Last fall, a few months into her tenure Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said she kept a piece of paper on her desk. It showed the percentage of third-grade African American boys meeting state reading standards.

The figure, which had hovered around 30% for the past few years, was a reminder of the work needed to fix the school system, she said.

The district’s latest annual performance report, unveiled to School Board members at a recent work session, makes reading proficiency for black males a focal point. The report showed that number to be 28% for last year. As part of its new strategic plan to improve the outcomes of African American male students, the district wants to see that number rise to 70% in five years’ time — and, eventually, 100%.

“That’s why we’re here,” said Diane DeBacker, the district’s chief academic officer.

The 2018-2019 school-year numbers in this year’s report, which the district calls a scorecard, will serve as the baseline for measuring the plan’s success. Many of the same measurements — state test scores, graduation rates, discipline referrals, attendance — appear in last year’s scorecard.

One thing you won’t find: comparisons of how students of color stack up against their white peers on these measurements, a common way of calculating what’s known as the achievement gap or opportunity gap. Instead of putting an effort into closing those gaps, district officials say, they’re shifting their focus to growth, highlighting improvement in certain areas at a granular level.

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It reflects a changing mindset around racial equity for the school district, whose large differences in average test scores between white and black students have raised eyebrows nationwide. The district has tried to narrow those disparities for more than half a century without much success.

On its own, a continued emphasis on those gaps can reinforce low expectations for black males starting in their earliest years and blame students for poor outcomes, said Mia Williams, executive director of the district’s new department of African American Male Achievement. “What about those who are really successful in our system?” she asked. “What can we learn from them?”

“There is no achievement gap at birth,” Williams added, quoting a book authored by education author and researcher Lisa Delpit. Even without considering gaps, she said, the numbers show that the system is not designed to support and welcome black students.

The percentage of students regularly attending school is down slightly for black males and students of color, hovering at 68.9% and 66.9%.

“We are continuing to build strategies for student engagement, culturally responsive content and student-staff-family relationships. These practices and environmental elements are critical to connecting with students and increasing attendance,” Wyeth Jessee, the district’s chief of schools and continuous improvement, wrote in an email.

Some other notable differences and results in this year’s scorecard:

  • In addition to African American male students, the report hones in on results for a group that the district calls “students of color furthest away from educational justice” in its plan. It includes, “African American, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian and Native American” students.
  • Districtwide, the share of students meeting state standards on reading assessments is up four percentage points, from 61.7% in the 2016-17 academic year to 65.1% last year.
  • The share of students meeting state math standards was flat between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 school years.
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  • After focusing on cutting down exclusionary discipline, there were declines in suspensions and expulsions across most student groups, although rates for black students were still noticeably higher than those of their peers.

    “We can do better than that,” said Seattle School Board member Brandon Hersey.

  • The report also includes focus on the diversity of new employees, a district priority. Fifty-seven percent of leadership hired in the district for this school year identify with a race other than white, compared to 35% last year. For teachers, 27.1% of hires were people of color, compared to 18.2% in during the 2015-2016 school year.

At the meeting when School Board members read over the scorecard, the district presented results from its student surveys. One data point drew scrutiny: a sizable dip in the percentage of students who said they feel safe in school — from 75.9% in the 2014-2015 school year to 66% percent last year. Time ran out to discuss the issue at length in the meeting; the board will hear more at its retreat next month.

To recap results from the first year of the strategic plan, the district plans to release a full report with more data a year from now.

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