Test results show Washington is making 'little progress' toward closing gaps

Test results show Washington is making 'little progress' toward closing gaps

The results of last spring’s Smarter Balanced tests are in, and Washington State’s students scored almost exactly the same as they had the year before on the standardized math and language arts tests.

Paige Cornwell dug into the uninspiring results recently for the Seattle Times. The only areas of statewide improvement over the previous year were sixth- and seventh-grade math, and seventh grade reading, which had the largest gain at 1.6 percent.

That’s it.

“What jumps out are the persistent achievement gaps and the fact that little progress is being made,” state superintendent Chris Reykdal said, “and it’s not enough.”

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Should Seattle Public Schools have an ethnic studies curriculum?

Should Seattle Public Schools have an ethnic studies curriculum?

That’s the question facing the Seattle School Board right now as it considers a resolution that would embed ethnic studies throughout the city’s K-12 education system.

Many of us have already moved beyond wondering about this question. In fact, Seattle Public Schools already has an ethnic studies task force working to make recommendations for teaching ethnic studies at the high school level by October 2017. I was chosen to be a part of that task force, and so far it’s been an encouraging experience.

Our schools should absolutely include a rich ethnic studies curriculum. This is a concrete way for the Seattle School Board to improve student achievement while providing a more well-rounded, honest education. It’s also a genuine investment in closing the opportunity gap. Multiple studies have shown improved academic outcomes for students of color who participate in ethnic studies courses.

See, in acknowledging the need for ethnic studies in the first place, you subtly acknowledge a deep-seated, rarely mentioned truth of our education system: in our schools, and in our country, white is officially considered “non-ethnic.” The board resolution takes the subtle but important step of acknowledging the current white-centric reality of our schools, and how white students will benefit academically as well.

From Paige Cornwell of the Seattle Times:


The Seattle School Board, the resolution says, acknowledges that textbooks, curriculum and instruction overwhelmingly include a European-American perspective.
It also states that the board “recognizes that students whose history and heritage is taught, understood and celebrated will learn better, be more successful and develop positive aspects of identity,” and that ethnic studies helps white students better appreciate the “democratic ideal of equity and justice that the United States was founded upon.”


Instead of leaving that truth hidden and unspoken, the the task force has explicitly said that our schools and all their building blocks are very white-centric to begin with. It’s out there. Those words have power, just as there’s power in publicly acknowledging the truth — even if it is a truth that to many sounds like old news. The school board will follow suit if it adopts this resolution.

So, good onya for starting to discuss ethnic studies in a good way in 2017.

But … what took so long? It's not like the district hasn’t known there was a problem. We’ve been talking about Seattle’s appalling achievement gap and the segregation within our schools and programs for years now. As recently as last year, a study showed that Seattle’s Black students are on average three and a half grade levels behind white students. We’ve also known about the positive effects of culturally relevant curriculum for quite some time — there are scholarly articles about it dating back to the 90s — and Washington adopted a statewide Native American curriculum in 2015 for the same reasons.

"that's the tricky thing about accountability. You can't just talk about it, you have to act on it." Seattle Public Schools has known about this issue for some time without acting on it. Now we have to make sure they follow through on what they’re saying they’ll do.

Let’s be clear: Ethnic studies is a band-aid, in this situation. It’s a much needed band-aid over a gushing wound, yes, but it’s only the beginning of solving this problem. It’s not the solution itself. It’s maybe the second inning in a long game. Let’s make sure we get this right, and then keep going—all nine innings—until we have an equitable system that helps all students thrive.


A Seattle parent has raised almost $30,000 to pay every student lunch debt in the district

A friend told an inspiring story recently about her reaction to transit police harassing a 15-year-old black boy on Seattle’s light rail. The officer would not let anyone nearby pay his $2.50 fee, though many offered, and instead called the sheriff.

My friend moved eventually and stood between the officer and the boy he was trying to intimidate, and she ended up being one of two adults -- two strangers -- who stayed and waited with the boy until the sheriff arrived.

They physically intervened on a potentially dangerous situation, even though it was inconvenient and a little scary -- my friend even had her young son with her.

They were paying attention and willing to go out on a limb.

Jeff Lew is a parent in Seattle and a graduate of Seattle Public Schools. He found out about this phenomenon of school lunch debt and the corresponding “lunch shaming” and decided to take action locally. He set up a GoFundMe page to first cover the lunch debt at his son’s school ($97.10), then the school lunch debt for all of Seattle Public Schools.

Paige Cornwell wrote about it for the Seattle Times:


In Seattle, about 3,700 students now owe the $21,468 for school meals. The majority are families who don’t qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program, said district spokesman Luke Duecy. Breakfast and lunch prices range from $2 to $3.25.

Once a student owes $15 or more, schools have the option of providing the modified meals, although some just give the full meal anyway.

‘Our policy is kids don’t go without a breakfast or lunch if they don’t have money at the time,’ Duecy said. ‘We feed them. We never shame any child like other districts might do.’

