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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few quick thoughts about Seattle’s superintendent candidates after last night’s public forum

A few quick thoughts about Seattle’s superintendent candidates after last night’s public forum

We met the three finalists chosen by the school board — Jeanice Swift, Denise Juneau and Andre Spencer, in that order — and each candidate spoke with Keisha Scarlett of SPS for 45 minutes in a question-and-answer format.

Here are my brief-as-I-can-be thoughts about the three people we’re choosing between to lead Seattle’s schools.

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Do we have any reason to believe the Seattle School Board has the skills needed to choose a superintendent who can close our opportunity gaps?

Do we have any reason to believe the Seattle School Board has the skills needed to choose a superintendent who can close our opportunity gaps?

The Seattle School Board is in the beginning stages of finding a new superintendent to lead Seattle Public Schools. Also, they're apparently near the finish line.

Despite the fact that the application materials still aren’t available online, Ray and Associates, the firm chosen to conduct the search, still lists Feb. 28 as the deadline to apply. The board, meanwhile, after opening their ears to a brief moment of community input, has apparently decided to stay the course and still plans to hire the new superintendent before the end of March.

That doesn't give us much time.

First off, here's what the board says they're looking for in a candidate...

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Seattle School Board VP Harris delivered the definition of a microagression to a student guest

During the Seattle School Board meeting on Jan. 18 of this year, Board VP Leslie Harris thanked a student guest and said she was "extremely articulate."

Let's take this opportunity to understand why this is a microaggression and not a compliment.

First, watch here:

 

The student in question was a young woman of color who attends West Seattle High School. She updated the board on the MLK Day assembly, then discussed her school's lack of diversity among staff and teachers, shortages in science funding, and ways to help students of color not only find success, but find pathways to the becoming teachers as well.

 

She was certainly articulate. So, what's the problem?

Let's start by turning to an excellent article from KUOW producer Jeannie Yandel, "'You're So Articulate': Why Microaggressions Wear People Down."

According to Yandel's article, a microaggression is "an everyday slight, putdown or insult toward marginalized groups. Often, these come from well-intentioned individuals who are unaware they are saying anything offensive. Such seemingly small comments are the morphing of overt racism in America into a much more subtle form of bias."

Microaggressions are a nuanced form of prejudice, which can make them easy to miss -- and to dismiss. But they take a huge toll over time, in no small part because they are so difficult to combat that they are often just absorbed silently.

More from Yandel:

If the recipient, like Sue, takes offense, he could be perceived as misreading the intent of the comment or being too sensitive. “It is very difficult for them to understand the hidden meaning of their microaggression," he said.
Microaggressions aren’t just in offhand comments – they can be nonverbal too.
An example: a white woman clutching her purse a little tighter near a black male. Sue said assumptions of dangerousness and criminality are characteristic of the microaggressions black people receive.
Each small gesture might seem trivial, but for the person who receives them, they can accumulate over years – especially if the recipient has been subjected to different microaggressions several times a day.
“All our research on microaggressions reveal that microaggressions take a tremendous psychological and physical toll on the marginalized group member,” which can take the form of loss of productivity at school and work or a decrease in subjective well-being, Sue said.
Combating microaggressions can be tricky. Sue said recipients of microaggressions find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
“We found that the majority of people of color did not do anything, were told not to do anything, but by that decision what happened was that it took a psychological toll on them," Sue said. "They sat there and seethed away with anger and frustration. But they were also very hard on themselves by saying, ‘I’m a coward. Why didn’t I at least do something about it?"

 

Of course, as the article goes on to discuss, it's usually easier said than done to "do something" about a microaggression. Imagine this young woman interrupting a well-intentioned-but-ignorant school board member to try to explain why the intended compliment was actually an insult and a projection of implicit bias.

And the thing is, she shouldn't have to. She shouldn't have to hear it in the first place, and she definitely shouldn't be the one stuck defending herself and educating her oppressors.

So, Director Harris, take it from me instead: choosing to describe this student as "extremely articulate" -- and nothing else -- is problematic. It's a microaggression. A slight. And it's yet another reflection of our school board's sad lack of racial awareness.

(See also: Let's unpack SPS Board Director Rick Burke's understanding of integrationPlease help our kids get the school board leadership they deserveSeattle School Board VP Harris should resign after using term 'ghetto school', and A grassroots coalition just stopped the Seattle School Board from adding $11 million to the deficit.)

All of our students deserve better.

I am officially raising my hand and requesting that the Seattle School Board undergo some intensive DEI (short for diversity, equity and inclusion) work. This board does not constitute safe, productive leadership for our kids.

We should also, as a so-called sanctuary city, consider taking protective measures for the kids who already live here as well as those who don't. Let's make implicit bias testing mandatory for anyone working in our public school system. Now.

Let's unpack SPS Board Director Rick Burke's understanding of integration

We have a dysfunctional school board in Seattle, and that has been fully on display in discussions about opening a new elementary school in North Seattle's Cedar Park neighborhood.

