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.  
Sincerely, 
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?

Longer school days are about to start in Seattle

Longer school days are about to start in Seattle

"A new school year starts next Wednesday for Seattle Public Schools, and our kids will spend 20 minutes longer in class each day than they have the past few years.

The district says the change will give teachers more time for collaboration and students more time to be schooled."

Read More

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!
Sincerely,
Dr. Larry Nyland
Superintendent

Seattle Public Schools' Advanced Learning Programs 'magnify inequity'

A white student in Seattle Public Schools is 20 times more likely to qualify for “gifted” or “advanced learning” programs than a Black student.

The problem is so bad that last year at Cascadia Elementary School in North Seattle, all 529 white students had tested into the “highly capable cohort” -- the school’s advanced learning program. The school had just 49 Black students to begin with. Only two of them were part of the cohort.

That’s right: All 529 white kids at Cascadia were considered “highly capable,” and every Black student but two was not.

Seattle Public Schools’ Advanced Learning department was set up to support top-performing students. Just as opportunity gaps exist across racial and socioeconomic lines throughout our public school system, Advanced Learning in Seattle Public Schools disproportionately serves privileged students.

Contributing to this is a policy that lets students who do not pass the school-administered test pay hundreds of dollars for a psychologist to administer a private test, giving wealthier students even greater access.

Brian Terry is a parent of two Thurgood Marshall students, and he’s also part of a committee working to change this inequitable system. He said that by fifth grade the majority of white students in Seattle’s “Highly Capable Cohort” program (also known as HCC) got there by paying for one of these tests.

“In effect, the program magnifies inequity,” Terry said.

I’m a white parent with two biracial kids, and I was labeled as “gifted” by two different school districts in the late ‘80s. I was part of the magnifying glass that makes today’s system so likely to exclude my own kids.

But what does it even mean to be an “advanced learner?” What did it mean to be “gifted?”

I can tell you that in my case, I had many gifts, but none of them were about me being some kind of rare intellect. I had two college-educated parents, including a mother taking a break from her career teaching elementary school to stay at home with me and my sisters. That was a gift. Plus, I took standardized tests written by white people for white kids. I had white teachers with reasonably high expectations for white students. I had just about every advantage.

And it turns out I’m living proof that being an early reader doesn’t necessarily translate into lifelong scholarly prowess. I was a top prospect, but I never blossomed into an academic Hall-of-Famer. I did fine.

My kids, meanwhile, will still get some of the same privilege I enjoyed at home, but they aren’t likely to get the benefit of the doubt from the system.

Think about it: my kids are twenty times less likely to be identified as "gifted" than they would be if their mother was white. That is staggering.

Claudia Rowe of the Seattle Times wrote a thorough, much-needed examination of this advanced-learning gap across the Puget Sound, and it’s worth reading to get an even fuller picture. When she touches on the private testing phenomenon in Seattle, she explained how the district recognizes the inequity in its system but has so far responded only with a hollow gesture:

[State officials] flat-out reject the kind of private intelligence testing that is popular as a gateway to gifted-and-talented programs in Seattle.

“When students are privately tested, they’re getting a completely different experience from the usual Saturday morning cattle call,” said Jody Hess, who supervises programs for the gifted at the state education department. “It’s just far more likely that a child is going to do better on that kind of test than they might in a group, and that’s a built-in advantage only available to families of means. It’s a privilege of wealth.”

Recognizing the inequity, Seattle offered to cover the cost of private testing for low-income students this year. But its list of suggested evaluators includes none in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

 

As often happens in Seattle Public Schools, we know that district officials know about this inequity.

In fact, the official committee I mentioned was formed as a result of that knowledge. The district awarded an Equity Grant to Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, so this committee has been working since then toward their goal “that the composition of the HCC (Highly Capable Cohort) program reflects the district’s racial and socioeconomic diversity.”

Now the district is reviewing its advanced learning programs, and Terry said the committee “wants to send the school board and district staff a clear message: We are holding them accountable for equity in advanced learning.”

All in all, this all gets a little weird, and it shows the dysfunctional approach to resolving inequity in Seattle Public Schools.

The district knows about the inequity in its Advanced Learning programs. That much is clear.

