Update: Sebrena Burr, the president of the Seattle County PTSA said the board unanimously supported the teachers’ action planned for Wednesday.
end of update
(I can't seem to get comment moderation on so I am asking for civility. If not, then I'll turn off the comments.)
The Seattle Teachers Association has been planning a Day of Solidarity on October 19th for African-American students in Seattle schools. As well, the teacher group, Social Equality Educators, is part of the planning for this day.
I support this day and I support the district's efforts to close the opportunity gap for all high-risk student groups.
However, this is may be a charged conversation but I am going to attempt to be clear about my concerns, not for the purpose of the day, but how it will play out.
Background for October 19th
The impetus for the actual day seems to have come from Hamilton International Middle School teacher, Sarah
I talked to Ms. Avery about the day and she said it was for two things: solidarity with John Muir Elementary and in support of Black Lives Matter in order to support black SPS students. She said teachers wanted to model for students about standing up for beliefs and especially fighting fear tactics.
Ms Avery said that many teachers were planning lessons around this effort for October 19th. It seems it will be a teacher decision what the lesson looks like.
She said she, along with other teachers are working for three "asks" of the district:
- de-tracking of programs. She they are "disproportionally offered" and that "testing doesn't go out for all families." She said it "feeds into the social separation of youth."
- restorative justice around discipline issues, especially disproportional discipline of black students
- ethnic studies to be a requirement for high school graduation.
The teachers are buying the shirts themselves or getting them thru SEA. I asked her if she thought perhaps that some teachers might not want to wear the t-shirt but may worry about the perception if they don't wear it. She said absolutely not.
She said that she hoped the outcome of the October 19th day is "a rising of awareness of the mvement to insure schools are, both on the ground and institutionally, promoting inclusion of all students and saying that racial equity is a priority in our schools."
The District's Initiative
On Friday, after 5 pm, the district sent out a press release about new campaign called #CloseTheGaps. It begins next week and they are asking for parent/public support. Here's a link to the new webpage for this effort. (Normally for something this important most government entities don't do it on a Friday after 5 pm.) From the district's website:
This work includes the unveiling of the district’s “Four P’s”: Positive Learning, Positive Beliefs, Positive Relationships, and Positive Partnerships. Each “P” represents many of the initiatives we are implementing including: My Brother’s Keeper, a mentorship program; RULER, a social-emotional curriculum; and Everyday Matters, an attendance program.The district has chosen to concentrate its efforts on African-American students but with the belief that what they learn about closing gaps for that group can be used for other high-risk groups like Native American, Hispanic and Pacific-Islander students. The Board had discussions about this tactic in the spring but said yes.
During our #CloseTheGaps kick-off week, Seattle Education Association is promoting October 19 as a day of solidarity to bring focus to racial equity and affirming the lives of our students – specifically our students of color.
In support of this focus, members are choosing to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts, stickers or other symbols of their commitment to students in a coordinated effort. SEA is leading this effort and working to promote transformational conversations with staff, families and students on this issue.
After the John Muir incident, I had some questions for the district. Here are my questions and their reply:
Me: Who wrote this announcement (about the John Muir incident) at the SPS website? I ask because it doesn't sound like SPS Communications. I do mean the specific person who wrote it and who directed that person to write it.
SPS: Please attribute to Seattle Public Schools. It is our collective response to the event at John Muir.
I will say that, in tone, this announcement is uncharacteristic for SPS Communications. It was written in a more impassioned manner than you normally see from the district.
Me: Does the district have any comment on the t-shirts that some Muir teachers wore in support of Black Lives Matter?
SPS: The t-shirt design is unique to John Muir Elementary. Over this past year, the school staff has been learning together, comparing their data to other schools, identifying practices used by our 12 outlier schools (schools closing gaps for students of color) and in a staff meeting they decided to create a t-shirt to represent their commitment to their students.
Are teachers allowed full discretion on any t-shirt they may wear to school (or, if not, what are the limits?).
SPS: We respect our teachers' rights and desire to express themselves. Teachers have first amendment rights in the classroom but this right may be limited by a school district, especially if a shirt creates a disruption to the educational environment or is profane.
I asked the district and Ms. Avery about other ways to show their support for African-American students. I asked the district:
Me: How does the district view Black Lives Matter group? Is it a political movement? Another African-American group?
SPS: As a district we are united in our commitment to eliminating opportunity gaps for African American students and other students of color.
Me: Does the District believe that teachers wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts is the only way that teachers or SPS can "affirm black lives?"
SPS: Affirming students happens every day in our classrooms and we are working to get better at it. This year we are focused on four key strategies: positive learning, positive beliefs, positive partnerships and positive relationships. On Sept 1 we held the first district-wide professional development day for all teachers in partnership with SEA. The focus was on building positive student-educator relationships. This was also the focus of the events at John Muir and Leshi Elementary.
