Dear Seattle school teachers and administrators:

You should be celebrating right now. Not fighting.

You should be trumpeting the news of a remarkable turnaround in Seattle schools. Instead you are bickering on your way to a possible strike.

Please don’t derail what after decades of stagnation is really an amazing and mostly untold story of progress.

Such as this: If school is allowed to start this week, Seattle will top 50,000 students for the first time since the 1970s.

That date is significant. That was when a mass exodus from big-city school systems accelerated all over America. Yet now it’s estimated enrollment in Seattle could grow past 55,000 in a few years — a figure 40 percent higher than the dark years of the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Seattle schools were routinely labeled as “failing,” “blighted” or “circling the drain.”

But now thousands of local families have again voted with their feet, only this time toward Seattle’s public schools. Enrollment is up by 6,000 students, or 13 percent, in five years — even as enrollments in many big-city districts around the country plummeted.

Why? Some of it is Seattle’s natural growth. But the biggest part is this: The schools here have just gotten better.

Teachers, I know you don’t like standardized tests. But have you seen the scores released last week? Seattle continues to surge. Some of the scores are so good they suggest an educational breakthrough.

Take math. A decade ago when the testing mania began, Seattle’s students lagged the statewide averages in math at most grades. That was typical — even expected, sadly — for an urban district.

But now Seattle beats the statewide averages at every grade level, in some cases by double-digit margins.

Seattle’s eighth-graders used to routinely trail the state average in math by 3 to 4 points. This year they beat it by a whopping 16 points. You just don’t see 20-point turnarounds often in education.

These eighth-grade gains resonated across income and racial groups. Seattle’s black eighth-graders outscored black eighth-graders elsewhere by 10.6 points. Seattle’s low-income eighth-graders outpaced all low-income kids by an astonishing 17 points.
Both groups scored better than
their counterparts in some of the state’s top school districts, such as Bellevue.

Achievement gaps persist, and the results at some other grades were not as rosy for kids of color. This isn’t “mission accomplished.” But getting kids of all races and income levels to learn math is a Holy Grail quest in education. In Seattle, you are starting to succeed. Thank you for that.

But teachers, can you see how going on strike would set that story back?

The headlines out of Seattle wouldn’t be schools booming. It would be adults fighting. A strike here would make national news. The message: Seattle schools can’t get their act together. As usual.

I’m OK with civil disobedience if the cause is righteous. But the cause this time feels more pedestrian. You’re getting 5 percent more pay over two years — hardly rich, but still a bigger raise than, say, newspaper columnists are getting. You also want to scrap a teacher-evaluation system that you were praising as landmark only a few years ago.

These are not “to the ramparts” issues. Surely you can push them without walking off the job?

My plea is simple. Our schools spent decades in a slump of stagnant enrollment, marred by constant bureaucratic bungling. We have tons of work to do but are on the way to making news for an entirely different reason: for being the big-city schools turnaround-success story in America.

Please don’t mess that story up.

Signed, a dad of two Seattle Public Schools students (whom I would very much like to get out of the house).

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com