Seattle Times Guest Column by Nora Liu

This is the best guest column about the school district that I have ever read in the Seattle Times.

You absolutely have to read this.

You have to encourage other people to read this.

And then you have to bring these questions to the Board and to the District staff.

The column finishes like this:
There are two districts in Seattle. Our children attend the failing one.

What is the district's plan? How much longer will we have to wait for the kinds of schools our children deserve?
The District's plan, as we know, is to do more of what hasn't worked in the past. The District's plan, as we know, is for these communities to wait for ever.

The District's response to low-performing schools is described in their Performance Management System. It's all about the teachers: tighter control on teacher lessons, replacing teachers, teacher coaches, more pay for the teachers. There is nothing in the plan for the students despite the fact that all of the schools that have been successful turning around student academic performance have focused on the students.

Ms Liu is right. The district is highly divided, but the District leadership aren't doing anything about that. There are models for success, but no one in the district is trying to follow them.

It may be that the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition is yet another astro-turf organization fronting for Education Reform. I don't care. The main point of this article - the overwhelmingly inequitable academic outcomes for students in the southeast part of Seattle and the District's utter failure to take (or even attempt) any effective response - remains absolutely true. Education Reformers aren't much wrong when identifying problems; they primarily fail when they try to identify solutions. This article is mostly about the problem and the District's refusal to try any solution. Even the Education Reformers can be right about that.


I had written in the comments section something to the effect that Charlie has. Where are the interventions for these students that work so well in Everett and Renton? Those look like "best practices" to me.

I pointed out how RBHS got a performing arts hall and no performing arts. Why?

Now we see an amendment from Director Sundquist that will nearly cut SE students off from any IB program in favor of SW students. The Transition Plan now moves more APP students to Ingraham so it will be filled (and it's a long way from the SE to the NE where Ingraham is). It will take at least 2 years to get it up and running at RBHS.

This amendment should be tabled for two years until RBHS has equal access to an IB program.

They barely acknowledge that the SE Initiative was mostly a failure.

My issue is the op-ed pointing to the Harlem schools system as one that works well for low-income students. I see it as an opening for charters which aren't going to necessarily solve the problem.

The district has the knowledge about what will probably work. That they do little says a lot.
uxolo said…
The New School/South Shore School does not have impressive academic results. How can the central administration let that one go on?
anonymous said…
North end schools are no better at serving underachieving students.

North end schools have a higher number of average and above average performing students, so it appears that North end "schools" perform better. And I have to say north end schools are very very good at serving their high achieving, motivated students. But they suck at serving their low performing, struggling students. Though there are fewer, the struggling kids in North end schools get no more support, intervention, or assistance than kids in south end schools get.

This district stinks at supporting struggling students. Period. The south end may feel the impact of the districts neglect because they have far more struggling students, but in reality, it's a district wide issue, and an equal opportunity disaster.
Anonymous said…
I am skeptical about any group led by Nora Liu. I watched her work on the North Beacon Hill neighborhood plan for the last two years. One of the things neighbors wanted to focus on was pedestrian and bike improvements around our local schools. She discouraged any deviation from a centralized focus on upzoning around the lightrail station. Upzoning and other transportation ideas aren't mutually exclusive; they support one another. I could never understand why we couldn't look at both. She didn't work with our interests and repeatedly balked at including community generated transportation improvements and park improvements in our neighborhood plan. We had to fight hard to get anything in our neighborhood plan that wasn't prescripted. She was unskilled and didn't educate herself in advance. She didn't know that we already had an extensive neighborhood planning history when we started. She used a bullying, top-down approach. The process was expensive and produced a poor quality product, unsupported by data and analysis. She didn't manifest concern about our local schools then. What changed? Her job title perhaps? I suspect she is a chameleon. Her use of the word "we" in this article strikes me as false. I have lived in SE for 25 years and my kid goes to school here. Is she part of our SE community? I see local teachers doing amazing things all the time. Beacon Hill International School is working hard, so is Maple, and Kimball and these are the ones I know. But none of them can do a good job without resources, lower class sizes, counselors, interpreters, technology, and family participation. Why is Nora just bashing the district and not proposing anything? Maybe she has no background in education and no solutions to offer. Maybe she has never had a kid in our schools. Maybe she doesn't live in SE. Maybe she has no first hand knowledge whatsoever. I think she has been working for Sound Transit and the City for a number of years on transportation planning and land use planning. Beware the "Johnny-Come-Lately" with a big, ignorant, club.

Frederica Merrell
Greg said…
Melissa, I'm not sure that pointing to Harlem Children's Zone is an opening for charters? I think the essence of what Harlem Children's Zone is doing is much longer school hours (8am - 6pm + weekend activities + no summer vacation) and free food and clinics at the schools. That can be replicated without charter schools (though it does require more funding)?
Greg, I would agree but it is a charter group and, as you point out, it takes a lot of extra money pumping it to support its activities. I just don't see that as sustainable and it makes it look like all they needed was to be a charter and it got better.
Webster said…
That can be replicated without charter schools (though it does require more funding)?

