At her first major public address on the state of Seattle’s public schools, Superintendent Denise Juneau delivered the same message as her predecessors: the district is doing well, but should be doing better — especially for students of color.
At Seattle Central College’s Broadway Performance Hall on Tuesday evening, Juneau shared the stories of employees and schools that exemplified the goals she set out to accomplish in her five-year vision.
Chief among them: Providing an education that “accelerates growth for students of color who are furthest from educational justice, with an intentional focus on African American males” — whose collective educational outcomes rank consistently lower than those of other populations.
A Stanford University study from 2016 showed Seattle Public Schools had the fifth largest gap between white and black student achievement among the country’s 200 largest school districts.
To show what success can look like, Juneau used her platform Tuesday to honor the principal of Asa Mercer International Middle School — which the district said has Seattle’s highest outcomes for African American male students.
Juneau’s plan to improve academic achievement for students of color is not a new initiative for the district, which has struggled with racial inequities for decades. Still, Emijah Smith, who served on the committee that provided feedback on Juneau’s strategic plan, said she appreciates that Juneau’s first step was to hold a listening tour, so that she could confer with community members when building her vision and strategic plan.
“It felt like she honored the community work,” said Smith, who works as the community engagement manager for Children’s Alliance, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for child well-being. But she and others are also waiting to see if Juneau’s process and plan finally generates results.
James Hong, the executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, an organization that provides support services for youth of color — especially recent immigrants and refugees — said it’s too soon to tell.
There’s always fear that community outreach is just symbolic, he said. But in the nine years he’s been at the organization, he hasn’t observed the district communicate this strong of a desire to collaborate with others.
Some have expressed concerns with Juneau’s focus on black students at recent school-board meetings, and wondered if the approach would exclude other marginalized students. But district officials and those who helped draft the plan say using a targeted approach will help boost outcomes for everyone.