For at least seven decades, Seattle Public Schools has pledged to eliminate the gaps in achievement between students of color and their white peers. But even as district leaders swear their latest efforts are more than just another round of rhetoric, the gaps continue to grow.
This past spring, the archivist for Seattle Public Schools unearthed a yellowed slip of paper that C.S. Barbo, former principal of Meany Junior High, had tucked into a time capsule in 1963 alongside a plastic toy gun and book of student poems.
In three brief paragraphs, Barbo lamented what he called the “cultural, racial and economic disadvantages” that he believed slowed the learning of some of his students.
“If this box is ever opened,” his letter reads, “I would assume the problems we face today in understanding the racial differences will have been resolved. Personally, I trust this will happen.”
More than half a century has passed since Barbo wrote that letter, and since then, the district has repeatedly pledged to raise the performance of students of color. Each time, its efforts have fallen flat or fizzled — often for lack of funding or political will.
The latest initiative started five years ago, when the School Board set 2018 as the deadline for significantly reducing the gaps in achievement among ethnic groups, which a Stanford researcher recently pegged as some of the largest in the nation.
The district has since taken steps forward, creating new racial equity teams at 41 schools and a committee that focused specifically on black boys, who traditionally score lower, on average, than other groups.
In many public appearances, Superintendent Larry Nyland, who is white, has echoed Barbo’s lament, and has called eliminating the gaps “a moral imperative” that affects everyone who wants “a vibrant Seattle in the future.”
Even the city has chimed in, spending roughly $40 million last year to help in the effort.
But while Nyland has raised hopes, at least in the district’s central office, critics say they’re seeing the same old routine they’ve witnessed for decades: New committees recycling old recommendations, teachers sitting through yet another round of training, and a revolving door of administrators engaged in one more cycle of planning.
In the meantime, the inequity appears to have gotten worse: In their 2016 report, Stanford researchers found black students in Seattle tested three and a half grade levels behind their white peers. In an update in 2017, they found that gap had widened to 3.7 grade levels.
Now that Nyland is on his way out — his contract ends in June — skeptics worry that the work will stall yet again, adding another chapter to Seattle’s long history of talking about racial equity without doing enough to achieve it.
“I don’t know how much of this is just lip service,” grandparent Linda Kennedy said back in June.
Kennedy and her friend Muriel Gibson, who are both black, were among the first to get a preview of the sprawling list of recommendations from the superintendent’s committee charged with figuring out how to better support black male students. At a forum in the Central District, the pair of grandmothers listened to committee members talk about working closely with families, improving attendance and building stronger relationships with students.
“We’ve done a lot of this before,” said Gibson, whose children attended Seattle Public Schools. Now her grandchildren do.
“I’m saddened that not much has changed for them,” Gibson said.
“This isn’t rocket science. From the top down, someone has to say that these children are valuable.”
“Everything they were fighting for back in 1963, we are still fighting for right now.”
In August, archivist Aaren Purcell pushed a mail cart stacked high with records out of the archives warehouse and into her small office tucked away in a corner of district headquarters.
Over the past year, Purcell and her staff scoured the archives as part of an initiative to chronicle the history of equity and race relations in Seattle’s public schools. Her search yielded dozens of long-forgotten training manuals, thick binders of task-force reports and other dusty administrative files that show Barbo wasn’t the first — and hardly the last — to wonder when the district would fix its racial gaps.
In her search, Purcell found documents dating back to 1947, when the School Board voted to hire more diverse teachers. That same year, the district hired its first black educator.
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Other records highlight the board’s pledge in 1966 to provide educational opportunities to all students and its plans, in 1989 and then again in 2013, to ensure educational excellence and equity for every student.
“Everything they were fighting for back in 1963, we are still fighting for right now,” said Stephan Blanford, who in November stepped down as the School Board’s only black member.
Similar goals were on the agenda in 2016 when then-Mayor Ed Murray convened a 30-member advisory group to find ways to support and partner with schools to close the gaps — an acknowledgment that the district alone may not be able to solve this long-standing problem. The City Council later voted to invest in school-based mentorships, a high-school innovation pilot and summer learning programs.
The city also started tying grants from its Families and Education Levy to how much progress schools made in closing their gaps, and launched a preschool program aimed at preparing more students for kindergarten.
Meanwhile, the 38 members of Nyland’s committee on African-American male achievement spent 16 months preparing their report, which landed on the superintendent’s desk in October. Central administrators swiftly started crafting a plan to put the recommendations into action.
This time, they promise, there will be more than just talk.
“We are learning from each other. No one knows how to do this.”
On a sunny Friday in October, students across Seattle had the day off, but in the cafeteria at Chief Sealth High, about 250 teachers spent the morning clustered around small tables littered with empty coffee cups, poster boards and markers.
They were members of the racial-equity teams at a few dozen schools, gathered for a day of guest speakers and brainstorming sessions about how to disrupt racial inequity and introduce lessons on that subject to fellow staff and parents.
“This is something that I have wanted to do for some time,” Nyland told teachers at the end of the day, adding that the district had few examples to follow. “We are learning from each other. No one knows how to do this.”
Indeed, education experts and researchers from across the nation couldn’t name a school district where racial gaps in achievement don’t exist.
