Starbucks closed its stores today to renew its commitment to... Third Place? Huh. What's that?

Starbucks closed its stores today to renew its commitment to... Third Place? Huh. What's that?

I’m sure you know by now that two Black men were arrested after a Starbucks employee called them in for being Black a few weeks back.

Every Starbucks closed today in response to that incident, and every Starbucks employee in universes both known and otherwise attended a racial bias training this afternoon.

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

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

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

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

That doesn't give us much time.

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

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SOAR Academy in Tacoma ‘blows the roof off the myths’ about charter schools

SOAR Dancers Get Up
SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

Walk through the front doors of SOAR Academy these days and you’ll find the building teeming with life and energy, like a dream realized.

In many ways, that’s what the public elementary school in Tacoma represents: the manifestation of a set of beliefs and ideas about what’s possible in public education.

SOAR Academy’s founders sought from the outset to design a public school that would reach students being neglected by the larger system, those who are typically on the wrong end of the opportunity and achievement gaps. 

Just two years after first opening its doors to students, those ideas have become a way of life at SOAR Academy, and the dreams of a nurturing, equitable school open to all have become reality for an engaged, grateful community of students and families.

“Here at SOAR we’ve seen tremendous growth and a fulfillment of the whole concept and vision of the alternatives and options that charter schools can provide in a publicly funded setting,” said Dr. Thelma Jackson, chair of the SOAR Academy Board of Directors. “Those of us that have been with SOAR from the very beginning, we’re just pleased as punch to see the school, to see the full classrooms, the waiting list. As I was driving up, just the smiles on the children’s and parents’ faces — they’re glad to be here! They’re here by choice.”

In many ways and from many angles, that’s the key word here: choice.

More than 70 percent of SOAR students identify as students of color, and Black students make up 56 percent of the student body. Fourteen percent receive special education services, and at least 12 percent are homeless or housing insecure. They all chose SOAR Academy, and they did so despite the hyper-political climate that surrounds the charter school sector.

School choice can be an especially foggy issue in Washington, where propaganda and repeated legal attacks led by the Washington Education Association — the state’s teachers union — have attempted to undermine the ability of schools like SOAR to work hard and innovate in an earnest effort to close the gaps created by our traditional public school system. In spite of that, many parents are seeing SOAR for what it is: an ambitious, free, public alternative that just might work for their student where other schools have fallen short.

“We’ve been up against so much ‘fake news’ about what charters are and aren’t, and we’re defying all of that,” Jackson said. “Anytime they say, ‘Oh, they won’t take kids of color; oh, they won’t take special needs kids; oh, they’ll cream the crop,’ [SOAR Academy] just blows the roof off of all those myths. And against all those odds, SOAR is thriving. The kids are thriving.”

Far from creaming, SOAR’S school leader Jessica Stryczek readily acknowledges that many of the school’s students arrived having already experienced such significant trauma as abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Yet thanks to a trauma-informed approach to restorative justice, not a single SOAR student was suspended or expelled last year.

In Seattle Public Schools, on the other hand, disproportionate discipline rates show up from the very beginning, as even kindergarteners of color are suspended and expelled (yes, expelled from kindergarten!) at a rate far beyond their white peers.

Seventy-seven percent of the student body at SOAR is eligible for free or reduced lunch as well, so community meals are available to all students through the community eligibility pool.

SOAR’s staff, meanwhile, reflects the diversity of its student body. More than half the staff at SOAR are people of color, Jackson says, upending yet another myth.

“The traditional line is, ‘Oh, we’d like to hire them, but we can’t find them.’ So, where are the charter schools finding [teachers of color]?” Jackson asks. “And again, they are here by choice. They’re not here through involuntary transfers and the dance of the lemons and all that stuff.”

Enough people have chosen SOAR now that the school’s journey from vision to reality is all but complete, and the early results are showing that the young charter school is delivering on its promise.

