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Former Seattle Schools Chief Nyland On 'Moral Imperative' To Close Opportunity Gaps

Ashley Gross
Larry Nyland retired as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools in June. He often said that eliminating opportunity gaps, or disparities by race and income in such things as test scores and graduation rates, is "the issue of our time."

This week, a new superintendent took the helm of the Seattle school district. Denise Juneau has spelled out her plans for getting to know the district and meeting with everyone from city leaders to families to students.

She’s also met with former superintendent, Larry Nyland, who headed up the district for four years. He is now moving into what he calls “semi-retirement,” in which he’ll continue to do some educational consulting work.

Nyland took time during his last day as superintendent to speak with KNKX about an issue close to his heart: the need to help improve outcomes for kids of color and low-income students.

He has often said that closing opportunity gaps, which he defines as disparities by race and income in everything from attendance to test scores to graduation and discipline rates, is “the issue of our time” and a “moral imperative.”

Nyland said the district has made some progress improving graduation rates for students of color and some schools have succeeded in narrowing gaps in test scores, but he readily admits there’s more work to do.

Interview Highlights

On standardized testing:

“There’s a lot of controversy around standardized assessments. On the plus side, they’re a marker and they tell us how we’re doing. And on the negative side, they tend to be a negative stereotype and then cause sometimes for us to label students or a group of students based on their test scores… Interim measures – ways to chart progress for the student during the school year – is way more important than the standardized test. The standardized test is too late. It basically tells you after you left fifth grade that you did or didn’t do well in fifth grade, and that doesn’t help the fifth grade teacher. I guess there’s a little bit of residual knowledge there in that well, next year, I’ll do better by the incoming fifth graders, but it doesn’t do anything for the fifth graders that just left.”

On whether there’s too much pressure on kids who don’t do well on standardized tests:

“We have to help students reach standard. Otherwise we condemn a student to a bad future, in that we love them to death and we’re really glad that they’re there and we give them lunch but we don’t prepare them for the future and so then they have no future. And we can’t just hold the high standards without saying you can do it, otherwise we just prove the case and say oh well, we taught it, they didn’t get it. So it is how do we do both of those? How do we find work students can do, how do we push them to do the work, encourage them and give them that warmth and say, 'We know you can do this. We’re in your corner.’ One of our pieces of research is that when students know they have an adult at school that cares about them, they will do more work, they’ll work harder, they’ll find ways to close gaps. It’s kind of that will and skill.”

On whether it’s difficult to allocate more resources to schools in low-income neighborhoods when families in more privileged parts of Seattle are vocal about pushing for their own schools:

“Yes. Two parts to that. Seattle does more than any district that I know of, I’m sure there are a few somewhere that do more, but we allocate about $8 million to schools based on student need, and then we have other formulas, so all told there’s about $21 million that we spend on equity in different forms. And so, then it depends on your perspective. Some would say, 'Wow, that’s just incredible that you spend that much money.’ Others, who are on the need side of that equation, would say, 'Hm, do the math. $21 million out of $800 some odd million. That’s a pretty small percentage.’”

“The other half of your question. Money matters, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. What matters equally much is changing the DNA of the organization and the DNA of our community to recognize that all of our kids are all of our kids. More of an insurance model – we want to make sure that all of our students have what they need. So yes, who has the loudest voice or who has the best organized voice is a challenge for us in Seattle. We’re a very diverse community and some of those communities have a louder voice than others. So that’s part of our work to figure out how do we give voice to that wide representation of students that we serve.”

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.