I asked Ms. Avery if her group had considered any other slogan to support black students and she said no.
From reading their official webpage, they are striving for several things. Here's their mission statement:
Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.Also from their home page (bold theirs:)
Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.
Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.So they do say they are a political group.
One concern is that teachers have their own political beliefs. I have to wonder if a teacher sees that the district is fine with teachers wearing shirts that promotes one political group that then other teachers will wear t-shirts that promote their own political beliefs. It's a sticky wicket for the district to put school communities in.
Another concern stems from what happened at John Muir. Of course, it is the right thing to do to stand up in solidarity with Muir. No school should ever receive threats for any reason.
But, from media coverage of that experience, it appears that not everyone has done their homework on Black Lives Matter. The general public may perceive the action on October 19th in the wrong way.
And, instead of seeing a district celebrating students in a racial group that has been marginalized and hurt by society, the public will focus only on who it appears to me that the district is aligning themselves with to do so. I especially worry about the tv coverage because tv stations tend to try to sensationalize stories.
For many in Seattle, the only real thing they may know about Black Lives Matter - beyond their name being probably one of the most famous Twitter hashtags ever created - is when the Seattle chapter interrupted the Bernie Sanders event. Again, the optics of that event did not play out well. So instead of people hearing what the BLM members were saying, the public only saw that thousands of people - many of them disabled who had come to hear Sanders because he was to speak on that topic - have their plans to listen to a presidential candidate derailed.
I worry those same kind of optics may visit the district on October 19th.
I note that Wikipedia explains that BLM has a very loose structure and that chapters are allowed to go their own way on their actions.
The loose structure of Black Lives Matter has contributed to confusion in the press and among activists, as actions or statements from chapters or individuals are sometimes attributed to "Black Lives Matter" as a whole. Matt Pearce, writing for the Los Angeles Times, commented that "the words could be serving as a political rallying cry or referring to the activist organization. Or it could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality."
Indeed, the BLM website lists chapters but with these caveats:
- Please note that #BlackLivesMatter is a network predicated on Black self-determination, and BLM Chapters reserve the right to limit participation based on this principle.
- Please be aware that BLM Chapters have varying membership policies, and may or may not be accepting new members at this time. Also note that membership requirements vary by chapter.
- Lastly, expect some delay in response to your inquiry.
Unfortunately, it is at the same time as the Board meeting and I am unable to attend. From their press release (partial:)
DeShawn Jackson: Instructional Assistant, John Muir Elementary
Sarah Arvey: Teacher Hamilton International Middle School, advisor for Hamilton Against Racism
Jesse Hagopian: Teacher, Black Student Union advisor, Garfield High School, editor for Rethinking School magazine
Rita Green: Seattle NAACP education chair
Donte Felder: Mentor teacher, Orca K-8
Kshama Sawant: Seattle City Council Member
Jon Greenberg: Teacher, Center School High, antiracist educator who was reprimanded for his courageous conversation curriculum.
So readers, let us know what you, as parents, have been told about this day - what events are planned, is your child's teacher planning a Black Lives Matter lesson, etc.In the first action of its kind in the country, hundreds of teachers, counselor, instructional assistants, office staff, and other educators, will wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school on Wednesday, October 18th. At the time of this release, already over 700 shirts have been ordered by educators in Seattle.
It is urgent for educators to stand up against racism in our society, city and schools. The Seattle school district has grappled with institutionalized racism and remains a district that is segregated, has disproportionate discipline rates for students of color, and struggles to close the opportunity gap. It is imperative to see that educators continue to fight for the rights of all students and communities, especially those that have a long history disenfranchisement. “For Black lives to matter, they also have to matter at school,” says Jesse Hagopian, Garfield High School teacher and community organizer. “I’m proud of my educator colleagues across Seattle who voted unanimously at the union meeting to affirm our Black students who are confronted with a school-to-prison-pipeline, disproportionate discipline, a dearth of culturally relevant curriculum, and state violence.”
“We must be bold in addressing racism. If we meter our responses in catering to white fragility, we will always heel towards the status quo of white supremacy,” says Ian Golash, Chief Sealth High School teacher.As Mark Lilly, Instructional Assistant and leader of Bembe Olele Afro-Cuban Dance Company, states, “This is our opportunity to leverage the power of public education showing the world community that when faced with oppression, social justice, right action and compassion are the chosen response.”The message is more than words on a shirt. In addition to wearing the Black Lives Matter t-shirts, educators are doing teach-ins, presenting Black Lives Matter Curriculum, supporting student activism and leadership, and organizing with community members.
It will be an important and historic day in the history of Seattle Schools.