Seattle Public Schools unveiled a new strategic plan based on targeted universalism! Will it be enough?

Seattle Public Schools unveiled a new strategic plan based on targeted universalism! Will it be enough?

The opportunity gap, as we all know, is a byproduct of systemic oppression playing out in our schools. The way to upend systemic oppression is to find a way to turn the system on its head. Targeted universalism applies that table-flipping mentality in a constructive way. I’m so surprised and pleased to hear this idea mentioned as our schools’ strategic north star.

But…

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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.”

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