School was just out for summer in June 2014, and Schmitz Park Elementary School’s Building Leadership Team was hard at work in my office. My phone started buzzing. I did my best to ignore it, but the superintendent was calling.
“I’m calling to let you know that I am holding a press conference to announce that I’m leaving Seattle,” Superintendent José Banda told me. I was the president of the Principals’ Association of Seattle Schools at the time, and I appreciated the courtesy call. But it was hard to return to my planning for the next year knowing too well that a change of superintendents leads, at best, to a sustained “holding pattern” that stalls progress. Indeed, Superintendent Banda’s departure would be followed a year later by the first teachers’ strike since I was a senior at Garfield, and that 1985 strike also followed the departure of another brief superintendent, Donald Steele.
I recalled this memory when it was announced that Superintendent Denise Juneau would not seek an extension of her three-year contract. As we look ahead to recovering from the cataclysmic impact of 2020 on our schools, we cannot afford to wait for new leadership in our planning and preparation to reopen our buildings in the new year.
The work ahead will be hard, but our core mission is clear. To succeed, we must:
Center racial equity. Our strategic plan, Seattle Excellence, places racial equity at the core of our mission. For two generations, we have toiled to address achievement “gaps” and stubborn “disproportionality,” but the intersecting pandemic of racial injustice that swept the United States in 2020 has made clear that this work will forever be inadequate until we fully dismantle the racist institutional structures. These structures prevent many Black and brown students from succeeding to their highest potential and also present substantial obstacles for many white students in ways we fail to recognize.
Invest in excellence and accountability. The single most important initiative in Seattle Public Schools for the last five years has been the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) system, developed for and with Seattle’s teachers. While few people outside of the district know about this essential work, which grew from the darkest hours of the 2015 teachers’ strike, the construction of a collaborative and transparent system where a panel of teachers and evaluators (principals and assistant principals) serves as the “superintendent’s designee” to provide the final review for teacher performance has established a culture of instructional excellence and strong structures for professional support, growth and accountability. We are ready to expand this work to “PAR for Principals” to ensure that the educators who evaluate our teachers are held to the same high standard.
Ensure stable funding and staffing at the building level. Earlier this month, the Seattle School Board began work on the budget for the 2021-2022 school year, facing dire revenue projections and difficult decisions on what fiscal precautions may be necessary to take now. School Board directors wisely observed that the tasks facing schools in the coming year will be greater than ever before: More counselors to address social-emotional needs, more nurses to ensure health protocols are being followed and students cared for, and more administrators to ensure families are welcomed in new ways, and staff well supported through another round of fundamental change in how we do business. With so many families facing difficult circumstances in the coming year, the school board can ensure stability at the building level by taking every measure to protect buildings from staffing and budget cuts for the 2021-22 school year.
Our state legislators need to work closely with the Seattle school board to ensure that districts are “held harmless” for enrollment changes in the coming year so that the important gains they accomplished in the last biennium to “fully fund” the McCleary decision are not jeopardized in the next session.
In recent weeks, many important voices urged the Seattle school board to retain Superintendent Juneau in order to have stable footing as we tackle the enormous challenges ahead. Despite her decision, the imperative for this stability remains.
We know what we need to do. Our next superintendent needs to be a superb administrator who can hit the ground running to help our $1 billion enterprise deliver for the children and families of Seattle.