The Road To Equity in Seattle Schools

Eric Blumhagen
Oct 15 · 5 min read
Eric works with student interns

Goal and background

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has a glaring racial equity problem. Students of color face injustice because of biases and institutional racism built into our schools and society. We need to break down those systems and make the system equitable. Equity doesn’t mean that every student receives the same services — it means that every student is served by the school district so that they have an equal chance of success in school and life.

The problems and solutions discussed below are based on ideas and recommendations from friends and neighbors in communities of color. I want to give a special shoutout to Seattle’s NAACP Youth Coalition for hosting a Racial Justice Summit this past May at Chief Sealth High School. The event was inspiring in its positive view of what the future can be while not ignoring the problems of the present and the past.

Institutional racism is felt across our schools and society. It is more insidious and harder to name than overt racism because it’s wrapped up in words like “security” and “data-driven decisions” rather than racial slurs. Seattle’s Solid Ground has defined what institutional racism is and how they address it in their work. In our schools, we see examples of institutional racism when discipline policies disproportionately affect young men of color, when students don’t see themselves reflected in their curriculum or teachers, and when communities of color aren’t part of the decision making process.

Disproportionate discipline

Right now, African American male students in Seattle Public Schools are removed from their classrooms for discipline 10 to 15 times more often than white students. This is unacceptable and demands immediate action. Where students show inappropriate behaviors in school, we need to respond quickly in ways that keeps everyone safe while also preventing the behavior in the future. Constructive discipline should be our goal, rather than punishment.

We can start by working on improving our own staff competencies. All staff who work with students should have implicit bias and de-escalation training built into their professional development time, giving them tools to work with students and each other more effectively. We also need to expand restorative justice programs to every school across the district. Restorative justice has been proven to reduce recidivism and break cycles of violence.

While the Seattle Police Department has officers stationed in several schools in Seattle, the ACLU of Washington has shown that having police officers in schools actually increases the number of arrests for relatively minor misbehavior. This is often the first step along the school-to-prison pipeline. Working with these individual schools’ communities, SPS should consider whether a police presence in these schools is beneficial or whether our resources are better spent with professional mediation specialists who can work to defuse problems without escalating them.

Culturally competent curriculum

In virtually all SPS schools, the curriculum is written by white people and conforms to what white people think is important. Our students of color say they don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum. I support developing and implementing an Ethnic Studies curriculum. Ethnic Studies brings forward the powerful voices and experiences of communities of color so that they are heard and valued. The Ethnic Studies curriculum development is underway, along with the Since Time Immemorial history curriculum. This set of materials brings the history of the Native peoples of the United States into our social studies and history classes in all grades.

We need to take a similar approach for all underserved populations and make sure that our general curricula are inclusive of all students. We shouldn’t have to wait until Black History Month to learn about leaders in the African American community. Our students should hear about leaders of color throughout the year, no matter what classroom they’re in.

Culturally competent staff

Seattle has a severe shortage of teachers that reflect the diversity of our students. Research shows a diverse teaching corps helps all students. Students of color have the additional benefit of learning from role models who look like them. We can take steps now to bring teachers from diverse backgrounds to Seattle Schools.

First of all, we need to pass Referendum 88 in November so that we can use affirmative action to hire a more diverse teaching corps. Second, we need to be recruiting teachers where we can expect to find teachers of color. We should be recruiting at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges, as well as other universities with large populations of students of color.

Finally, we need to retain teachers of color. That starts with mentoring to ensure that every new teacher has the support to be successful. We also need to make sure our new teacher evaluations are fair. After diverse teachers are hired, we need to make sure that we aren’t laying off teachers unnecessarily. New teachers tend to be the first to get laid off, and right now newer teachers are more likely to be teachers of color.

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Outreach

If we are to be successful in any of these projects, we will need to get regular feedback from the community. We can’t just wait for people to show up at School Board community meetings to air their concerns, especially when we know many parents are working multiple jobs to provide for their families and can’t attend meetings as currently scheduled. We need to actively seek out the community and meet them where it is most convenient for them. Those meetings need to start with a learning mindset, understanding that what is said may be hard to hear.

As we gather input on what is needed, what is working, and what isn’t, we need to be continuously aware of who isn’t in the room and how we can include them. We will also need the humility and understanding to know that we aren’t always going to get it right the first time and we will need to adjust our approach as we learn more.

Looking forward

The struggle for equity will be a long one. However, if we’re to make progress, we need to plan to move quickly to make change. I look forward to continuing the work already underway in SPS and engaging the community as we go forward with new initiatives. I humbly ask for your vote, and I thank you for your support for equity in Seattle Public Schools.

Eric Blumhagen

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