The new superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Denise Juneau, has been holding meetings around the city to hear from parents, students and community members. She met with Somali families Friday evening in the Rainier Valley neighborhood.
She said the input she’s gathering is important as she gets to know the school district and prioritizes issues to tackle.
In an interview with KNKX ahead of the event, Juneau said one thing that’s been a recurring theme during her community meetings is the idea of ensuring racial equity in the school system.
Juneau, who became superintendent in July, previously served as state superintendent in Montana and grew up on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. She’s an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes in North Dakota.
She said she was drawn to the Seattle superintendent position in part because of the district’s commitment to racial equity. But she said sometimes the word “equity” gets used so much that it loses its meaning.
What needs to happen, she said, is that the district and community engage in “hard conversations” about how to make sure every student gets what he or she needs to succeed.
“One item I learned about was around field trips, and it may seem like a small thing that students should have access to these extra learning environments, but it’s very unequal,” she said. “Some schools will get 15 trips a year and another school will get one trip. And a lot of that has to do with grants or funding and where is that coming from, so we’re going to get better this year about tracking that information as a district so that we can next year really dig into it and talk about equity.”
The meeting Friday evening was hosted by Somali Mother’s Night Out, a parent group formed by Somali immigrants, and was held at Somali Community Services of Seattle.
Hodan Mohamed, who has two students in Seattle Public Schools and serves as vice president of Seattle Special Education PTSA, said it means a lot to have a superintendent come to the Somali community to hear their concerns. She said she’s not really aware of similar listening tours by prior superintendents in the school district.
“Maybe others have done it, but they haven’t reached out to us,” she said. “She has reached out to us, so that says something about her.”
Mohamed and other parents at the meeting raised concerns about special education. Mohamed said she wants to make sure students are not isolated from their peers in general-education classes.
Another parent said students with individualized education programs, known as IEPs, are left out of activities and do not receive the same resources as general-education students. She asked Juneau what she intends to do to make sure that students with IEPs get what they need.
Juneau replied that Seattle Public Schools offers “great special education services” that are comprehensive.
“Can we do better? Yes,” she said. “Can we look at data to make sure that we’re serving every child and that our disproportionality, our numbers are better for our historically underserved students? Yes, and it’s something that’s definitely on my radar as we move forward. Everything we do is going to be put through an equity lens and looking at data to make sure that we’re moving the numbers in the right way.”
Juneau has more events planned in her listening and learning tour, including one on Monday evening at North Seattle College and another on Tuesday hosted by Southeast Seattle Education Coalition and Asian Counseling and Referral Service.