Last fall, I was lost in a world of confusion. September felt like March, everyone felt anxious, afraid and already tired. When I asked my co-workers how they were, their answers were, “Hanging in there.” “Surviving.” If we were surviving, how were our students and families?
On my roster, I paid attention to students receiving special education and multilingual services, who could easily slip through the cracks. I worked with my team to coordinate supports for as many students as possible, stretching ourselves to try to meet an unmet need. These young scholars have experiences as unique as their smiles, but when they have the essential support they need, they thrive. But these are just a few students. We have thousands in our district, and we want them all to thrive but they can’t when supports are inadequate.
Last winter hit like a cold wind blowing, but what hit hardest was when a colleague asked, “Are you coming back to school next year?” That question is usually reserved for spring. We had stopped asking how we were doing because we knew the answer already. For many of my colleagues, this school year was their first time feeling expendable, feeling let down by a system. Many of my colleagues of color share this experience. How many of our students have felt the same in our schools? They must have felt inconsequential. We were like children trapped in the bottom of a well. I wondered, could Seattle Public Schools see our faces from the bottom of the well? Could they see us flailing? Did they think we were waving when we were really drowning?
Could SPS hear our students and us calling, “Send more help!”?
As staff, we have certainly found ourselves filling yawning gaps in SPS’ systems. This spring, however, felt extreme as we were tasked with creating next year’s budget. Pointing to enrollment declines, SPS insisted we make cuts. We knew our students’ growing needs were obstructing their success. We knew we needed more, not less. Do we pull from multilingual supports, where we needed a full-time counselor? Or do we pay for a math teacher? Do we fund a history teacher, or our social and emotional learning counselor?
After this budgeting process, it felt more than ever as if we were propping up a crumbling system. With so many needs unmet, we watched the things we have given our lives to, broken. We are all told that it is a noble act of duty to stoop and build them up with worn-out tools.
Seattleites want every student to get a high-quality education, but SPS operates under an unspoken model of “do more with less,” leading to unmet needs and educator burnout even in regular years but even more so with our growing, more urgent student crises. District administration is choosing to amass money in the bank rather than spending it on our students. Recent reporting in The Seattle Times shows the district has $77 million in COVID-19 relief funds it has yet to spend, and even after its decline in enrollment-based funding, the 2022-23 budget has an ending fund balance of $162 million.
I wonder, how are we supposed to create a beloved community when we are handed old, worn-out tools? How can our leaders, our administrators and our superintendent nurture our beloved communities if they are given these same tools?
Why must Seattle educators keep giving what we need to make up for SPS scarcity? We constantly do more with less, and then we’re told we’re not doing enough. It’s no surprise so few educators are planning to stay in the field.
As Seattle Education Association and SPS inch closer to the expiration of our contract on Aug. 31, the path to building a contract that supports students and educators is ending this scarcity mindset. We are tasked with educating students, which means we support them. We know that when our community stands together, we have the power to move SPS to change. The SEA contract is one way we can use our strength to get our students what they need.
SPS can and must do better. Educators, community leaders, students’ parents and families, and the district must approach our collective challenges with imagination, determination, boldness and act with urgency to meet our students’ needs. It’s time to ask the question, “What would our schools look like if every student need was met?”