When hundreds filled Town Hall for views on public education last week, equity was a recurrent theme.

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Public discussion about education is often relegated to policy debates, funding conundrums and political positioning. In a word, it can be dry.

But no one leaving Town Hall last Thursday night would have used that adjective. More than 350 students, teachers, parents and education officials filled the meeting space for a boisterous series of five-minute talks on everything from socially relevant math lessons to segregated schools.

The event, Ignite Education Lab, was sponsored by The Seattle Times and presented 11 speakers culled from 79 applications. Ten were picked by the newspaper, and one, about overcrowded classrooms, was a reader-choice winner. Several generated standing ovations.

“We are accepting ‘separate but equal’,” said Sean Riley, a National Board Certified educator teaching in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, who described stark differences between the resources at Catharine Blaine K-8, and those available to his former students at Global Connections High School in Tukwila.

“Re-segregation is happening,” Riley said. “Go 25 minutes up or down I-5, and you are in a whole new world.”

As a student, he’d been bused from West Seattle to the Central Area, from Interbay to Beacon Hill and recalled the forced cross-cultural exchange as a benefit. “It nurtured my humanity,” Riley said.

His solution now? Teachers should collaborate between schools, students learn each other’s stories and, in general, “We must be more uncomfortable.”

Saraswati Noel, a math instructor at Seattle World School, urged fellow educators to reconceive traditional lessons and make them relevant to students’ lives.

“I’m sorry, I don’t care how many cookies Mary has,” said Noel, all of whose pupils are English Language Learners, many of them children of refugees. To make math meaningful, she assigned them a project with direct bearing on their everyday commutes. Each calculated the difference in travel time between their homes and various proposed locations for the World School, which has moved several times.

Those results were plotted on a graph, and many students used the information when urging school board members to permanently site the long-itinerant program in the building that formerly housed T.T. Minor Elementary.  Their effort was successful.

“We can’t always shield students from the injustice they face, but we can give them tools to radically change the world,” Noel told her Town Hall audience, to wild cheers.

Between presentations, Master of Ceremonies Dwane Chappelle, who recently left the helm of Rainier Beach High to direct the Mayor’s Office of Education and Early Learning, interspersed personal observations about the power of the evening. Speakers had come from districts as far away as Auburn and Edmonds. Teachers spoke about being educated by their students.

Video will be available on The Seattle Times’ Education Lab page Monday.

Equity was a persistent theme. Tali Rausch, a Seattle mother of three, wondered aloud about the difference in education when children attend schools where parents can raise “hundreds of thousands of dollars” versus those who cannot.

“Politicians are starting to pay attention,” Rausch said, referring to the McCleary court decision mandating that Washington address its underfunded schools. “Every voice counts. Let’s get loud.”

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