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Will The Next Seattle Schools Superintendent Improve Outcomes For Students Of Color?

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland (center) at Chief Sealth International High School in September 2015.

In his time as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Larry Nyland has said that it’s a “moral imperative” to ensure that every kid in Seattle gets a great education. But the district has not managed to eliminate troubling gaps that exist between white kids and students of color in things like test scores and graduation rates.

There has been some progress under Nyland. The use of suspensions and expulsions has been declining and is now below the state average. But the discipline rate for black and African-American students in the 2016-17 school year was 6.8 percent compared with 1.1 percent for white students.

The three candidates vying to take over for Nyland - Jeanice Swift, Denise Juneau and Andre Spencer - have all said they're committed to closing these gaps and making sure students of color get the resources and support they need. The school board is scheduled to announce its top candidate at Wednesday evening's meeting.

Seattle School Board director Marty McLaren said Nyland deserves credit for making racial equity a priority – something she hopes the next schools chief will continue.  More than a third of schools have created racial equity teams.

“I’ve run into three different teachers just randomly in the last two months who have all spontaneously said the work that we’re doing at my school is really good. We are finally really talking about the issue of racism,” she said. “So right there that’s a huge shift.”

McLaren took part in the African American Male Advisory Committee, a group that gave recommendations last fall on how to improve outcomes for black boys. Some of the committee’s suggestions include hiring more African-American teachers and helping middle school students plan career and college goals.

Sheldon Levias, Assistant Director of the Engineering Academic Center at the University of Washington College of Engineering, also took part in the committee. He said he wants to make sure the next superintendent continues the committee’s work on closing the opportunity gap for kids of color – a gap that has roots in long-standing segregation in Seattle dating back to restrictive covenants that prevented African-American people from buying houses in many parts of the city.

“It’s a difficult gap to close, but it’s even more difficult when people working to address it, that their work gets tossed aside, so I’m just really hopeful that what we’re working on can help to address this,” Levias said.

DeShawn Jackson is part of the racial equity team at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood. He works as a student and family advocate at John Muir and said he thinks the district still has a long way to go to really achieve equity for students of color. Jackson said he’s frustrated by the lack of diversity in the district’s advanced learning programs.

“In some schools, it’s like having two different schools in one, and it’s been like that forever,” he said. “I think that causes a lot of separation and a lot of unfairness.”

Jackson said his school has successfully reduced suspensions for kids of color and developed an ethnic studies curriculum. But he said there’s still a lot of work the next superintendent will have to do to improve racial equity, including hiring more teachers of color and putting more experienced teachers in schools in the south end of the city. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.