The Seattle School Board voted Wednesday to approve a major partnership to run a school alongside a third party, an arrangement that will give a nonprofit some sway over teacher hiring, principal contracts and course offerings.
The Technology Access Foundation (TAF) will jointly operate Washington Middle School for the next decade, starting in the fall. The agreement will cost Seattle Public Schools about an additional $1.1 million over the first three years. The measure passed with six members approving and one member, Eden Mack, abstaining.
The district pitched this partnership as a way to boost outcomes for students of color, bolster STEM education and improve the culture at the Central District school, which has faced challenges with leadership and staff turnover.
TAF emphasizes project-based learning, job shadowing and mentorship. It encourages students to work in groups, having them work through everyday problems in their core subject areas.
The decision attracted heightened scrutiny because it would eventually phase out Washington’s Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) classes, the district’s primary mode of delivering advanced instruction. Students in the highly selective HCC program, who qualify based on a series of tests, spend their elementary and middle school years separated from general education students for some or most of the school day.
Earlier in the school year, Seattle schools officials proposed phasing out HCC across the district and serving kids in their neighborhood schools, but the School Board hasn’t approved that plan.
TAF’s co-founder, Trish Millines Dziko, said in an interview that she hopes people can see beyond the controversy as the partnership begins. “Any distractions around whether we should be there or not is not hurting us — it hurts the kids, and it takes the attention away from the work in front of us,” she said.
Some parents critical of the idea say the partnership with TAF and Washington Middle is a smaller way for the district to advance its plan.
“These (Washington Middle) students appear to you like pawns in your political strategy,” said DJ Yu, a Garfield High School parent who testified at the School Board meeting on Wednesday.
Parents of HCC students at Washington say they are worried about how the district will maintain advanced learning services under the new STEM model.
TAF was founded by a former Microsoft employee, started as a STEM-focused after-school program in the 1990s. TAF operates a school that teaches sixth- through 12th-graders in partnership with the Federal Way School District, TAF@Saghalie, and has a smaller presence in schools in that district and in Tacoma.
At Washington, TAF’s support staff, including a college- and career-readiness program manager and math instruction specialists, would manage the school in partnership with current staff. The agreement says TAF will invest in robotics, engineering and design labs during and after school at a vocational studies institute. It will take three years to phase in the TAF academic model, starting with incoming sixth-graders.
Several parents of color testified in support of a failed amendment to the partnership proposal that would have allowed incoming HCC sixth-graders residing in the South End to attend school at another campus that offers HCC services. The amendment’s supporters said that otherwise, the arrangement would end up restricting access to gifted programming for even more students of color.
Brandon Hersey, the School Board member who represents the South End, rejected that argument last week, calling it a “red herring” because the Washington Middle gifted program still has racial disparities. He added Wednesday that he understands parents’ concerns because the district’s process for communicating the partnership plans, particularly in Southeast Seattle, was “wildly unacceptable.”
Parents at the meeting also urged the district to expand access to the gifted program rather than scrap the model, arguing that the program has benefited some kids of color.
Some Washington staff and local advocates criticized the district for not conferring with enough stakeholders before proposing the partnership.
“There’s a complete lack of trust that our members have in the way that SPS has presented this proposal,” said Michael Tamayo, president of the Seattle teachers union. District officials and School Board members have conceded this point in public meetings.
Controversy over the Washington Middle decision drew the attention of state lawmakers, who proposed a bill that would guarantee advanced students certain legal protections if they’re affected by a district’s decision to end classrooms intended for gifted kids.
Earlier Wednesday, several School Board members and superintendent Denise Juneau testified against the bill in Olympia.