Nyland and other central administrators have set a lot of their hopes on a hearts-and-minds strategy, banking on the racial-equity teams creating a tipping point that leads to widespread changes in classroom practices. For some teachers on those teams, this is the first time they have felt truly empowered to make those changes.
“There’s been a lot of starts and stops,” said Gerald Donaldson, a family-support worker at Leschi Elementary. “Every 10 years we get a new program, but this actually may work.”
He’s also buoyed by new support from the city, churches and community groups, saying he hasn’t seen this kind of community buy-in for 30 years.
When asked what they’ve done in addition to the school equity teams, senior leaders point to:
• A reorganization of the district’s race and equity department.
• A focus on equity in training for new principals.
• A moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for elementary students, a practice that had dramatically skewed against students of color.
• New efforts to increase teacher and administrative diversity.
• Plans to teach ethnic studies in every school.
Officials at central office acknowledge it’s not yet clear what their efforts will yield. And critics point out that Nyland has balked at ideas that he thinks would be too expensive.
Nyland, however, says commitment is more important than money.
“If you don’t believe that you can move the needle,” he said, “no amount of money is going to help.”
“It’s nothing we haven’t heard before.”
As he addressed the equity teams at the October event, Nyland declared the district would shift from working to eliminate opportunity gaps — a phrase he shorthands as EOG — to what he called EOG 2.0, for Equitable Opportunities for Greatness.
The line prompted snickers from a back row of the auditorium, where two teachers from Chief Sealth — not part of the training day — watched its conclusion before heading home.
“It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. We’re just hearing its new name,” said one of them, who declined to give her name.
Veteran educators can readily recite the long list of trainings they’ve attended over the years or initiatives they joined. They also easily recall how long it typically took — two to three years, they say — before the new ideas languished.
Even Fran Partridge, the woman who trained the district’s current racial-equity teams, quit last June, partly out of frustration that the district didn’t put more money behind those teams.
“How can you say you want this work to be happening … if you don’t actually put money behind it?” she said.
Some members of the committee on African-American male students voiced similar frustrations, including Don Felder, a retired principal.
Felder bristled when Nyland cited cost when declining to pursue some of the committee’s more ambitious proposals, such as hiring a clerk at every school to boost student attendance. The superintendent also set aside the more-expensive recommendations from plans to add ethnic studies to every school’s curriculum.
“For four decades we’ve always said these are big-ticket items, and often we do nothing,” Felder said. “All we end up doing is checking the box and planning.”
Critics have started using terms like “fakequity” and “passive progressive” to describe what they see as a lack of political will to do anything of substance.
“The district, as an institution, doesn’t care about students of color,” said James Hong of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, which works with and supports refugee and immigrant families.
“That’s not to say teachers and principals and individuals don’t get it,” Hong said. “But, historically, (our education system) was never really designed to uplift families and students of color. Despite all the flowery talk that I hear about equity, there continues to be a big gap between what the district says and what it does.”
On a smaller scale, families of color and equity advocates cite a few isolated success stories that show the goal can be achieved: Thurgood Marshall Elementary’s quiet, partial integration of its racially divided gifted and general education classes. Chief Sealth’s partnership with a University of Washington professor to uncover the root causes of its disproportionate discipline. And Dearborn Park Elementary’s experiment with harm circles, which the school’s racial equity team created to help resolve conflicts among students, staff and/or parents.
But principals hesitate to talk about such efforts, fearing that if opposition arises, the district or the school board will buckle under political pressure to thwart them.
“Lovely documents and plans … float for a while and then disappear.”
At his final state-of-the-district address in November, Nyland highlighted some glowing statistics: Student test scores in Seattle exceed the state average. Suspension rates in middle and high schools are down, and graduation rates now hover just below 80 percent, with black students making significant progress.
Still, suspension rates are more than two to seven times higher for students of color, and while their performance on state math and reading tests has improved slightly, the gaps have stagnated or widened over the past three years.
A week earlier, at an event for black educators and families, Nyland acknowledged the less-rosy picture.
“We’ve got some very limited measures that show we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “And the rest of them? Not so much.”
Hear more on KNKXTune into 88.5 FM on Monday, Jan. 15, to hear Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton talk about racial equity in Seattle schools with KNKX's Ariel Van Cleave. The segment will air at 5:44 a.m. and 7:44 a.m. You can also listen at knkx.org.
The hope, Nyland added, is that the numbers will start to move forward soon.
But the coming years will test the district’s resolve: Not only is Nyland on the way out, most of the School Board members are new and, despite a big boost in state education spending, the district is still worried about money. And when times are tough, Nyland acknowledged, equity often ends up on the chopping block.
That makes many suspect that this latest equity push will end up as one more failed chapter, shelved along with the others in the archives.
Kennedy and Gibson — the two grandmothers who attended the June community forum — are among those who hold onto hope.
Gibson and Kennedy have seen schools that work. Last year, for example, Gibson’s eldest grandson transferred from one South Seattle middle school — where she said he languished — to another that helped the young man thrive.
But they’re less optimistic about the system as a whole.
“They’ve been dealing with these same issues for decades,” Gibson said. “And they keep coming up with these lovely documents and plans that float for a while and then disappear.”
It’s up to the district’s leaders whether these efforts wither and die, she said.
“They want to appear to want to deal with our kids, and we go through these exercises. But we never make the real commitment to make a change.”
This story, originally published Jan. 12, has been corrected to include the accurate name for Kids at Hope Northwest.