Over the weekend, the Seattle School Board finally released the applications of the 12 Southeast Seattle residents who filed to replace Betty Patu on the board. The District 7 seat, which Patu held for 10 years, was vacated July 1 and will be filled when the six remaining board members cast votes for their preferred applicant at the Aug. 14 board meeting.Read More
Critics of the current school board note that it spends too much time focused on issues that don’t improve student achievement and don’t resolve opportunity gaps. In fact, actions the board has taken in the past have made those gaps worse. And though it made an impressive hire, appointing Denise Juneau as superintendent last summer, it has also hampered her and the professional educators that she leads in addressing these issues.
So, could you do better?Read More
Welcome one and all to the first semi-annual, fully manual Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards. Thank you for being here, wherever that may be.
These awards were created by me as a way to recognize a handful of Washingtonians who deserve a few extra hand-claps for the way their work and their way of life contributed to positive change in 2017.
The judging process was stringent and unscientific. I created the categories to suit my fancies, and I’ve awarded fake awards to whatever number of people I please. By the end, I’ll have failed to mention just about everyone, so if you find you've been omitted, don’t despair. The pool of nominees was limited to people I know about and managed to think of while writing this, and as a periodic shut-in, that’s not as long a list of names as you might think. For instance, I only finally discovered a few months ago that Chance the Rapper is amazing, if that gives you some idea. So, if you or someone you know has been egregiously overlooked, please get in touch with me and I’m sure I’d be happy to make up some new awards in the near future.Read More
So, I know I just spent yesterday writing about Seattle’s beauty, our state’s courageous progress, and activism as love... but now it’s back to reality.
The opportunity gaps in Seattle Public Schools are not closing. We’ve known about them for too long for this to be true. The leaders of our public school system have acknowledged these gaps for too long for the needle to be staying so firmly put.Read More
I’ve started using the term “passive progressivism” to describe the political climate in Seattle, and I’m finding it fits all too well. I didn’t make it up, but I’m not sure where I first heard it either. Maybe Stephan Blanford coined the phrase?
Regardless, it encapsulates our city’s split personality all too perfectly. In Seattle, we’re liberal. We’re progressive. There’s no question about that.
"We love our Muslim neighbors,” our yard signs say, but we don’t actually know them. Honestly, in most places, those neighbors don't even exist. They've just been invented by the signposts standing proudly in yard after yard after yard occupied by white folks in our mostly segregated city.
It means that, as a whole, as a city, we’re progressive when it’s comfortable. We’re politically bold when it’s convenient to be so. We’re part of the resistance when we’re not feeling threatened.
It plays out vividly in the education sector, where an unwillingness to question the teachers unions (because unions and workers’ rights are liberal lynchpins, and we’re unquestioningly liberal, damn it!) has led to odd power dynamics. The teachers unions are extremely invested in the status quo. The students, meanwhile, are not nearly as well-represented. The unions do their work well, and it leads to adult-friendly systems that lack urgency when it comes to fixing inequity.
Seattle is one of the whitest major cities in America, and King County is the whitest of our country's 20 largest counties. Our passive-progressivism plays out as a case study in privilege, illustrating how well-meaning liberal parents often actively support our racist systems.
Seattle’s schools are working for the white students, for the most part. As a result, the problems of inequity that plague our education system is invisible to the mostly wealthy, mostly white voting bloc that makes and influences the city’s decisions. The city’s decisions, then, are focused not on advancement toward genuine equity, but on stable, cozy passive-progressivism, which acknowledges racial discrimination as it arises but does not urgently work to address it. It’s a philosophy that allows us to carry on guilt-free without ever working like our hair’s on fire to close our gaps and our systems of oppression.
It’s also a philosophy I’ve shamefully used many times in my personal life. It’s easy to hide in the gray space between acknowledging problems and actually making things change. I’ve been known to live there from time to time.
It’s easy to be quiet when we see things we know are wrong. It’s hard to stand up and face the consequence of intervening, instead letting the consequences fall to those being wronged.
It’s just as easy to take it slow and make non-boat-rocking tweaks to a system that needs to be upended. It’s hard to do the work of disrupting a monolith’s momentum.
And that’s important, because that’s what it takes. Work. Action. Disruption. Discomfort. It’s not enough to just reject racism in principle. Awareness isn’t enough. “Wokeness” isn’t enough. And if all the white families on Seattle’s north end are applauding your proposed changes, guess what — it’s probably not enough to truly change anything.