In the past, other Puget Sound school districts have been accused of lunch-shaming. In 2014, a Kent middle-school student’s lunch was taken from him and thrown out because his lunch account was 26 cents short. The district later apologized. For two weeks in 2008, the Edmonds School District took away hot lunches from students who owed $10 or more before the district suspended the policy.

In Seattle, Lew wanted to make sure all students get an equal lunch after reading stories about more recent — and more extreme — examples of lunch-shaming outside Washington.


Lew saw a problem, and he found a way to be of service.

Let him be an example we keep in mind. We’ve got no shortage of problems, it seems. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Let’s remember these inequitable systems are manifested on individual, person-to-person levels every day. Just as we need to be advocating for systemic change, we can be on the lookout for ways to intervene on inequity as it presents itself in person as well.

Seattle teachers vote against McCleary walkout

The Seattle teachers union voted down a proposed one-day walkout meant to pressure the legislature to fully fund its McCleary obligation.

This would hardly be unusual for Seattle's teachers. In fact, this would be their third strike or walkout in the past three school years.

We've all been agreeing for years now that we need a solution that fully funds our schools. I'm glad to see the teachers recognizing that taking a day of classroom instruction away from their students will do more harm than good at this point. Or at any rate, it's not going to apply such pressure as the legislature hasn't already been feeling.

From Paige Cornwell of the Seattle Times:

Union members who voted no questioned the effectiveness of a walkout, as well as the disruption it would cause for students and families. Lawton Elementary teacher Lyon Terry said his experiences with the 2015 walkout and strike led him to vote no on the proposed walkout.
“We walked out to fund education, but we ended up having to strike anyway,” Terry said. “My interpretation was that it wasn’t effective in that way. I don’t think this one would be, either.”
In addition to possibly changing the last day of school, students in some Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes are scheduled to take exams on May 1. The AP exams, which students can take to earn college credit if they score high enough, can be rescheduled, union leaders wrote in an email to members. But the IB exams, which students in the program take to earn their IB diploma, can’t be taken on a different day. [Union President Phyllis] Campano said she has heard more concerns from members this year than the last time they voted on a walkout.


Interestingly, Seattle City Councilmembers Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant jointly told the city's teachers through the South Seattle Emerald, "If you decide to go on strike, we'll have your back."

I give Sawant a mountain of credit as a fearless voice for equity, but in this case, it seems like she and O'Brien might be seeing this issue for what they wish it were, rather than for what it is.

They write of the May 1 walkout as part of a larger show of resistance throughout the day, and they fold SEA's potential action in with other labor rights issues:

We applaud the incredible courage Seattle educators are showing in considering strike action on behalf of their students, their schools, and all those in our community under attack from the Trump administrations. Your bold actions are an inspiration for working people everywhere.
May 1 will be a historic day of resistance, with immigrants, women, students, and workers taking the streets across the country. In California, a coalition of SEIU locals, United Service Workers West, and workers center members (nearly 350,000 workers altogether!) are preparing to go on strike.
From the Fight for $15 to the NoDAPL campaign, Seattle’s movements of working people have again and again acted as a catalyst for change nationally. Now, Seattle’s labor movement is helping lead the way on bold May 1 action.
UAW local 4121, which represents graduate student workers at the University of Washington, are also voting on a similar strike action. And importantly, last week, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council passed a resolution in support of local unions taking strike and protest actions on May 1.
The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that the state legislature is unconstitutionally failing to fund public education, and yet this outrage has continued for years. Underfunding of public schools impacts students of color in particular, as well as young people from low-income households.

This misses the mark for me. Teachers' rights as workers are not at stake, unless you consider the gross under-representation of people of color in the field -- 80 percent of current Seattle Public Schools teachers are white -- so this walkout would have been a students' rights issue, not a labor issue.

And, thankfully, the union voted against it in the end. I appreciate that they will maintain continuity in the classroom while finding other ways to advocate for a legislative fix for McCleary.


More students need to hear their schools boldly declare that Black Lives Matter

Last week, an extraordinary event was planned at South Seattle's John Muir Elementary  to publicly declare that Black Lives Matter. The event was then “canceled,” however, after the school and the district received at least one threatening phone call.

