The incoming Renton superintendent is a native son who’s now burning to make schools work better for all students. I wish him the best of luck.
When I last spoke with Damien Pattenaude, he was a 26-year-old English teacher on fire to make schools work better for students with few of life’s advantages. Now, 14 years later, he’ll become superintendent of the Renton School District on July 1.
The challenges schools faced then are still with us — funding, staffing, testing and the struggle to give every child the best possible education in a society of vast inequalities.
“It’s a societal issue, not just a school issue,” Pattenaude said when we spoke last week at district headquarters. “Some of us, we have some privileges that we take for granted that not all kids and families have.” Schools can’t do it all, he said, but they do have an obligation to do all they can “to help these students realize their dreams and goals.”
Pattenaude is an educator in part because of efforts to improve the profession’s demographic mix. Research shows that students often do better if they have teachers they can relate to and who can relate to them better. A recent study found that low-income black students, especially boys, were much less likely to drop out and more likely to aspire to attending college if they had at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades. Other studies have shown bias against black students.
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The teaching profession is overwhelmingly white, often drawn from the middle-class and short of men in the lower grades.
Pattenaude participated in a Washington State University (WSU) program created to attract a broader spectrum of students to the field. It’s called Alhadeff Future Teachers of Color.
Pattenaude didn’t share the experiences of his students who faced the greatest barriers to success. He’s from a two-parent, financially stable family. But he knew enough from family and friends to recognize inequality and to see the value in learning about individual students’ lives.
Pattenaude’s mother was a longtime office worker in the Seattle School District. She’s black. His father, who is white, was once a Catholic priest, but of course had to leave that behind to get married. They taught him discipline and caring.
Pattenaude said he always wanted a career that would involve community service. He considered journalism, then law, but the education program took hold.
He taught in Kent, then at his old school, Renton High. His mother graduated from Renton High in 1966 when it was a mostly white school. When Pattenaude started high school in 1991, there was no majority group, and when he came back as a teacher, white students were in a small minority.
The district is constantly evolving, and schools have to adapt. Pattenaude said the percentage of district families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches has been dropping over the past few years. It’s not that low-income families are moving up, but that some areas are attracting high-income homebuyers. New families will have their own expectations, which he’ll also have to address as superintendent.
Pattenaude wanted to have a greater impact on education once he’d spent time as a teacher, so he left teaching at Renton High and went back to WSU to earn his master’s degree in school administration. Afterward, he worked as assistant principal at Renton’s Hazen High School before going back to Renton High as principal.
“Everyday I was the principal at Renton High, I would get up and check The Seattle Times online because I was always worried that something had happened to one of my students,” he said.
Many students were living lives full of trauma. There were lots of fights and a perception that the school was out of control, he said. He has been credited with helping to change the school culture. The easy part was getting students to buy into a culture of no fighting, Pattenaude said. The hard part was helping students do well who came in at a third-grade reading level.
Some changes need to happen earlier. Now he has a Ph.D. and a chance to affect the whole system. He moved from Renton High to central administration, became an assistant superintendent and last October was named superintendent-elect. (His uncle, Al Talley Sr., a longtime board member, abstained from the vote. Talley passed away in March.)
Pattenaude is supporting and expanding a new initiative in elementary schools in the district’s most challenged neighborhoods.
Many families whose children attend schools in The West Hill/Skyway area of King County have been deeply affected by poverty. So last year the district launched its West Hill Now Initiative, which takes some of its lessons from the success of Lakeridge Elementary School. The elementary school pulled itself up from being labeled chronically underachieving to a state rating of “very good.”
The idea is for schools to put proven methods for improving outcomes into action. Schools take care of what they can and partner with families and communities to deal with outside issues that affect student’s ability to learn. The key is to move from talking to being proactive.
Pattenaude said it’s about the district and the community supporting the teacher-student relationship. “I’m not a miracle worker,” Pattenaude said. He said his role is “helping others come up with great answers to problems.”
Pattenaude and his wife have two young children in district schools, which gives him a different perspective than he has from his office. He knows firsthand that for families, the district’s work is more than academic.
I wish him luck.