The north side of Seattle is an overall whiter and more affluent community than the south end, but most Cedar Park residents are people of color and, it so happens, average a lower income than folks in the surrounding neighborhoods.

A group of north-end parents saw a school comprised almost entirely of students from these under-served demographics as doomed to low achievement. They formed a coalition and wrote a letter that eventually found its way to the school board suggesting Cedar Park Elementary open as an option school instead of a neighborhood school.

The board liked this idea.

"I think we have an opportunity to shine here," said board VP Leslie Harris during the Nov. 16 board meeting, "and to make lemonade out of what potentially was a big lemon in setting up a ghetto school."

“To open Cedar Park as an attendance-area school with potential of high concentration of disadvantaged learners feels like a disservice to the community," Dir. Rick Burke said during the same meeting (in the video at 1:53:00), "but combining the community demographics with a natural tendency of an option school to draw in more affluent families provides a natural balance to demographics.”

Burke is inferring here that a school needs "more affluent families" (code for "more white families," whether he is conscious of that or not) to make a school worth investing in. Referring to a school without those affluent families as "a disservice to the community" shows that on some level, Burke knows the district won't be able to adequately educate the kids in Cedar Park.

SPS has the fifth-worst opportunity gap in the nation and a documented history of disproportionate discipline of students of color. If the district opens a new school made up entirely of those pesky demographics, the entire board knows they will fail to give those kids an excellent education. "Balancing demographics" helps balance overall test scores and overall outcomes. It allows the board and the district to continue to perpetuate opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines without doing so in a glaringly obvious way. It allows them to avoid addressing the systemic problems within the district that create these gaps in the first place.

Turning Cedar Park into an option school displaces the local community as well, which means this plan represents a well-disguised form of gentrification. Option schools are modern-day "white flight schools." This is will happen with Cedar Park as it has happened elsewhere.

Burke and Harris show that they know this, but again, they do it very subtly. "Disadvantaged learners" is code for "students of color." Knowing that creating an option school would even out those demographics shows an understanding that it would bring gentrification. It's just that they see that as a good thing.

School integration is a tricky issue, in no small part because it's trying to buck the reality of our segregated lives and our segregated society, but it's one of the only initiatives that has truly helped eliminate opportunity gaps.

Some argue, without using these exact words, that the white/affluent kids are so "advantaged" that they'll elevate the class around them, essentially -- that "advantaged learners" will rub off on the poor, unfortunate souls around them.

That's an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Genuine diversity in a school allows more strengths and learning styles to flourish. There is inherent value in diversity and differing perspectives.

And as far as schools go, the numbers are clear: a more white/affluent student body means better teachers and teacher retention, stronger external funding, stronger principals and leadership -- stronger privilege, essentially. Through integration, that privilege is spread out a bit more and is made available to more students of color, giving them easier access to wealthier PTAs, to more privileged teams and organizations and people.

It's not that sitting next to a white kid makes a kid of color smarter. It's that they actually get access to higher-quality elements of the inequitable system.

Historically, however, white families and families of privilege have resisted integration. The only way to actually solve this problem has been to put together policy, pass potentially controversial legislation even in the face of pushback, and do the hard work of changing hearts and minds of people with privilege.

Change is scary. We of privilege don't tend to give up our privilege voluntarily. We push back against threats to the status quo, even if we don't fully realize or articulate what we are doing or why. For our inequitable systems to change, we have to be prepared to make and stand by unpopular decisions, or we need to be honest with ourselves and know that we are failing the students who most need a voice.

Please help our kids get the school board leadership they deserve

I'd like to point your attention toward the dysfunction of the Seattle School Board. Many of the directors on the board have consistently shown a troubling lack of racial awareness, and it's been having a seriously negative impact on the kids in our district for many years.

Dir. Leslie Harris described a Cedar Park school full of low-income students of color as "a ghetto school."

It's time for things to change.

I wrote a blog post Sunday about Dir. Leslie Harris, the recently appointed board vice president who used the term "ghetto school" during a board meeting last November. It sparked a particularly inspiring response from one former principal.

This earlier post also gives some more background on the problematic dynamics on the board:

 

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

 

These are just a couple examples, of course. I'll also be writing this week about Dir. Rick Burke's troubling take on integration and about more racially sleepy comments from Dir. Harris.

Seattle Public Schools has documented problems with disproportionate discipline of Black students, and the district is home to the fifth-worst opportunity gap in the nation. These are more than just politically incorrect slips of the tongue from a well-intentioned board of directors. Each microagression and each offensive phrase represents the pattern of thinking that still guides our schools. 

The West Coast is leading the resistance against the Trump-led Republicans, and Washington State has been at the forefront of that movement in a very real way. On a local level, however, we still have elected officials making oppressive decisions -- especially when it comes to education. It's time that our local politics better reflect our bold commitment to equity.

If you have more stories illustrating our problematic school board in Seattle -- and I'm sure you do -- please share them with me. We need the voters in our city to know who is representing their kids and their schools.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for everything you're doing to create better schools and a better world for our kids. They need us to rise up now more than ever.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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