Paige Cornwell summed up the situation in an article in the Seattle Times last Friday evening:

“The elementary school had scheduled a celebration called “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative,” where more than 100 black men would gather outside and greet students as they walked into the building, with the goal of dispelling stereotypes. A similar event was held at South Shore K-8 (another south-end public school) last school year.
Teachers had planned to wear shirts that featured the school’s name along with “We Stand Together” and “Black Lives Matter.” Several local news outlets published stories about the teachers’ plans, which were then picked up by conservative national news outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Caller.
On Friday morning, several people still showed up and high-fives students as they arrived. Meanwhile, at Leschi Elementary, community members and teachers high-fives and cheered for students who were walking into the building. Lesch teachers wore shirts that said “Leschi (Hearts) Black Lives.”
John Muir received at least one threatening call related to the event, district spokesman Luke Duecy said. The district decided to cancel after consulting with Seattle police and the district’s safety and security staff.
At least one local story included a parent who said he wasn’t informed about the shirts, and that he had concerns about it. John Muir PTA President Amy Zern said all parents were informed, and that the community had embraced both the event and the teachers’ plans.
“There was a plan in place to discuss this in an age-appropriate way, and in our community, there’s been nothing but support,” Zern said. “It’s awful to see this reaction.”
Parents saw that there was a lot of “national hatred” in comments posted on stories about their school, she said.
About half of John Muir’s 400 students in kindergarten through fifth grade are black. About 20 percent are white, and 10 percent each are Hispanic, Asian or two or more races. The school sees its diversity as an asset, Zern said.
“My white child is absolutely ready to embrace the idea that some folks are not being treated the same as some other folks,” she said. “It’s not a surprise to her 9-year-old mind. She sees it.”

I asked my biracial 8-year-old, Julian, what he would think if teachers at his school wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Would it be a good thing? A bad thing? Doesn't matter?

“Good,” he said. “It would just be cool to see that they would actually care, and we could know that.”

Jason McGillie lives in Rainier Beach, and his son, Fenix, was a second-grader at SouthShore last year and is now a third-grader in his first year at John Muir. Jason dropped his boys off during SouthShore’s “Changing the Narrative” event last year. (For context, Jason is white, and his wife, Reese, is black.) 

“I was walking on air for the next five hours just from the positive energy and from having gotten to see it happen,” he said. “Just being able to drop the kids off and see the looks on their faces, it was really, really cool.”

When he saw a flyer for this year’s event at John Muir, he posted a photo of it on Facebook and started spreading the word about this amazing thing that was about to happen again. And then he found out it was canceled. He said the kicker was a surprisingly emotional automated message that went out to the school’s parents.

“You could tell that she (John Muir Principal Brenda Ball Cuthbertson) was just barely keeping it together. She was obviously distraught, just emotionally distraught,” McGillie said. “It was intense. If you had no heart or soul at all and didn’t care about it one way or another, you would still be like, ‘She’s going through something. That is awful.’”

When Reese and Fenix pulled up to the school Friday morning, they found a large group of black men at the school anyway, in spite of the "cancellation." Most of the teachers in the school still wore their Black Lives Matter t-shirts as well. It became an act of courage as well as a celebration of community.


One of the Catch-22s of parenting is how ultimately separate we are from our kids. We love and feel for them with such intensity, but in the end, Julian isn’t me. Zeke isn’t me.

And there will always be ways that we are different. It’s beautiful, mostly. They are these mysterious gifts that slowly unwrap themselves over time, revealing new and fascinating parts of themselves and their thoughts and their quirks.

It also means there will always be things I don’t know or fully understand about them. As a white parent to biracial kids, it’s hard sometimes knowing that my kids and I will always know a different racial identity, that there will be a huge part of their everyday experience in this country that will always be unavailable to me, for better or worse.

And so it’s especially strange to think that one of the ways I can’t be there for my boys is that I can’t reflect back to them a face that looks like theirs. I mean, on the one hand, we look alike. Zeke is pretty clearly my son, and you need only talk with Julian for a few seconds to know we’re so connected. But this same phenomenon is only deepened with Julian, who isn’t my biological son, even if we’ve been together since before his second birthday.

There’s power in my sons knowing strong, proud black men, and there’s power in my sons seeing men who look like them in ways I don’t doing something bold like this. And it’s a power they need to experience and that I can’t directly provide them.

There’s similar power in all the students regardless of their race having that experience at John Muir and at SouthShore, seeing black men in a positive, non-stereotyped, momentarily non-racist light. To see them celebrated and celebrating.

As Jason described it, “this is informing [Fenix’s] worldview in a way that is not the norm and is certainly not the narrative,” even if Fenix himself can’t articulate or necessarily even notice the powerful effect.

But instead of celebrating the beauty of a school as intentionally inclusive as this, we have another example of a fear-driven response to a proclamation that Black Lives Matter. That should not be a controversial statement, and it isn’t the opposite or antithesis of anything good. It is just a true statement.

My sons’ lives matter. My partner’s life matters. My father- and brother-in-law’s lives matter.

The lives of the men who showed up at John Muir Elementary on Friday matter, and their presence in the lives of those kids, that matters, too. I can't applaud long or loudly enough the courage they showed in being at John Muir last week in spite of it all, and the same goes for the teachers and staff who still wore the shirts.

The phrase -- the very idea that Black Lives Matter -- is one filled with love and compassion. The response is too often grounded in fear and shows up as a quick retreat to less controversial ground that doesn’t risk the safety and comfort of white folks.

Maybe more shows of bravery and solidarity like this can start to change that narrative, too.