The district has chosen to act on that knowledge mainly by offering to pay for private tests in inconvenient locations for low-income students, and by forming a parent committee to apply pressure back on itself to force the district to change its own inequitable practices. So, they’ve done a lot, but they haven’t gotten much done.

We can help bring this charade to an end. The committee is asking people in the community to step up and attend at least one of the remaining four SPS board meetings to either give two minutes of testimony or simply fill a seat and hold a sign.

Sign up here to select a specific date to stand up for equal access to advanced learning opportunities for students of color in Seattle Public Schools.

The next meeting is Wednesday, May 17 at 5:15 p.m. at the Seattle Public Schools office in SODO.

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.

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.

SPS home to fifth-worst racial achievement gap in the U.S. -- after eliminating equity and race relations dept. in 2008

Seattle Public Schools boasts the fifth-worst achievement gap between white and black students in the nation. Progressive Seattle trails only Washington D.C., Atlanta, Charleston and Oakland when it comes to racial inequity in education.

What’s worse, in as much as that’s possible, is that the first (and last) director of equity and race relations saw her position eliminated along with the entire department in 2008. She now says the district knew plainly about the gap 10 years ago and actively denied and suppressed knowledge and conversation around the issue.

Seattle Times columnist Gene Balk has written a straightforward, jarring account of a school system operating with deeply embedded structural racism. It is the kind of writing that should shake people awake, the kind you hope will spur action, because the inequity is so plainly laid out that it can’t be missed or misunderstood.

 

The nation’s big-city school districts that rank alongside Seattle for the widest white-black academic gaps — Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; and Oakland, Calif. — all have high levels of segregation. This tends to concentrate kids with social and economic disadvantages in certain schools, which compounds the obstacles to achievement they face.
Seattle schools, too, have become increasingly segregated. In 29 of the city’s 98 public schools, at least 80 percent of students are black, Latino, Asian American or Native American.
But segregation alone might not explain Seattle’s white-black achievement gap, says Caprice Hollins. She served as the district’s first director of equity and race relations from 2004 to 2008, at which point her department was eliminated — and her job along with it.
“I was hired out of this realization that we needed to pay special attention to our students of color. And we were making inroads,” Hollins said. “Then the department shuts down — the new school board no longer supported it. And it’s not until years later that they’re restarting this work. There is always this restarting of the work, depending on who the leadership is.”
But during her tenure there, she faced strong resistance to her often bold approach. “The real understanding of equity,” she said, “is where we recognize that not everybody starts out on a level playing field.” So Hollins advocated for a redistribution of resources more heavily toward children of color in struggling schools.
“And white parents might start to say ‘what about my kids?’ They’re not recognizing that their kids already have what they need,” she said. “But just having this conversation becomes a very sensitive, political thing.”
When speaking with parents of color, she heard time and again their sense that their children weren’t being treated the same as white kids in the classroom. Hollins instituted mandatory workshops for teachers and administrators that focused on issues of race and equity, and which addressed issues that can make some folks uneasy — concepts like unconscious bias and the existence of white privilege.
Not surprisingly, this stirred up controversy. Some saw Hollins’ approach as political correctness run amok. That overshadowed any success she had — and during her tenure, the racial gap in standardized test scores narrowed modestly.
But complaints about her from white parents mounted, Hollins says. The district shut down her department, which a spokesperson said at the time was not related to the complaints.
Hollins thinks it was.
“They panicked,” she said. “Rather than pushing back and saying, ‘hey, look at our data here, this is why we are doing this,’ instead they said, ‘Caprice, you need to stop.’ ”
Hollins sees Seattle, despite its progressive reputation, as a community that struggles like any other when discussing its institutional racism and why its black children aren’t succeeding.
“People kept saying to me, ‘stop talking about it,’ ” she said. “But we have this achievement gap. How are we going to solve this problem if we can’t talk about it?”
Perhaps, with the release of this glaring new data, we’ll finally find a way.
The district has now reinstated the department, and in fact, Hollins was recently brought back to do professional-development workshops.

 

You should read the entire thing, and share it with everyone you know with ties to the state of Washington, because while Seattle’s discrepancies are the state’s worst, the city’s brothers and sisters across the state are struggling with similar issues as well.