Cross admitted to giving this list to IAs and stated that he used the student's IEP's to direct the IAs about what assistance and accommodations to give.”

This is a huge disservice to the community of students and families accessing public education services in Seattle Public Schools. Emerson, in fact, has a special ed program with a reputation that has recently attracted families from other schools. It’s not doing anyone (except maybe Mr. Cross) any favors to pretend these students are faring better than they really are.

Standardized tests, for all their faults, are an essential tool for equity -- and for identifying inequity. They imperfect, but they give us insight into our opportunity gaps that we couldn’t find otherwise.

If educators get the wrong messages from their school leaders or their districts, however, things get skewed. Whether Cross failed to see the tests for what they are and didn’t think his impropriety mattered, or he saw the consequences of falling short as too punitive to face, he personally altered his students’ outcomes.

Then the district found out about it and didn’t tell us. Just like they did when the old principal was suspended last year. Just like they did with… what? What else haven’t they told us?

SPS has already hired Erin Rasmussen to be Emerson's new principal

My oldest son is a student at Emerson Elementary School in South Seattle. Our current principal -- Dr. Andrea Drake -- announced her resignation last month effective at the end of the school year.

Larry Nyland, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, sent an email to Emerson parents and families last night announcing that they had already filled the vacant position. Erin Rasmussen, currently an assistant principal at Aki Kurose, will be Emerson's new principal -- the school's fourth in four years.

I've heard nothing but good things so far about Ms. Rasmussen and her commitment to equity, and I look forward to the prospect of lasting change at a school that needs it most. Here's hoping this is the beginning of the end of institutional neglect at Emerson.

Here also is the full message from Superintendent Nyland:

Dear Emerson Elementary School community,
I am pleased to announce that Erin Rasmussen has been selected to be the new principal of Emerson Elementary. 
Ms. Rasmussen was selected because of her demonstrated commitment to racial equity, her impact in closing opportunity gaps, her outstanding administrative experience as an assistant principal at Aki Kurose Middle School, her knowledge and skills around teaching and learning, and her passion for building positive relationships with staff, students and families. The interview team, made up of staff, parents, and central office administrators, was particularly impressed with her focus on empowering student voice, her commitment to increasing the numbers of students of color in honors classes, and her belief that every child is brilliant. 
As an assistant principal at Aki Kurose Middle School for the past three years, Ms. Rasmussen oversaw the math and science departments. She led professional development at the school in areas such as cultural competency, standards-based grading, and supporting students who qualify for special education in the general education classroom. She has also led professional development around Multi-Tiered Systems of Support at the school and district level.
Ms. Rasmussen earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Whitworth University, and her Master of Education degree at Seattle University. Ms. Rasmussen is also a National Board Certified Teacher.   
Principal Rasmussen is excited to be continuing her work in southeast Seattle and is looking forward to partnering with the students, staff, and families of the Emerson community to make a difference for every student. Her official start date will be July 1, 2017. We will be scheduling opportunities for staff, families and students to meet Ms. Rasmussen before the end of the school year.
I would like to extend my thanks to Principal Andrea Drake for serving as principal for the past two years. Her deep commitment to the Emerson community is greatly appreciated. We look forward to having her come to district office this coming year to help design culturally responsive school supports in service of eliminating opportunity gaps across the entire system.
Thank you Dr. Drake, and welcome Principal Rasmussen to Emerson!
Dr. Larry Nyland

Why does school accountability matter?

Public education leaders in Washington have developed a first draft of their statewide education plan. This plan is a requirement as part of ESSA, and state leaders say they’ll submit the final version to the U.S. Education Department by the Sept. 18 deadline.

A major chunk of the plan is dedicated to school accountability: Knowing how well schools are meeting the academic needs of students, showing that information to parents, and helping schools that are struggling the most.

We'll get into the details of the first draft of Washington's consolidated plan, and we'll try to figure out what it all means. In the meantime, I want to remind myself why this is important.

Read More

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.
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?

What will it take to undo institutional neglect at Emerson Elementary?

I live in South Seattle. My oldest son goes to Emerson Elementary, our neighborhood public school, and it’s gotten some long-awaited attention in the past couple months.  

Emerson Elementary School in Seattle, circa 1920

Emerson Elementary School in Seattle, circa 1920

The Emerson community has been a long-term victim of institutional neglect — despite serving a high-need population, the school sees chronically low resources and high staff turnover. In a system whose schools in wealthy neighborhoods are propped up by parent donations, advocacy and involvement, the schools in lower-income communities are left to fend for themselves.

It’s no surprise, then, when these schools struggle. Emerson, for its part, was downgraded from a “priority school” to a “superintendent intervention school” after last spring, and nearly every teacher in the school exercised the accompanying opportunity to “displace” and leave Emerson.

Not surprisingly, almost every family in the neighborhood with privilege is also finding a way to choose another school — and why wouldn’t they? Kids of color, as a result, make up almost the entire student body at Emerson, and that has been true for years. Emerson draws from an extremely diverse part of town, but "diverse" means exactly that. There are plenty of white kids around the neighborhood, too. Most of them just aren't at Emerson.

On a state level, our schools have been under-funded for years, and the legislature seems if anything further from resolving the McCleary mandate than it was whenever we checked in last. And even if by some magic our schools are soon “fully funded,” Emerson’s issues will remain. Funneling more money into an inequitable system won’t solve issues of inequity.

The voices of the Emerson community began to be heard for the first time in a long time this fall when principal Andrea Drake’s leave of absence garnered some media attention. That led to a community meeting in November to discuss Emerson’s past, present and future with Kelly Aramaki, executive director of Seattle Public Schools’ southeast region, and our local school board rep, Betty Patu. It was an unexpected spotlight and an unexpected opportunity to change the course of our struggling school.

