Seattle schools are saddled with a toxic, hyper-political educational climate, led by a dysfunctional Seattle School Board supported by the clout of the teachers unions.
It’s that time again, when the Seattle School Board begins its search for yet another superintendent. Forgive me if I’m not optimistic, but we need to understand our recent history so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it.
Back in 2011, the interim superintendent of Seattle Public Schools was an impressive educator named Susan Enfield. Just when it looked like the board might offer her the job, Enfield said she didn’t want it. She withdrew not because she didn’t want to be a superintendent, but because she didn’t want to be a superintendent in Seattle.
José Banda took over as superintendent after Enfield’s departure and didn’t last two years, accomplishing little. Next came Larry Nyland, who has been well-intentioned but uninspiring.
Meanwhile, Enfield was chosen to steer the ship for Highline Public Schools, a smaller district just outside Seattle with less-dysfunctional governance. Since that time, Highline has repeatedly taken bold steps in the name of equity, addressing hard truths and innovating in the name of meaningful change.
The results so far have been remarkable. Districtwide graduation rates grew from 62.5 percent in 2012 to 74.8 percent in 2016, and the graduation-rate gaps along racial lines have all but closed.
Seattle’s schools, meanwhile, have languished, with well-documented problems of disproportionate discipline along racial lines and the fifth-worst achievement gap in the nation.
Graduation rates for black students in Seattle have improved in the past few years, but Latinx graduation rates have declined slightly over that same period. Proficiency rates continue to reflect our opportunity gaps as well. Despite our self-congratulatory progressive politics, the systemic racism and classism of Seattle’s education system has barely budged.
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Why are we stuck? How did Seattle manage to lose a thrilling talent like Enfield to a formerly hole-in-the-wall district like Highline?
I’d start with the city’s toxic, hyper-political educational climate, led by the utterly dysfunctional Seattle School Board and supported by the clout of the teachers union.
We now have evidence that Enfield’s leadership could have led to meaningful, equitable change for Seattle children. Instead, she saw a school board that wouldn’t give her the space to make bold decisions and a passive-progressive political climate that would prevent her from adopting needed-but-potentially-unpopular policies. So she left, and our problems remain.
Similarly, in 2011, Teach For America also arrived in Seattle, bringing with it a diverse pool of new teachers and a leader who was laser-focused on collaborating with communities to address inequity. However, thanks to a concerted effort by the Seattle school board and the teachers unions, Teach For America was all but run out of town. Eager new teachers were vilified, some even targeted with vicious online attacks.
Teach For America’s not gone, though. Just like Enfield, it continues to do good work across the rest of the state, particularly in rural districts, and many more TFA alums continue to do great work in Seattle’s schools.
I actively support strong public schools and great teachers, and I want every kid in Seattle to have both. My mother is a public school teacher, and my oldest son is a third-grader with brown skin and long, awesome dreadlocks in Seattle Public Schools — a district proven to discriminate against kids who look like him. So, for me, fixing inequity in our schools is an important civil-rights issue. And it’s also intensely personal.
When my son’s neglected elementary school has hired its third principal in four years, it’s long past time to demand big, uncomfortable changes. The kind of changes only a brave superintendent can make, unhindered by politics and relentlessly focused on what’s best for kids.
So forgive my lack of optimism as this new superintendent search gets underway, and understand my despair (and my joy!) at seeing Highline’s glowing progress. I can only hope our school board is taking notes.