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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Our kids bear the burden of our patience

Our kids bear the burden of our patience

Time keeps passing. The system keeps on revealing more and more of its flaws, shortcomings and downright bad intentions. We continue to search for solutions, but our kids are carrying the burden of our inability to change.

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As a public school parent, charter schools are a matter of principle

As a public school parent, charter schools are a matter of principle

As a public school parent, charter schools are a matter of principle. It's about offering parents a choice. My neighbors with privilege have generally found a way to get their kids into a different, “better” school than the historically neglected public elementary school down the block. Our neighbors without as much privilege generally haven't. That's not right.

Of course, with only 10 charter schools open in Washington State last school year, serving only 2400 current students, charters remain mostly a principle in reality as well. They are a slowly growing option for more and more students statewide, and they represent the principle of school choice, and the possibility of doing something radically different than the traditional public school system will allow.

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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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Wait, you mean you're not crazy? You must not be paying attention.

Wait, you mean you're not crazy? You must not be paying attention.

Good day, friends.

I’m just writing to give you a heads-up that I’m crazy now.

I had been hovering right on the edge for quite a while, obviously, but I think Neal Morton's recent Seattle Times article officially pushed me off the deep end. He pointed out that we’ve been talking about the opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines in Seattle Public Schools since the ‘50s — and that today, they’re worse than ever.

In other words, we’ve been acknowledging that things need to change for 70 years now without actually making any changes.

Tell me that’s not enough to drive you crazy.

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Let's take a deep breath, relax and play some turkey bingo together


I spent an hour and a half at Emerson Elementary today with my son for his school’s annual Turkey Bingo Night. It might have a more official name than that, but that’s how we know it.

They’ve held a similar event at Emerson every year for the past several, and honestly, it was really nice to be there today. We got together as a bunch of families in the cafeteria, ate some pizza with the teachers, watched our kids run around, and then played turkey bingo.

The bingo winners, which probably included every family by the end, got a big frozen turkey and a grocery bag full of traditional Thanksgiving fixings courtesy of a sponsor or two.

So, at the end of the night we walked home carrying a big frozen turkey.

Like I said, it was a nice night — and a much-needed reminder for me that everything doesn’t have to be so serious and heavy all the time.

You may have noticed that I took a brief impromptu hiatus from writing and updating the blog to begin this month, and I appreciate having the space to recharge. I’m sure so many of you were waiting with bated breath for my next literary atom bomb, and I’m sorry to have left you lacking. Feel free to exhale.

In the big picture, this isn’t about me, but at the same time, writing this blog can be intensely personal — and pretty emotional, if I let it be. Sometimes it gets to be a choice, for me at least,  between taking the time I need and unplugging every now and then, or cutting the cord altogether and unplugging from this work for good.

So, I appreciate reminders like this that I can exhale, too, and take it easy every now and then. That Emerson is a school with a good heart, even though I forget to mention that sometimes when I rant on and on about its challenges and the systems that keep it stuck. That there’s a lot to be thankful for even as there’s a lot that needs to change.

What a world.

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?

My only honest opinion about Washington’s ESSA plan is to reject it entirely

I couldn't possibly look at this ESSA plan for another moment.

I couldn't possibly look at this ESSA plan for another moment.

Check out this blog post from the Washington State Superintendent’s Office (OSPI). It’s supposed to explain how our state will hold public schools accountable for educating all kids.

Thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), each state is required to have a plan for this if they want to continue getting money from the federal government. But instead of clarifying anything, their blog post reads like a user’s manual that’s been translated from English to German and back to English again.

Here’s an excerpt (if your eyes start to cross, just skip to the next paragraph):

In order to measure school performance and identify schools who need further support, the Accountability System Workgroup voted to recommend that each school’s performance be measured on a 1–10 scale for each measure. These scales will be frozen, allowing schools to move around as they make progress between years. The multiple measures that make up this performance framework will be calculated for both the school as a whole and for all subgroups, which will unmask student subgroups. The lowest performing five percent of schools will be identified for comprehensive support, and any student subgroup that falls below the five percent threshold will be identified for targeted support, separate from comprehensive support.

Then, with no further explanation, we are given this equally confusing graphic to look at:

oblique ESSA graphic


What About Parents Like Me?

This is all supposed to provide clarity for parents like me who send their kids to schools like Emerson.

Emerson is our neighborhood elementary school, and my son is a third-grader there. He and the vast majority of his fellow students are students of color, and it’s one of just a couple schools in Seattle whose free/reduced lunch percentages are so high that every kid gets to eat for free.

We are starting this new school year with our third new principal in four years. We’re excited about the new leadership, and we love the diversity of the student body and the staff. But the fact remains that we don’t have the resources or the outcomes at Emerson that more affluent schools enjoy in Seattle.