I would say so. More funding than what a private elem in Seattle or Portland would run.
( & that isn't even counting the health care or after school programs)

Quoting from the HCZ Project web page: "The HCZ Project began as a one-block pilot in the 1990s, then following a 10-year business plan, it expanded to 24 blocks and then 60 blocks. The goal is to serve 15,000 children and 7,000 adults by 2011. The budget for the HCZ Project for fiscal year 2009 is over $40 million, costing an average of $3,500 per child." In addition to this private financing, the HCZ schools receive about $12,500 in public funding per student. According to The New York Times, these figures do not include the costs of the HCZ "after-school program, rewards for student performance, a chef who prepares healthy meals, central administration and most building costs, and some of the expense of the students' free health and dental care".[4]
peonypower said…
SPS hits the nail on the head. Struggling students across the district are not being served. ELL student who needs interpreter- sorry not enough IA's or students who speak your language at your school to staff one. Sped. student in a general ed. class of 32 who needs an I.A.? Sorry. Early intervention for struggling students- oh- need to find a grant for that. Truancy intervention, career counselors, elementary counselors, sorry we can't fund that anymore.

MAP testing, new unwieldy teacher contract, a talent officer, and lots and lots of coaches, alignment staff, etc. Plenty of money for these things.

The leadership of this district is not interested in helping students. It is interested in protecting itself.

I also thought this editorial smacked of "why can't we have charter school for these kids?" We need intelligent use of funding, not charters.
Maureen said…
The op ed piece references The Harlem Success Academy, not the Harlem Children's Zone, whose schools are called Promise Academies.
Poverty Sucks said…
Still- no one is addressing the underlying problem of poverty.
Greg said…
Absolutely, Melissa and Michael, it requires funding, but the fact that it was a charter appears unrelated to its success.

Given the will and grant money, the poor performing public schools in the SE could be set up with much longer hours (8am - 6pm + weekend activities + no summer vacation) and free food and clinics for all students. The extras should be opt-out, so parents can pull their kids out of the extra time and activities if they choose to, but by default are in. The longer hours (covering single parent working hours, weekends, and a much shorter summer vacation, since loss during summer vacation is a major factor in the achievement gap) and a few social services (esp. free food and health care) appears to be the essence of the Harlem Children's Zone and what seems to be responsible for its success.

But, yes, it would take grant funding and the will to make it happen. I do find it surprising that people who clearly want to make a name for themselves in education reform (e.g. the superintendent and the Gates Foundation) are not pushing replicating the key parts of the Harlem Children's Zone in some of Seattle's public schools. It would seem like a worthwhile experiment that could be done quickly if the superintendent and the Gates Foundation wanted to make it happen.
ConcernedTeacher said…
Speaking of the Gates Foundation:
This is worth a read:

Follow the money!
Greg, from your mouth to someone's ears.

Exactly. Why can't we get someone to duplicate some of these efforts? It's so puzzling.
Syd said…
I do think we have de facto two school districts. What would be the advantages or disadvantages of actually making two official districts (or more) out of this single dysfunctional district.
seattle citizen said…
Syd, there aren't two school districts. There are successful students and educators in every building, and there are "failing" students and educators in every building. Students and staff are spread all over the district, each individual with certain abilities or needs.

Given this, how would you divide the two districts? By HSPE? Race? Income?
Would each school have students in two different districts? Or would you physically separate certain buildings and call them Seattle Public Schools Two? Which buildings, and why? If you say, "to help struggling students," I'd ask, what about the struggling students in SPS 1? If you say, "I'd separate RBHS and Cleveland zones, I'd ask, what about struggling students at Franklin? Sealth? Ingraham? Would those schools be in the new "struggling" district? What about struggling students at Roosevelt?

Pulling the district into two pieces supports the idea that it's the school's fault, the staff, and that somehow they could be managed differently by some other district (would it have a board?). But "fault" is spread all around the city, and includes the "fault" of parents/citizens all around the city. To focus on one area ignores the rest.
Jet City mom said…
I do think we have de facto two school districts. What would be the advantages or disadvantages of actually making two official districts (or more) out of this single dysfunctional district.

I used to hear all the time from people that there were "two Garfields".
Perhaps, but my daughter and many of her friends lived in both of them
They were middle to low income- long time Seattle residents & recent immigrants,black & white. They took AP cpurses & they had an IEP or 504.
It is easier to be in both worlds if you have the attitude that they both have strenghts & weaknesses & if the administration & the teachers look to acknowledge and support the range of interests & abilities of the students.
But in order to do that- you have to be honest about what is right in front of you.

When you have continuity in a building, such as @ Garfield, with some teachers and families there for years, you do not have the transition issues that make only but the most obvious needs apparent.

When you have high turnover of families, of principals & of teachers as there is in many buildings, it is much more difficult for everyone but especially the students.

