In schools and on the field, equity is an investment in righting wrongs

In schools and on the field, equity is an investment in righting wrongs

By Erin Jones

As a former high-level athlete...

As someone who came to the United States in 1989 with the dream of someday playing for the national soccer team (I was good but never that good)...

As someone who tried out for 2 WNBA teams in 2000 and learned that non-drafted players typically were paid $20-$30,000/year (about the same as what I made as a starting teacher)...

As someone who has known players in both the NFL and NBA...

The issue of pay for female athletes has been on my mind for a long time.

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How white families in Seattle unwittingly contribute to segregation and educational inequity by moving to live near 'good' schools

pure seattle space needle.jpg

I had coffee at a favorite spot in south Seattle this morning. As I was getting ready to leave, I overheard the barista talking to a couple customers. He was describing the commute from his north-end-suburb home to work in the south end every day, as well as the differences between the two communities.

I was trying not to pay much attention until the conversation abruptly turned to education — and not just to education, but to the ways schools are assessed and how that data is packaged up for the public. He said part of the reason he and his wife had chosen their north-end neighborhood was because of the strong school ratings they had found online. All three involved in the conversation (each a white man, for what it's worth) agreed that it was very common for folks to not even consider a home in a neighborhood with “bad” schools.

Moves like he had made with his family and a refusal to even consider homes near “bad” schools lead sneakily, the barista said, to segregation. He said that by choosing what they chose, he and his wife were unwittingly going against everything they stood for. In other words, despite their best intentions, their decisions actively contribute to systems of segregation and discriminatory opportunities on a daily basis. They are unintentionally perpetuating the ongoing patterns of racial and educational inequity in the Seattle area, despite considering themselves to hold values that say they would fight against these injustices.

I about wanted to jump out of my seat and let out a joyful bellow. Something appropriately old-timey like, “Comrades! Welcome!”

Instead, because my coffee and waffle were sitting particularly uneasily in my stomach, I barely reacted and instead slowly, carefully walked out to my car and carefully drove a couple miles south to the relative comfort of my own home and bathroom. But I did feel raucously joyful for a moment, even if no one could tell by looking at me.

See, I’ve been having less-concise, less-useful versions of the conversation for a long time now. I’ve been trying to write about this very thing on this very blog for 23 consecutive months, in fact. If you present as white in Seattle, or anywhere else in America, unless you are taking great care and extreme measures to ensure the contrary, you are contributing in every meaningful way to the systems that oppress and divide us up. No matter what you do for a living or where you volunteer or what you believe, it’s not enough. As long as all of your capital is still feeding the system, the system will happily leave you to think about it what you like.

My secretly raucous joy came from being reminded that more and more of the people around and among us are figuring this out independently. We are waking up to the fact that our everyday lives as they are currently constructed are contributing to systems that run contrary to everything we thought we valued.

The problem is that waking up is just the beginning. It’s at that point that we are faced with trying to figure out what to do about this strange new reality. If this guy working at the coffee shop moves from up north with his presumably white family to buy a home in the south end, who will they displace? Will they then be contributing to a gentrification process that is already well underway down south?  On the other hand, if they stay up north, will they be continuing to perpetuate segregated, inequitable schools through their inactivity?

I don’t know. But wow, am I glad to know people are talking about it and reflecting on their role in all this. Tides are shifting.

Do you sense the momentum? Do you feel the growing discontent? Are you among the ever-larger contingent that knows it won’t find contentment on the beaten path?

You’re not alone. Change is there for the taking, but only if we make it happen. It starts with taking an honest look at the ramifications of our everyday life, and then making different decisions and living differently one day at a time.

An Eckstein Middle School parent asks: 'What about red and black or yellow and white and black? How does supporting Black Lives Matter help that gap?'

An Eckstein Middle School parent asks: 'What about red and black or yellow and white and black? How does supporting Black Lives Matter help that gap?'

"This sounds a lot like nitpicking from the sidelines. It’s all too easy and all too common for folks to stand by, knowing something is unjust -- such as the unjustified and unpunished murders of Black men and women by police officers, or the violent danger that comes with branding Black teenagers as criminals, or the unfair treatment Black kids are receiving in our schools and courtrooms -- and then judge the particulars of the people who chose to take action.

Supporting Black Lives Matter helps all gaps because it acknowledges injustice and seeks to change it. Nitpicking Black Lives Matter supports injustice by taking the side of the oppressor.

Remember, there is nothing violent hidden in the phrase 'Black Lives Matter.' There is nothing inherently threatening about it. It doesn’t suggest that Black Lives Matter more than any other lives, or that they matter at anyone’s expense."

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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.

'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.