It’s not enough to simply know about the opportunity gaps in our schools and the implicit biases our teachers carry into the classroom. It’s not enough to be aware of the systems that perpetuate these gaps if we aren’t actively working to dismantle them, at least within our own walls.
Passive progress isn’t real progress, it’s just forward momentum. If we want to shape the kind of equitable future we’re imagining, we need Seattle to be defined by its progressive activism. And that means we — you and me and the people around us — need to be active in our progressivism.
Of course, progressive activism is no picnic. Things get really uncomfortable. It means we have to do different things than we’re used to doing, say different things to people. It’ll cause rifts in friendships and workplaces and most definitely in families.
It’s hard realizing that we have to do this ourselves. But we do.
If we don’t do it, we’re just passive progressives. Our kids, our families, our teachers — everyone in this city deserves better than that.
KUOW’s Isolde Raftery wrote something recently that Seattle needs to hear. Maybe all “liberals” need to hear it.
Please just give it a quick read. I’ll wait.
So, you just read Raftery describing the backlash in some of Seattle’s “whitest, most affluent corners” to the day last fall when a couple thousand of the city’s teachers wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school. She shares snippets of emails from parents expressing fear and anger to their school leaders, and it paints a pretty intense picture of what is actually happening inside the minds of so many “good” liberal parents.
Seattle is plagued by the privileged white moderate, the wolf in liberal clothing who has all the right yard signs and claims all the most inclusive beliefs, but whose actions reflect fear, privilege and an urgent need to not feel upset. Stephan Blanford, the only true voice for equity on the Seattle school board, calls it “Seattle’s passive progressiveness.”
“We vote the right way on issues,” Blanford told Raftery. “We believe the right way. But the second you challenge their privilege, you see the response.”
Honestly, reading the emails, most of these parents just sound scared and confused. They genuinely don’t understand the impetus and the meaning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. So, I’m going to do my best to answer their questions, starting today with this one:
Wrote a parent at Laurelhurst Elementary: “Can you please address … why skin color is so important? I remember a guy that had a dream. Do you remember that too? I doubt it. Please show me the content of your character if you do.”
Dear Laurelhurst Parent,
Skin color is important because our weird society -- yours and mine -- has made it so. People who cannot pass for white, which is itself a social construct and not an actual race, have always been treated differently in America. Always, up to and including today. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow, which was replaced after the Civil Rights Movement by the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of our Black brothers and sisters.
Did you know that Native Americans were not legally allowed to practice their traditional religious ceremonies in the U.S. until the ‘80s? We’ve been doing our best as a nation to eradicate their culture from this land as well as their bodies, from the genocide of “manifest destiny” to the shame of our state-sanctioned brutality at Standing Rock.
We have a president now who is encouraging hate and discrimination against immigrants of any origin, but especially against Mexicans and Muslims. Did you know that a mass grave filled with bodies of immigrants was found in Texas a few miles from the Mexico border? The state said it found “no evidence” of wrongdoing.
On a level that is super local to you, Seattle Public Schools discipline Black students at a disproportionate rate -- so much so that the federal government had to come down on them a few years back. The district still shamefully boasts the nation’s fifth-worst achievement gap between Black and white students, and similar gaps exist for all non-white student populations as well as for low-income students regardless of race.
The Black Lives Matter movement started after a teenage boy named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a white guy for the crime of wearing a hoodie while Black. It has been sustained by continued police violence against innocent Black men and women, with police officers continually acquitted.
So, because it sure seems like our society doesn’t actually believe that Black Lives Matter, people felt the need to say it. It’s not that white lives don’t matter. America already obviously values white lives. White lives and white safety are not particularly at stake here. Black Lives Matter mentions color because it has to.
The next time you invoke Martin Luther King, Jr., I suggest you better familiarize yourself with his beliefs and his non-whitewashed legacy. Start here: Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Have you ever read it?
Please do. If you have anything you’d like me to read up on, please pass it along. Then let’s talk. What do you say?
Up next, from Eckstein Middle School in Wedgwood:
“What about red and black or yellow and white and black? How does supporting Black Lives Matter help that gap?”
Stephan talked with KUOW's Ann Dornfeld for about half an hour recently: "On being the only black man on the Seattle school board." They touched on race and equity in Seattle's schools from just about every angle. The entire conversation is absolutely worth listening to. I can't possibly share every detail here, as much as I wish I could. Still, here are eight key insights from their chat (I originally planned to do five, but I couldn't contain myself):
Stephan Blanford: “I’ve come to realize that you get the opportunity to put a brick in the wall. You don’t get the opportunity to just totally transform systems. That said, I’ve struggled with the fact that I’ve been on the losing end of way too many votes on issues that affect our achievement and opportunity gaps, and that’s part of the reason that I chose not to run again.”
