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Seattle School District Is On Its Way To Getting Its First Native American Superintendent

Ashley Gross
Denise Juneau served two terms as state superintendent in Montana and has been chosen as the preferred candidate to lead Seattle Public Schools.

Seattle Public Schools is on its way to getting its first Native American superintendent. The school board has voted to begin contract negotiations with Denise Juneau, former state superintendent of public instruction in Montana.

School board directors said all three finalists for the superintendent job were well-qualified. But in the end, they voted unanimously to choose Juneau. She has a master’s degree in education from Harvard and is a lawyer. She’s also an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe.

Scott Pinkham is a Seattle school board director and a member of the Nez Perce tribe.

“Any student that feels that they’re at risk or marginalized can see Seattle schools is walking the talk,” Pinkham said. “They’re having a leader that’s going to be up there and say, `Yes, I’m from a marginalized community, but I can make a difference in this school district.’”

Manuela Slye has four children in Seattle Public Schools. She’s also a member of the International Schools/Dual Language Immersion Task Force for the school district and a member of the equity and race advisory committee to the superintendent.

Slye said she listened to all three candidates at a public forum and thought Juneau was the best. She said she’d like to see the new superintendent make the school district more welcoming to families of color and people who don’t speak English.

“I hope that she’s ready to learn the things she doesn’t know and bring the experience that she has and also that she’s ready to listen to voices that might not necessarily be represented in our district,” Slye said.

Anna Baldwin, an English teacher on the Flathead Reservation in Montana and 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, said she’s known Juneau for a number of years and considers her a mentor. Baldwin said she’s been impressed with the way Juneau won community support for new programs in schools, particularly in Indian communities where there has been historical mistrust of public education.

“In any situation where you have achievement gaps, where you have underserved populations, high needs populations, she’s going to be somebody who understands the importance of thinking differently, instead of doing a top down approach of 'this is how we’re going to approach this problem and you community members are just going to have to go along with it,’” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said Juneau pushed for funding for a curriculum known as Indian Education for All that teaches all children in the state about tribal culture and history and fulfills a mandate in the state’s constitution to incorporate American Indian cultural heritage into the state’s educational goals. Juneau also initiated a program to lift graduation rates that helped reduce the dropout rate for Native students.

The Seattle superintendent job will pay about $300,000 a year. School board members will be negotiating with Juneau over the next few weeks to finalize the contract.

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.