Ours is a school that has been neglected by the system for decades now. So you’ll excuse me if I have a hard time seeing how this chart will do anything to change that. (Also, for what it’s worth, it looks like they chose the chart’s color palette from the patterned Crock-Pot my parents got as a wedding gift in the late ’70s.)

I’m Losing Faith

It makes me question the whole premise of creating a “state accountability plan” under ESSA. Why are we investing all this time and effort in creating a system that has no backbone, that doesn’t even try to solve our greatest issues?

As a parent of Black children, as a parent feeling concerned about the significant equity issues in our schools, this plan doesn’t connect to reality for me. It assumes the status quo is a reasonable starting point.

Seattle has the fifth-worst achievement gap between Black students and white students in the nation. We’ve been found guilty of disproportionately disciplining Black students across the district. These are not abstract figures. These are real kids, people’s beloved children, being chewed up and spit out by an unfair, racist system. How is this state accountability system going to help me as a parent?

The truth is, it can’t help me. It can’t help my kids. Because that’s not what it was designed to do.

Washington State was given a chance to redesign what we do in our schools by asking and answering some big questions: What will we reward? What do we truly value? What will we do to make sure our systems and our schools and our teachers treat all kids and families fairly and with respect?

But instead of meeting these deep-seated issues with vulnerability and courage, we buried them in the weeds of our ESSA plan, slapping a new name on the same limited scope and timid vision that have been guiding our schools since forever.

It’s not enough.

Sure, the plan acknowledges our opportunity and achievement gaps, but it takes only the smallest of steps toward closing them. It will give Emerson slightly different amounts of money for slightly different reasons. But it fails to address the source of Emerson’s neglect and instead merely changes the bandages on our gaping wound. It can only hope to stop the bleeding, not to actually heal anything.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I need Washington’s ESSA plan, frankly, to read like an anti-bias manifesto, or I don’t care about it. I need it not to simply acknowledge and pay lip service to systemic racism and classism and the gaps they create. I need our state’s plan to acknowledge that nothing else matters until these gaps are closed -- that if our schools are setting some students up for success at the expense of others, then our schools are part of the problem of systemic division and oppression that plagues our country as a whole.

We know firsthand in Washington state what’s possible when you take bold direct action in the name of human rights. Our voices legalized gay marriage and public school choice. We’ve been a standard-bearer for the rest of the nation in standing up to oppressive federal legislation this year.

But when it comes to our kids and our schools, we’re quiet. We’re accepting of milquetoast. We’re willing to let our schools be so much less than they must be.

An inequitable school system fails everyone by perpetuating disparity and discrimination. Our statewide school leaders are failing us in the same way by accepting this incremental, play-it-safe plan. It’s time to start thinking differently about “fixing” education.

We don’t need education reform. We need an education revolution. And maybe that starts by more boldly and more strongly rejecting the systems that keep us from realizing those changes.

Washington’s ESSA plan is the latest and greatest extension of that willingness to make slow, barely noticeable “progress” at the expense of our currently vulnerable students and families. It’s a written testament to our passive approach to school reform.

So, my only honest response to Washington’s ESSA plan is to say, no. Our kids need a revolution and you’re offering a clean band-aid. It’s not enough.

OSPI's plan for collecting school data lacks transparency and urgency

We can all pretty much agree that parents deserve to know how well their child’s school is doing. We can also agree, I think, that parents should be getting that information in a timely fashion. I mean, it wouldn’t do me much good to get my son’s second-grade report card when he’s in fifth grade.

That’s basically what OSPI is planning to do, though, so maybe I’m assuming too much thinking we all agree on the importance of timely information about schools.

Under Washington’s new ESSA plan, the state will measure graduation rates, how many students are reading and doing math on grade level, how well students are growing academically (even if they’re not yet on grade level), and other important stuff.

They’ll use all of this to give schools a report card based on a three-year average. Unfortunately, Washington will only ask schools to report every three years.

In other words, in some years, parents would have access only to school ratings based on information that’s between three and six years old. Taking a three-year average makes sense — it can be misleading to judge the hard work of teaching kids by such a small sample size as a single year. But not recalibrating that three-year average every year is a disservice to parents and others seeking to have timely information about what’s happening in Washington schools.

Take my son’s school, Emerson Elementary in South Seattle, as an example. We will have a new principal in the fall, and when Dr. Erin Rasmussen officially replaces the outgoing Dr. Andrea Drake next month, she will be the school’s fourth principal in the last four years.

So, if I’m a parent looking for more information about Emerson under Washington’s new ESSA plan, I might be looking at a rating based on data collected four principals ago.

Of course, it’s not exactly a straightforward process trying to learn about school quality as it is.