2. Seattle’s “unconscionable” opportunity gaps are not closing yet.
SB: "It’s hard to know what the baseline was, but I do know the study that came out last year from Stanford that said that we are the fifth-worst large urban school district in the nation in terms of our achievement and opportunity gaps between our white students and our African-American students. And I believe the numbers are similar for the other subgroups of students. I believe really strongly that in this community, that is as wealthy as it is, and as committed to public education as it is, and as educated as it is, that is a pretty unconscionable metric, that we would have such large opportunity gaps for a school system that serves all of the city."
Ann Dornfeld: "And, of course, it’s hard to know what the current status is, right? Because the Stanford data was looking back only to 2012 and earlier."
SB: "Right. But I would believe that number hasn’t changed significantly because, again, it’s difficult to all-of-a-sudden make huge change happen."
3. Some teachers are on a mission for equity, while others aren’t. The district’s cultural pendulum needs to swing toward the teachers focused on closing the opportunity gap.
SB: "In my three-and-a-half years on the board I have seen very excellent teachers who care very deeply about the achievement and opportunity gaps, many of them were inspired to go into the classroom because they saw the disparities. We also have teachers that that’s not their primary concern, so trying to figure out ways to make it part of the culture of the entire school is the work of those racial equity teams inside of schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them, and I see them as catalysts for moving that conversation forward and then making sure that it changes the culture of the school. I would argue that we’re not moving fast enough on that issue, but I also recognize that it takes time."
4. Seattle is home to the same latent white fear as all other U.S. cities. We need to air this out.
AD: "Of course, it could be argued that part of the quality of the school is, in fact, how diverse it is. It’s not just who’s teaching and what’s being taught."
SB: “I would agree wholeheartedly to that notion. I wonder sometimes, though, if our community as a whole doesn’t recognize how important that is. That part of education, particularly in the 21st century, is going to be the ability to work across culture, work with people who are not like you. Many of our schools are not very diverse, and many of our constituents are pushing toward efforts to ensure that that is happening. When we try to promote the idea that a diverse school and classroom is beneficial, we actually get pushback from folks and communities.”
5. Our own individual decisions must reflect our principles. White parents in Seattle in particular are making decisions that perpetuate segregation and opportunity gaps.
SB: “I hope i don’t get myself into trouble, but I believe that in many ways, for our parents — many of our white parents — there is a disconnect between what they believe in their heart of hearts and how they act. And, you know, as parent myself, I know that my first and primary responsibility is to advocate for the best possible situations for my child, and I believe that is what all parents do all of the time. There is a fundamental dissonance between if you have a preconceived notion that black and brown kids can’t learn at the same rate as white and Asian kids, then I think there is automatic default to wanting your child to be in a diverse class, but not too diverse.
6. Segregation and discrimination aren’t always easy to spot from the outside looking in.
SB: "Yes. There are three schools in the district that I represent, and I would believe that probably in every district in Seattle, there are a number of schools where the teachers have come to me and said, ‘There is rampant segregation in our building. When we line up all of our kids and we send the highly capable kids in one direction and we send the general ed kids in a different direction, you can see the racial segregation play out just by kids lining up.' That has played out in several of the schools in my district, and so again, I believe that probably plays out in most districts. Where it’s profound, and it’s right in your face, where you see all the black and brown kids on one side, and all the white and Asian kids on the other side."
7. We have to look at every issue through an equity lens.
SB: "In school board meetings, in the email campaigns that go on, and in lots of other ways, parents articulate and advocate for their individual school, but sometimes at the detriment of other schools. And I try to figure out ways to get folks to see the big picture, and that if we pit one school versus another, eventually those who lose are those parents who are not organized.
"There are winners and losers with every decision that we make, and if you are truly an advocate for educational equity, you have to factor that into your advocacy."
8. Our only African-American school board member experienced a long line of racial microaggressions during his tenure. We all have to do the personal work if we want our community and our country to change.
SB: "There have been racial microaggressions manifested by board members on other board members and on staff and on community members who’ve come to testify. Those have been well-documented. It’s not very hard to find. But I think they highlight the fact that there’s a need for the board — and I think for the boards of most communities, so not singling out Seattle specifically — but there’s a need for us to do lots of personal work in order to fulfill our role on the top of the org chart of a billion-dollar organization that impacts the lives of 54,000 students. And because we are a district that has more students of color than we do white students, there is some sense of urgency around that. It’s not something that we should do at some point in the future. There is, in my mind, because of the huge disparities that we have, there’s a requirement that we do that soon."