In addition to a joyful atmosphere in a building full of well-cared-for elementary students, the school is home to impressive academic rigor as well. Just last year, more than 70 percent of students showed accelerated growth, testing beyond national grade-level expectations on the STAR Early Literacy assessment.

“The concept has taken on a life of its own,” Jackson said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

8 Key Insights from 'The Only Black Man on the Seattle School Board'

Stephan Blanford is the outgoing school board rep for District 5, and as he leaves the post, we bid farewell to our strongest, most consistent voice for equity on the otherwise disastrous Seattle School Board.

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):

 

1. The dysfunction of our school board continues to drive good people away from Seattle Public Schools.

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.

AD: “Do you see issues of segregation within school buildings that on paper would appear to be diverse schools?”

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.

OSPI's plan for collecting school data lacks transparency and urgency

We can all pretty much agree that parents deserve to know how well their child’s school is doing. We can also agree, I think, that parents should be getting that information in a timely fashion. I mean, it wouldn’t do me much good to get my son’s second-grade report card when he’s in fifth grade.

That’s basically what OSPI is planning to do, though, so maybe I’m assuming too much thinking we all agree on the importance of timely information about schools.

Under Washington’s new ESSA plan, the state will measure graduation rates, how many students are reading and doing math on grade level, how well students are growing academically (even if they’re not yet on grade level), and other important stuff.

They’ll use all of this to give schools a report card based on a three-year average. Unfortunately, Washington will only ask schools to report every three years.

In other words, in some years, parents would have access only to school ratings based on information that’s between three and six years old. Taking a three-year average makes sense — it can be misleading to judge the hard work of teaching kids by such a small sample size as a single year. But not recalibrating that three-year average every year is a disservice to parents and others seeking to have timely information about what’s happening in Washington schools.

Take my son’s school, Emerson Elementary in South Seattle, as an example. We will have a new principal in the fall, and when Dr. Erin Rasmussen officially replaces the outgoing Dr. Andrea Drake next month, she will be the school’s fourth principal in the last four years.

So, if I’m a parent looking for more information about Emerson under Washington’s new ESSA plan, I might be looking at a rating based on data collected four principals ago.

Of course, it’s not exactly a straightforward process trying to learn about school quality as it is.

Emerson Elementary School Student Demographics

Emerson Elementary School Student Demographics

GreatSchools.org rates Emerson a 2 out of 10 and seems to consider the school to be subpar by almost every conceivable metric except diversity, which, to the site’s credit, they do explain as being a genuine strength.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary, as another example, is also a public elementary school in Seattle, but it’s an option school, which means students can enroll from anywhere in the district and typically whitens up the student demographics. Thurgood in particular commonly draws students from the south end looking for a choice beyond their neighborhood school.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School Student Demographics

Thurgood Marshall Elementary School Student Demographics

Great Schools gives Thurgood Marshall a 10 out of 10 rating. The test scores look good, and it’s a fairly diverse school, even if white students do outnumber any other individual racial/ethnic group by more than 2:1. So, it must be better than Emerson, right?

As clear cut as Great Schools would make it seem, they aren’t sharing the full picture either. Take this article from last year from the Seattle Globalist, whose second paragraph poses a simple question you wouldn’t have known to ask from looking at Thurgood’s perfect rating: “Why are the classrooms inside Thurgood Marshall so segregated?”

So, then I’m back at square one. I obviously don’t want my son, himself a student of color, attending a school that is systematically discriminatory. But I obviously don’t want my curious, intelligent, expressive, creative son going to a school that can’t challenge him academically, either.

As always, I have more questions than answers. One thing is clear, though: it’s almost impossible to make a fully informed decision with our current school rating and accountability systems.

We need that to change, and moving to a data collection plan that only checks in every three years is not a step forward. If parents are going to gain timely access to truly relevant information about their schools, it will happen by monitoring this process of developing a new ESSA plan and demanding more equitable schools and more thorough, transparent reporting processes.