IMO- we as a district need to pay more attention to continuity, instead of changing things around seemingly willy nilly ( and without a specific measured plan of action)
Syd said…
I'll be more specific, I think we have a north Seattle school district and a south Seattle school district. We have 4 elected school board member for the schools N of the ship canal, and 2 for S (roughly equal number of schools). We have different needs in the two systems. The majority of the students in the north are doing well under the admin we have in place. The majority of the students in the south end of the city are not.

Two smaller systems would be under more local control than the larger system. Each could diverge and focus are resources where they are needed. It is a good opportunity to remake the administration from the floor up.

Lest anyone assume I am trying to dump the south end, we live and attend south Seattle schools.

We have already condemned all south end students to schools that are not working for them. Despite promises to maintain choice, in fact we are making changes to provide less access. Whatever the SE initiative was, it didn't work.
Syd said…
Article Article extolling the benefits of small school district.
First (and foremost to me), Emeraldkity is right. How about some continuity? The one good thing about the bad economy? We don't have money to do any more new initiatives and have to back off the huge Strategic Plan. Get down to basics and interventions for struggling students. I love the way the district talks about "best practices" and yet ignores the successes of Renton and Everett in their direct interventions.

Do we have two districts? Do we have struggling students all over the district? Maybe to the first and yes to the second. That the struggling students are concentrated more in some areas is a huge challenge. But again, the district has, time and again, made choices without talking to schools and parents and then they wonder, "Why can't we do better?'

I can't support two districts because (1) there's no money (the state is thinking about consolidating some of the smaller districts in the state to save money) and (2) I think it would further stratify things.

I think I'll put out a question on this issue in a separate thread.
Jan said…
Syd -- while I agree with the idea of "decentralizing" and focusing on how each school can best serve its population, I don't agree with the idea of splitting the District. Here are my reasons:

1. I don't agree that "We have already condemned all south end students to schools that are not working for them." Garfield is a southend school (it certainly is not a north end one,) as are NOVA and Sealth -- and Franklin. While many of these schools have struggling students, many also have highly successful ones. It seems to me that the one failing (in numbers of student attracted, test scores (ugh), graduation rates, etc. is RBHS. I can't see splitting the SSD to fix RBHS -- although I would (and have) put it at the top of any list of priority problems.
2. What happens when levy votes come up. To the extent that some southend schools have problems because of their locations in neighborhoods with higher poverty levels, etc. -- what happens when you want levy funds.
3. While we need to put central admin on a severe diet, duplicating TWO administrations is more expensive than just one.
4. We keep putting actual help to struggling students on the backburner while we "reorganize," "reform," "retool" at the top. Enough. MGJ came here four years ago -- spouting her "accountability" and "excellence" slogans, only to tell someone (Charlie? Melissa?) last year that strategic plan accountability for HER doesn't start until all her plans are in place and implemented (at which point, they will be seen to have failed, but she will just take her hundreds of thousands and run). During all this chair rearranging, students -- and particularly southend students that were supposed to be helped by the SE Initiative -- have been pretty much totally ignored (not by their teachers, but by any organized, effective help, and all of the dollars, from downtown). We cannot afford another "reorg" at the top that pushes boots-on-the-ground, real help off another year or two. We need a fix for RBHS next fall. Is it IB? Well, then there needs to be a pre IB program in place in Sept, with the idea that 9ths graders who start it will be ready for IB classes their junior year.
seattle citizen said…
Syd, you write that "We have already condemned all south end students to schools that are not working for them."

This is just not true. Saying ALL students are "condemned" to "schools that don't work for them" simply ignores the many students in the many schools who DO find an education that works.

"All" students at Franklin are at a school that "doesn't work"?
Cleveland? Mercer? Washington?

Again, these sort of "all students" statements, and the "schools that don't work" statements just make little sense to me. Some students work, some teachers work...

Yes, proportionately there are more students struggling in the SE and SW, but it is quite apparent that they are struggling not because of the teachers but because of factors outside the teachers control. There are exceptions to this, of course, but really, c'mon, as has been said: If we put the staff of, say, Roosevelt into RBHS, will that school miraculously turn around? No. The point is that educators are pretty much the same everywhere - it's the students that face a variety of challenges (and educators in schools with a large percentage of students with challenges thereby face those challenges, do the other students in the building.

It is these challenges that must be addressed, district-wide. Hoping that a change in the school will address these issues is a distraction. There are students all around the district that need the support of everyone, educators, parent/guardians, community.....THAT is the way to helping students up.
Anonymous said…
The woman said nothing. ABSOLUTELY Nothing. She had no recommendation. She's a big, fat zero on the left. I disagree with the doom and gloom:

It's all about the teachers: tighter control on teacher lessons, replacing teachers, teacher coaches, more pay for the teachers. There is nothing in the plan for the students

Really? You've seen tighter control? Or is this all about textbook standardization again? Have you seen any teachers replaced? Or did you just read that stuff in the contract? The new deal is voluntary, remember? And really, if you improve teachers (not that they will) isn't that all about the students? This article isn't "mostly about the problem"... it's mostly about nothing. Let's hear some more of Lynne Varner. At least she had something to say, even if you disagree with it.

Another parent

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