I just want to reiterate that if you have even a passing interest in Seattle’s schools, it’s important that you listen to this entire interview. We need more and more conversations like this, and we need our actions to start reflecting our words and our thoughts.
Thanks, Stephan, for your time and energy on behalf of all kids over the past four years. You must be exhausted.
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.
Leslie Harris, vice president of the Seattle School Board representing District VI, used the term "ghetto school" during a board meeting last fall. It's yet another example of the board's problematic lack of racial awareness (aside from District V's Stephan Blanford, who usually seems all alone out there).
During the board meeting on Nov. 16, 2016, the directors were discussing the new elementary school set to open in the Cedar Park neighborhood, a pocket of racial diversity on Seattle's north end that also happens to be home to many low-income families.
A north-end parent group had written a letter expressing concerns about Cedar Park's proposed boundaries, suggesting it be an option school as opposed to a neighborhood-boundary school to avoid segregating a high concentration of low-income students and students of color from the otherwise-mostly-white neighboring schools.
The board was in the process of moving Cedar Park toward an option school designation, and Leslie Harris started patting herself and the board on the back during the Nov. 16 meeting:
"I think we have an opportunity to shine here, and to make lemonade out of what potentially was a big lemon in setting up a ghetto school," Harris said. "And that's just not who we are. And I think we can do just so much better."
Yes. She really said “ghetto school.” Watch here for yourself (right around 1:56:30):
So, a board member talks about narrowly avoiding a “ghetto school” on record in an open board meeting (which makes me wonder what is said behind closed doors), and for a while it seems like nobody is going to say anything.
"I want to make a small comment first," Fauntleroy says. "The use of the term 'ghetto school': not okay. Please." (You can hear someone off-camera saying, "Thank you, thank you.")
Then that was it, I guess -- until retired SPS principal Ricky Malone took the mic two months later during the Jan. 18, 2017 board meeting. She basically hands the board their asses, tells Leslie Harris to resign, and storms off in an appropriate huff. Soak it all in here at 1:24:30:
"The only good thing you can do about a ghetto school is to make sure they don't exist. Not by tearing them down or by closing them, but by giving them the money and resources they need to make them disappear if they do exist.
I need the definition of what a ghetto school is in Seattle. I also need to know where these ghetto schools are as soon as possible, since next month is open enrollment, and I'm sure our parents would like to know.
One last thing: if a school is ghetto, does that mean the children are ghetto? Does that mean the staff is ghetto?
I'm so angry about this whole ghetto thing, when a school board member in an open public school board meeting is saying, 'Phew, we stopped another ghetto school from opening! She said this when she found out Cedar Park would be a whatever option school, as well as saying 'We took lemons and made lemonade!'
Not one of you said anything. My God, what is she saying behind closed doors? And what are the rest of you allowing her to say? It seems she even gets rewarded for it by becoming the vice president at the next board meeting."
Malone ends by saying, "You, Ms. Harris, should resign!"
I agree. Leslie Harris should absolutely resign from the board.
We cannot have that kind of thinking governing our schools. Leslie Harris is not fit to serve our most vulnerable students. This is not a political-correctness slip-up. It's a demonstration of her way of thinking.
Further, Harris hasn't publicly apologized or adequately addressed her use of the term "ghetto school."
And as Malone pointed out, only Stephan Blanford on the board ever speaks up about racially charged craters like this. In this case, around the 2:05 mark after Malone's comments, Blanford says, "I look at Ricky Malone as someone who is, like I said, unapologetic, who lives her values every day. So I support Ricky Malone."
The other six directors would have been perfectly happy to let that offense blow past unnoticed, never to be spoken of again. We can't abide that kind of leadership either, because it's not leadership. It's just presence. The kids being failed by this district need more than just a body in a seat.
Instead, most of our school board is doing a job that could be done as well by six cardboard cutouts and six tape recorders. Just press play. Nobody on that board, unfortunately, is listening to Dir. Blanford anyway, which is too bad, because he's the only one who seems to be listening to and working on behalf of our low-income families and families of color in any kind of honest, meaningful way.
Seattle's public schools are profoundly inequitable. That needs to change. We're fooling ourselves if we expect this group of people, this board of directors, to be part of the solution. That needs to change, too.
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, 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.
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.
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.