The following is an email sent from Kelly Aramaki to the Emerson mailing list on Monday, Dec. 12:

Dear Emerson Families,
Thank you for so warmly welcoming Dr. Drake back. I know that she appreciates the welcome and well-wishes she received from families, students and staff. Thank you also to those of you who were able to attend the Emerson family meeting with School Board President Betty Patu, myself and other district leaders on November 17. We recognize and acknowledge the challenges Emerson Elementary has faced over the years and the community’s concern about insufficient funding, support and attention. As Director Patu mentioned at the meeting, we are committed to doing better by Emerson students and community.
As promised at that parent meeting, this is a follow-up letter to share more information and to answer questions asked that evening. The following are key points we’d like to give more information on, as well as answers to questions raised that evening. We know that much more dialogue with the community is needed moving forward, and will use this is a starting point.
The Need for More Support for Emerson – One of the key points made that evening was the need for more support for Emerson than what has been given in the past. We agree. This year, the district has allocated additional family support to Emerson through a Family Engagement Coordinator who will work alongside Yolanda McGee, the Family Support Worker. We have allocated two building substitutes (one full-time, one half-time) to provide more consistent substitutes when teachers are out sick. We also allocated additional funding to make the counselor full-time. We are providing the school enhanced professional development support to support the teachers and staff. We are providing enhanced leadership support for the building administrators. Through the Families and Education levy funding, Dr. Drake and her team have also secured additional resources for students such as whole-child support in partnership with Seneca. We have also allocated an additional math specialist to support students who are struggling with math. Looking to next year, the district and school are working with the Seattle Education Association (teachers’ union) to pursue a new model for school improvement that leverages family and community engagement.
Recruiting the Best Teachers – One of the most important factors in a child’s education is the quality of the classroom teacher. A number of concerns were raised at the parent meeting regarding recruiting and retaining the best teachers. Last February, Dr. Drake and I, along with Ms. James and Ms. Dusin, went to the Washington Educator Career Fair at the Tacoma Dome to recruit and offer contracts to teachers who are not only extremely qualified, but also passionate about working in schools with a diverse community like Emerson. Human Resources has invited us to do that again this year to fill any vacancies with the best candidates. In addition, Human Resources is protecting Emerson from any forced-placed teachers. Any teacher who comes to Emerson will be interviewed and approved by an Emerson interview team. Our goal is to find, support and retain outstanding teachers who are committed to the Emerson community.
Concerns About Vacant Positions –  This year, we have struggled to fill two classroom teaching positions. Parent concerns were heard regarding the challenges of rotating substitutes in those classrooms. We now have long-term substitutes in place for both of those classes.  We will do better to ensure that students in those classrooms are receiving the same level of education as students in other classes. That includes getting regular homework and updates for parents on their child’s progress.
City Year & After School Activities – Due to the particular needs of Emerson students, the school decided to fund a partnership with Seneca instead of City Year, because Seneca’s program and services were more aligned with the needs and goals of the school. Regarding after-school activities, we have opportunities in place this year for students such as choir and instrumental music. Additionally, we have after-school academic supports for English Language Learners. The school is looking into other after-school opportunities for Emerson students for next year.
The Budget Crisis – Concerns about the current budget crisis, the “levy cliff” and how schools are funded were raised at the meeting. This is a concern that impacts all of our schools. We are doing everything we can to mitigate the impact of the budget cuts on our students and schools. For more information about the current budget crisis, we encourage you to attend a Community Budget Gap Meeting on December 15 from 6:30 – 8:00PM at South Shore PK-8 School or on January 3 from 6:30 – 8:00PM at Franklin High School. For more information on this, please go to www.seattleschools.org.
Future Parent Engagement – Parents asked about future opportunities for Emerson families to talk with school and district administrators. I will coordinate with Dr. Drake to provide future opportunities for families to talk directly with school and district administrators about Emerson Elementary and to get updates on how we are better supporting the school.
Those are all the updates we have for now. If you have any questions, concerns or suggestions, I encourage you to contact Dr. Drake at Emerson. She is more than happy to talk with you about the school’s vision and to receive any questions or feedback you may have. If your concerns are about district support for Emerson, please feel free to contact me as well. Both Dr. Drake and I are passionate about and committed to helping Emerson students succeed in school and in life. Our unified goal, along with the staff, is to make sure that Emerson becomes one of Seattle’s most successful schools for each and every student in the Emerson community.
Have a wonderful week and a joy-filled winter vacation.
Kelly Aramaki, Executive Director of Schools

This is a very nice letter, and the community meeting was a great first step -- as long as it's a first of many steps. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, so maybe I would feel differently had I been there in person, but I struggle to find hope in these words. Despite the best intentions, Julian’s school will still have TWO long-term substitutes for the rest of the year where there should be full-time teachers. This is not a road map for foundational, long-term change at a school that desperately needs it. It’s more of a list of current problems, immediate band-aids, and lofty aspirations.

But then again, what did I expect?

Too many low-performing public schools like Emerson seem doomed, forgotten, stuck getting by as best they can. It’s a systemic problem. Emerson Elementary School — and its students and families — are just victims of an unfair capitalist system of education. People like Betty Patu and Kelly Aramaki mean well, I'm sure -- they don’t have a foot on Emerson Elementary School’s back. They're working within the confines of the same inherently inequitable system.

For now, I think the key here is that our leaders are willing to listen. If this is a first step with bigger steps soon to follow, then great. If this is the best we can do, then Emerson is stuck. Either way, we still have work to do.