Emerson Elementary School Student Demographics

Emerson Elementary School Student Demographics rates Emerson a 2 out of 10 and seems to consider the school to be subpar by almost every conceivable metric except diversity, which, to the site’s credit, they do explain as being a genuine strength.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary, as another example, is also a public elementary school in Seattle, but it’s an option school, which means students can enroll from anywhere in the district and typically whitens up the student demographics. Thurgood in particular commonly draws students from the south end looking for a choice beyond their neighborhood school.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School Student Demographics

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School Student Demographics

Great Schools gives Thurgood Marshall a 10 out of 10 rating. The test scores look good, and it’s a fairly diverse school, even if white students do outnumber any other individual racial/ethnic group by more than 2:1. So, it must be better than Emerson, right?

As clear cut as Great Schools would make it seem, they aren’t sharing the full picture either. Take this article from last year from the Seattle Globalist, whose second paragraph poses a simple question you wouldn’t have known to ask from looking at Thurgood’s perfect rating: “Why are the classrooms inside Thurgood Marshall so segregated?”

So, then I’m back at square one. I obviously don’t want my son, himself a student of color, attending a school that is systematically discriminatory. But I obviously don’t want my curious, intelligent, expressive, creative son going to a school that can’t challenge him academically, either.

As always, I have more questions than answers. One thing is clear, though: it’s almost impossible to make a fully informed decision with our current school rating and accountability systems.

We need that to change, and moving to a data collection plan that only checks in every three years is not a step forward. If parents are going to gain timely access to truly relevant information about their schools, it will happen by monitoring this process of developing a new ESSA plan and demanding more equitable schools and more thorough, transparent reporting processes.

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.

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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?

'Still I look to find a reason to believe' in Seattle Public Schools

Seattle Public Schools announced recently that it will face a $74 million budget shortfall if the state legislature does not "fully fund education." Since that phrase has been so overused in Washington that it's lost all meaning, it seems safe to assume SPS will have to make some pretty enormous cuts.

Stephan Blanford, our strongest and often lone voice for equity and reason on the incessantly dysfunctional Seattle School Board, wrote in a piece for the South Seattle Emerald about his fears that our more-voiceless south-end schools will bear the greater burden of these looming cuts:

"I know I am motivated more by fear — fear of the kinds of cuts that we will need to make in December and January as the board grapples with a deficit that has grown to $74 million. I am deeply troubled by the ramifications these cuts will have in classrooms across the city and the uneven impact we could have on schools serving low income students and students of color. And I am motivated by my knowledge of what has happened in the past.
First, the uneven impact. Academic research demonstrates that seniority-based teacher layoffs disproportionately impact schools serving low income and students of color. This is because those schools tend to be staffed with newer teachers having less seniority – the last hired is often the first fired. Many of our principals will tell you that they’ve finally gotten a good mix of older/experienced and younger/energetic teachers in their buildings. As a result, many are optimistic for the first time in their careers about the chances of closing our achievement/opportunity gaps — unacceptable gaps that are larger than nearly every big city school district in the nation.
Secondly, based on recent history, I have come to believe that the school board that I serve on is not sufficiently oriented to or motivated by the need to eliminate the gap, in spite of the fact that the majority of students (53%) served by Seattle Public Schools are students of color. Obviously, not every student of color is in the gap – in fact, many students of color outperform their peers. But for those that don’t, there was very little outrage or even discussion when the board learned of our national ranking in a story that was reported back in May. I’ve frequently seen members of the board disregard advice from the staff and parents when it conflicts with the narrow interests of some of their constituents. During the months when we first learned of a possible budget deficit, some of my colleagues were much more interested in how to spend last year’s $10 million surplus, which could have made a sizable dent in the projected deficit. Many of the choices that were made during that exercise only make our achievement/opportunity gaps worse.
Why does this matter?
If you have a child in Seattle Public Schools, or are troubled by the growing gaps based on family income, race and ethnicity, gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline or any number of societal ills confronting our city, region and nation, you too should be concerned! At the root of each of these problems is society’s failure to adequately prepare our children to reach their awesome potential. IT IS CRITICAL THAT WE STEP UP NOW."


If you want to lose hope altogether, read the comments on Blanford's article. He's met with defensiveness, privilege and skepticism, often admittedly from the north end residents (and from Charlie Mas, who loves chiming in on our issues from wherever he's at).

This isn't about dividing the city into a north and south end. That's already been done. We are already the have-nots. It's not that there are no low-income families in the north end, or that there is no money in the south. It's that these are two very different places, home to two very distinct populations. Our city has been largely segregated for ages.

