Is this a career killer? Or is it a spiritual calling?
Brent Jones asked himself both questions, and decided it was the latter when he accepted a one-year stint as the leader of Seattle Public Schools (SPS) last month. This July, he will leave a management job at King County Metro and return to work at the school district for the third time since 2008.
“If I can do whatever I can to galvanize a community, why wouldn’t I answer the call?” he said.
Jones, 54, who grew up in Seattle, has a long history with the district. At age 7, he testified in front of the Seattle School Board in favor of a successful effort to rename his elementary school after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As an 18-year-old on the honor roll at Franklin High School, he spoke out in The Seattle Times about low expectations for Black students after a teacher remarked that a C- on a test was good enough for him.
And, as an SPS district administrator later in his life, he worked on the district’s promise to improve outcomes for African-American male students and students of color.
He will take over the district from Denise Juneau — who announced her resignation in December — at a uniquely difficult time. The fallout from the pandemic, a polarizing issue, will be front and center, and the district is under investigation by the federal Department of Education for its handling of special education during the pandemic.
Jones has held high-ranking posts at SPS, county government, and other K-12 and community college systems, but this will be his first job as a superintendent. He attended district schools during its voluntary desegregation era, and he says he’s been studying SPS for decades as a parent, student and former employee. He believes there is cause for both optimism and critique.
Jones wants students to have “flexible” access to both in-person and remote instruction options next year and says the district could learn a few lessons from school systems in South King County, where he says superintendents have managed to rally their communities effectively.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What were your early experiences of Seattle Public Schools?
A: I went to a variety of schools and had really good experiences and some challenging experiences.
I started school at Harrison Elementary, which changed into Martin Luther King. And the principal of that school was Louise McKinney. And she happened to be the wife of Samuel Berry McKinney, who was the pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, where we went to church. It was one of the centers of the Black community. Martin Luther King himself … had speeches there.
And so one of the things I experienced as a kid was this liberation movement in the early 70s … Louise took that and imparted that to us.
Q: What were you like as a student?
A: I had forced excellence. My parents … wanted to ensure that I took advantage of the opportunities that were afforded to me. Some of those challenging experiences that I referenced, which we still deal with now, are primarily about expectations. Even though I’m the son of an educator who understands the system — my mom taught in Seattle Public Schools — I was still challenged with teachers sometimes not giving me the benefit of the doubt, not recognizing me while I’m in class and not having a connection to an adult that I knew that cared about me.
Q: What’s been your impression of SPS as a parent? How will that inform your direction?
A: If you know how to move through systems, it can be a great experience for you. If not, it can be a troubling experience. So some of our parents who don’t have the time or the navigation skills or the language acumen, they may not be able to navigate through a system like a health care system or educational system to get their child or children into the right systems pursuant to their needs. In my case with our daughter (a graduating senior), we were able to understand what her needs are. She’s a scientist in terms of how she approaches things. So we knew that Cleveland High School as a STEM school would be probably optimal for her.
And so … I’m trying to think about how we can all have excellent access to all the great things about a school district.
Q: You’ve had the chance to serve in leadership positions at other school districts. What can Seattle learn from them?
A: The leaders in South King County have been great at focusing on what’s important … I always struggle with how we represent equity in a way that is not polarizing, that doesn’t make it a binary choice. They have really gotten elegant with how they describe where they’re going … to really hone in on the three to five clear objective goals, and rally the stakeholders effectively around it … Relative to Seattle, I believe we have a whole lot of quality activities, but are all these activities focused around the outcomes for students?
Q: Why do you think the district is polarized?
A: It’s emblematic of Seattle. We’re fairly similar in terms of who we vote for. But we have so much diversity around how we get there. There is a tremendous good intent and the desire to do the right thing by our students, by our community, by our families … (But) we’re trying to manage so many competing demands.
Q: How do you want to break through that? What do you want to accomplish?
A: A year is a short time, but I’d like to lead with what’s working and have some wins and show what governance looks like … when we take the time to identify the root cause of our problems. It requires … staying in the room until we get it resolved.
… We need to ensure that each and every student has a welcoming environment. Every student needs to know they have an adult who cares about them. Students need to be greeted every day.
… And as we come back in-person that would be something to tee up quickly. You know, how do we bring our public-health folks or mental-health folks, or psychologists or counselors, our teachers, our, all of our educators, our administrators around this concept of ensuring that we have a welcoming environment?
… And the system needs to be responsive to issues quicker. If I work on that I’ll feel like I’m leaving something wonderful to the next superintendent to carry forward.
Q: You’ve had the chance to observe how the district has handled the pandemic from the outside. What’s your assessment of how that’s gone?
A: I’m not surprised that we are where we are. There’s so many unknown factors, fear and opinions about where we need to be … And these are times where we don’t have areas of gray. It’s either I want to be in school or I don’t want to be in school. I want to be working in a school or I want to work remotely. We don’t have a middle ground.
… I didn’t think it was going to go this long, frankly, but the joint statement from the Seattle Education Association union and the district recently was a tremendous sign that folks are starting to see we need each other, we’re dependent on each other. I wish we could have started earlier and have been a little more anticipatory as to what some of the challenges are going to be. But if I look back on what we accomplished in the fall, with that agreement between the union and the district, it was really thoughtful. It’s very comprehensive around all of the challenges.
Q: How should the district look as it reopens classrooms? Do you want to see all students have access to in-person instruction?
A: That would be awesome. And we need to remain flexible and open to the possibilities. We’re learning that sometimes online for some students has been better than when they had to come to a building. I remain open for them to be able to have a continuance of what works and maybe partially come into school. This is a great opportunity for us to study what works.
Q: The relationship between management and labor has always played a central role at SPS, especially during this pandemic. You’ve been at the bargaining table before as the HR chief in this district and others. What have you learned about this relationship?
A: So what I learned is we can’t start bargaining at the table … Management may think the issue is small, labor may think the issue is huge and we keep finding that out at the table. We don’t have an ongoing mechanism to check in, to talk … And — I’ll put this on management — we’re undisciplined about reaching out and checking in on an ongoing basis.
… We lose focus on what the student issues are that way … if we would have had that time before to start to build a calendar of what we’re going to talk about, build a progression of where we want to collectively be at the end of the year, the bargaining stops being such a big event. I’d be willing personally to talk to our heads of labor early and often. That’s critical now.
Q: Many things came to a head in the last year, including concerns about safety and racism in school buildings and special education. What do you want to say to those who say they’ve lost hope in the school district?
A: I would love to recapture them, and my sense is these have been long-seated challenges … that got exacerbated by this pandemic … We need to keep showing that there are fantastic things that are happening at Seattle Public Schools. We still get kids ready to go out and conquer the world. Our graduates are doing really great things … . And when we haven’t met the need, and we’ve done something to harm, we need to reconcile that … The time for talking is over. People want to see action.