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Seattle Public Schools’ Chief of Equity has firsthand experience with racial bias in class

Parker Miles Blohm
Keisha Scarlett is the Seattle school district's new Chief of Equity, Partnerships and Engagement

This story originally aired on November 9, 2019.  

Back in 1988, the Seattle school district had a problem on its hands. Black third graders were underperforming their white classmates in reading by 29 percentage points. It was a glaring disparity, and it was getting attention. 

That’s the year that Keisha Scarlett started at Garfield High School in Seattle. Today Keisha is still at Seattle Public Schools, and so is the disparity — in fact, the gap has gotten even bigger. 

As the new Chief of Equity, Partnerships and Engagement, Keisha is helping lead the district’s charge to close that gap and lift up kids of color. And her approach is informed by her own experience as a black student in Seattle, especially her years at Garfield. 

She knows what it’s like to be treated differently because of her race at school. For her, it came as a jolt on her very first day of ninth grade. A bright student who loved science and math, Keisha was one of the only black students in the advanced learning track at Garfield.

Full of first-day anticipation, she walked into her honors language arts class and took a seat near the front. All around her white kids were shuffling in. It was the end of the 1980s, so picture permed hair and acid-washed jeans. Her teacher came over to her and asked to see her schedule.

Keisha asked why. The teacher just repeated that she wanted to see Keisha’s schedule.

“And I said, `Are you checking everyone’s schedule?’ And she was like, `What?’” Keisha said. “And I was like, `Well, how about you check all of those people’s schedules and then you come back to me and check my schedule?’”

That response did not go over so well. They got in an argument. Her teacher told her she had to leave.

“She was like, `You need to get out because you’re arrogant and uncooperative and I’m not having this. We’re not starting off the school year like this,’” Keisha recalled. “I remember her calling me arrogant and uncooperative. `You need to get out.’”

So during the first period of the first day of school, Keisha and her teacher walked to the attendance office, where the teacher told the secretary Keisha had been disrespectful. 

“She said, `It’s already first period and you’re getting kicked out of class?’ I said, `She wanted to see my schedule but she only picked me because I was the only black person in the class,’” Keisha said. The secretary told her to take a seat while she called her mother.

Keisha did sit down, but she did not take it sitting down. Years later, she found her way back to the district, determined to confront the inequities that still dog Seattle schools, three decades later. 

Listen to the full story to hear about her journey from being one of two black students on the advanced learning track at Garfield to being the district's point person on issues of equity and inclusion. 

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.