Blanford's fears are based in reality, and part of that reality is that schools like Emerson exist in a different realm of Seattle Public Schools than their north-end counterparts. At Emerson, we are already operating with two long-term substitutes where we should have full-time teachers. We are one of the only schools in the city with such a high percentage of students eligible for free/reduced lunch that it's just given to everyone. We've had four principals in four years.

This is, by definition, a high-need school, but it's serving mostly low-privilege students and families, which means it gets ignored. Then when someone tries to speak up about it, the overwhelming response is defensiveness.

But we should just keep plugging away, believing things will change. I'm trying.

We're progressive in lots of ways in Seattle, but that doesn't give us a pass on all the ways we're still way behind the times. We have the fifth-highest achievement gap along racial lines in the country. It persists because comfortable, privileged white moderates dominate the conversation about education locally.

We will keep speaking up from the south end, from the other sides of all the borders and barriers. The question becomes, when will people listen? I'm looking for a reason to believe that will happen soon. It needs to, because my kids won't be kids forever.


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
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.

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?


Reflecting on the first day of school

Yesterday was Julian's first day of second grade. I wanted to write these thoughts down last night after he and his brother went to bed. Instead, Julian sleepwalked into Zeke’s room (naked, for good measure) and woke Zeke up, and Zeke cried, and you get the idea until 11:40, when I woke up in a chair in Zeke’s room.

So, it’s today instead of yesterday, but it’s better late than never.

Only two of last year’s full-time grade-level teachers are back at Emerson, where Julian is starting his third year. The PE and music teachers and other support staff are mostly back, and most of the administration remains the same, but almost all of the full-time teachers left after last year, including some that had been there for some time. I’m still not sure what really happened or why, unless there’s no more story there than the one we’ve heard before about teachers fleeing challenging conditions at an under-resourced school.

“This is the differentest year I’ve ever had at Emerson,” said Julian. He thinks the massive turnover is connected to low pay and the teacher strike that started last school year. Two of his best in-school friends from the past couple years were no-shows on the first day as well and turn out to be enrolled someplace else. All this after waking up to get to school an hour and a half earlier than ever before thanks to the new bell schedule.

He also said they only got one long recess instead of the three shorter ones they had last year, and that as second graders they’re not allowed to sit down in the hallway if they’re waiting for the bathroom.

I was approached by a mom offering me an opt-out form. More on that later.

We’ll see. I’ve only exchanged a few words with my son’s new teacher, but she’s already spent the better part of two days with him.

It’s a strange, unnerving thing, in its way, to send your kids to school. Not that it isn’t exciting and liberating and all kinds of other things, but it takes a lot of trust to let go of that hand and just hope that the (in this case) woman caring for him during the day will treat him with respect and love.

He seems happy. Totally fine. But I wonder, what are her biases? What is the difference between how she consciously thinks of Julian and how she will unconsciously treat him. Or other kids in the class.

I think he’ll be fine. He’s doing great. But it’s a lot to think about.

Emerson Elementary is losing most of its teachers next week

Somewhere between 10 and 15 teachers have reportedly resigned from Emerson Elementary School effective at the end of the school year.

By my count, that’s most of the teachers at this little neighborhood school in Rainier Beach. And if it's most of them, that means my son’s kindergarten and first-grade teachers are probably among the soon-departed.

Emerson lost former principal Farah Thaxton to the same position at West Woodland Elementary about a year ago now, so current principal Andrea Drake is days away from the end of her first school year.


There's been a different energy this year, and what feels to an outsider-looking-in like lower expectations school-wide, but if my son is a representative sample, the kids have no idea they're about to lose their teachers.

I don’t know much about this situation yet, so I don’t really know what to make of it except that it hits close to home. It doesn’t take much squinting to see this mass exodus as a sign that something is very much not right at Emerson. It could also mean the new principal is pushing such changes as to alienate her stagnant teachers. It could mean any number of things. I don’t know.

I do know that it’s been a bit of a leap of faith sending Julian to Emerson in the first place. Just about everyone in the neighborhood with the means and/or system wherewithal to opt out of their neighborhood school has done so.

Of course, most of them don’t seem much happier or more assured than we feel with Emerson. Orca and SouthShore are the two most common alternatives, and while they’re on steadier footing than Emerson, they’re suffering from the same south-end disparity and from calling a dysfunctional district home.

To its credit, the school has been safe and welcoming for my son, and he goes to school with a truly diverse group of classmates -- and research has shown that going to school with a diverse student population is actually connected to positive outcomes for students.

So far, it's been fine. He says he wants to stay. It's working for us.

But now most of the teachers are leaving. So, I don't know.

I’ll find out more soon about what’s happening at Emerson, and I’ll write about it.

In the meantime, what’s happening at your school? What’s the story nobody is telling? What’s missing that nobody is talking about?

Or better yet, what’s working? What is your school doing to help insulate itself, to reach all students, to stand up for families?