Sure, I may be woozy because I just went through the ultimate ceremony of promise and loss, the high school graduation. But the story behind the scenes of the turnaround in Seattle schools is truly remarkable.
High-school graduation has got to be among the most contradictory, bittersweet events in our culture.
My daughter, who graduated this past week, did it squarely facing the future. She and many of her Garfield High School classmates were so focused on tomorrow that they adorned their mortarboards not with memories but with the school colors of their chosen colleges.
“I’m over high school,” she said when I asked about this design choice.
Not so her dad, who finds himself facing the past. When she strode through Seattle’s Memorial Stadium to “Pomp and Circumstance,” suddenly now a confident young woman, all I could see was the 5-year-old, French-braided version of herself, apprehensively clutching my hand as we walked together to her first day of kindergarten.
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What a rich, strange trip it’s been through this city’s public schools. As I sat in the stands, I had a chance to reflect.
That’s 13 years, all of it spent in one city public school or another. They ranged from a neighborhood elementary tagged as “failing” to a mostly white conclave next to the Broadmoor gated community to the city’s most news-making, protest-fueled high school (even at the graduation, an announcement notified the crowd that we should feel free not to stand for the national anthem, if we chose.)
Graduations all brim with hope and promise. But man, soaking up the United Nations assembly that is the student body of Garfield High School, it’s impossible to feel any cynicism about the divisions of the world.
My daughter started school when Uggs and Myspace were hip, and the iPhone hadn’t been invented. This city’s schools were in a perpetual state of upheaval, with enrollment plummeting so much the district was embroiled in rounds of painful school closings.
Seattle was becoming like the “failing school systems of blighted East Coast cities,” read a Seattle Times editorial in 2006, the year my daughter started first grade. Former Mayor Norm Rice infamously said he couldn’t recommend that a friend enroll in them.
My daughter’s schooling was dominated by the standardized-test mania brought on by No Child Left Behind, as well as the persistent racial inequities that imperfect law was supposed to address.
She finishes having received, by hook or crook, a surprisingly well-rounded and strong education. We say all the time that public education is “starved” or “in crisis.” But it turns out there’s also a fine free schooling to be had in everything from calculus to video production, from physics to playwriting.
That’s just one view, from one family that came in with all the advantages.
But prompted by my own nostalgia, I took a look at how much Seattle Public Schools has changed systemwide since we took that first kindergarten walk, in 2005. It’s like a different world, and almost uniformly for the better.
Enrollment has soared, up 23 percent since the fall of 2005 (55,332 students today, 44,997 then.) True, we’re heading into our sixth superintendent in that period, and we here at the newspaper have been handed no end of bureaucratic screw-ups and even full-blown scandals to cover.
But the academic story is remarkable. In 2005, the district was mired in below-average academic performance compared to the rest of the state. Today it’s above the state averages in every grade. Take, say, eighth-grade reading and math. Then: Seattle schools trailed the state averages by 2.4 points in reading and 1.3 points in math. Today, Seattle eighth-graders lead the state by 10.5 percentage points in reading and 15.4 points in math. With a pool of thousands of students, these are huge swings.
But check this out: The graduation rate for Seattle schools has zoomed an incredible 34 percentage points. It went from a shameful 48.6 percent rate in the 2005-06 year, a low point, to an above-state-average rate of 82.8 percent last year. The rate for black students still lags, but has climbed from a cataclysmic 39 percent to a more hopeful 72 percent today.
Maybe I’m just giddy now that my daughter has joined this club. But that’s some turnaround for a big urban school district. How much of it was due to growth altering the city, and how much to genuine improvement in the schools is hard to tease out. Still it’s probably not a story that’s busted through your negative news feeds. Yet it’s the kind of rebirth, in one of the core institutions of this city, that can be literally life-changing for thousands of young people.
They didn’t make it easy, though, navigating the bureaucracy of these schools. So as a parent I’m a little burned out.
As I watched my daughter go joyously off into the night with her diploma, marking the beginning of the long goodbye, I admit I wished more than anything I could take that 5-year-old hand and do the kindergarten walk all over again. But that’s the past, old man, and the kids have it right — it’s about the future. So who’s up next?