Denise Juneau is superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Washington state’s largest K-12 school district with 53,000 students.

 

Superintendent Juneau: Did you know Seattle Public Schools has a service called Highly Capable that serves 4,896 of our students, 9% of our student body, while the national average is 2%?

Why doesn’t the Seattle Superintendent celebrate the 9%  number as evidence of success?  Is it bad to offer gifted education?  Ms. Juneau’s editorial bemoans that  about 70% of the kids in these programs are “white” .. hardly surprising in a city where 70% OF THE POPULATION is “white.”

Juneau’s racial view of education is not new for the SPS.   Over two decades ago, our kids were in the IPP program.  The Individual Progress Program was widely known across the US as an innovative work by Hal and Nancy Robinson at the UW.   My wife and I, however, were concerned with a glaring issue .. the District refused to acknowledge the success of IPP kids when they got to high school at Garfield. Where would our kids go to high school if IPP ended in grade 8? 

So, I did a study of IPP as compared to our best private school, Lakeside.  Using socio-economic norming, I found that the IPP kids at Garfield  were outperforming kids of similar status at Lakeside! 

As an IPP parent I was thrilled and lobbied the District to use this to recruit Black kids not just to Garfield but to the elementary schools hosting IPP. Having lived in the black community in Boston before coming to Seattle and as parent head of IPP, I organized an effort to work with the Black churches.  I wanted to tell folks about this opportunity.  Other parents were eager to help because we wanted integrated education! 

The District blew up and went so far as to insist that the parents group stop recruiting.  The District assigned two of its people, both of Caribbean origin, to the task.  They refused to work with us and, as we were told by Black friends, instead demeaned the program as white.  Frankly, neither of these women understood the culture of the African-Americans in Seattle. Our complaints as “white folks” simply did not matter. 

The Superintendent goes on ...Did you know this advanced learning service is highly segregated? Of all participating students, 67% are white, 1.6% are African American, and less than 1% are Native American.

Image result for dickens school kids cartoon

What happens if the SPS comes tpo be seen as a charity rather than as part of the entire community?  In the era of Charles Dickens, charitable upper-class families were seen as very generous because they donated old clothes and bread to poor kids in the public schools.

At the risk of being accused of being an elitist, the Superintendent’s statement made me guess that her master’s degree in education from Harvard and her law degree from the University of Montana did not include statistics.  Since 70% of Seattle kids are white, 67% in gifted classes is  hardly remarkable.  The issue is not the gifted classes but the fact that about 1/3 of the kids in Seattle go to private schools.  Perhaps the disparity is because affluent parents in Seattle are choosing to send their kids to private schools if they do not see the SPS as good schools for their kids?  I wonder if the SPS has ever looked at the performance of minority kids admitted by scholarship to any of Seattle’s very prestigious private schools?   

Then we have other confusing numbers .. eg the Superintendent bemoans that  about 8% of the  District is “Native American” yet the District data shows only 1% in the gifted programs are “Native Americian.”  BUT that number of gifted native kids is TWICE the percentage of native Americans based on Seattle’s population.  Perhaps talented Native American kids are actually getting great benefit by going to SPS?   I am sad that the District never looks at kids in gifted programs here to see how they compare, corrected for race and other variables, with their peers elsewhere. 

Another issue with the Superintendent’s statistics is that Seattle is undergoing “black flight.”  Affluent African American families are fleeing the city because, of many things including gentrification and our bad schools.  Why not move to Bellevue or Auburn if you can buy a house there and get better schools?  I would bet that the District has never asked how well “our” kids do when they move to the Eastside.

Meanwhile Seattle is also seeing wonderful immigration, especially from East Africa.  Somali Americans are very different folks from Alabama/Mississippi/African-Americans .. an issue that is lost if all you do is consider “race.”   I have gone to events in the Somali community …. somehow I never see representatives from the SPS there.  Do we know how their kids do as compared to Somali American communities in other cities? 

The only rational explanation is:. 

Seattle’s schools are segregated!  

This is not just a matter of geography. More affluent parents are probably sending their kids to private schools … and this, I suspect, is as true of people “of color” as it is true of everyone else. It would be interesting to know how well students “of color” who live in affluent neighborhoods in Seattle do in the SPS.  It would be even more interesting to know how many high achieving kids from less affluent neighborhoods attend Catholic schools or get scholarships to our elite private schools. 

Superintendent Juneau continues: Seattle Public Schools offers a variety of supports to address the needs of academically advanced students, including Highly Capable (HC) services. Our Highly Capable services include a self-contained, first through eighth grade Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). Providing Highly Capable services is required by state law, the cohort model is not.

I find the choice of words here odd.  When do programs like IPP go from being highly respected brand names to becoming “services?” Parents look for programs and schools, not for “cohorts” or “services.” As far as I know Seattle is the only major city in the US that does not offer an academic high school as an option.  Instead the District wants to pretend that all schools can offer comparable opportunities. 

Of course Seattle School’s opposition to elitism is not true in athletics.  SPS boasts of athletics at Garfield even though, given the reality of black flight from the Central District, Garfield needs to recruit kids from less “white” parts of the city .. or even from the suburbs or, in one case, work with the UW to import a promising basketball candidate from another state to be a student in a Seattle High School. 

Put another way, the District is run by  folks who want to see the best black basketball players in their schools but do not want the same for the best math scholars.  

Boston, where I grew up, has two elite schools for the highly achieving high school kids. One, my alma mater, is Boston Latin. School  BLS is ranked #33 in the US and has been around for 385 years. Newer is Boston Latin Acxademy. Located in the middle of Boston’s Black community, BLA is also pretty impressive.  This public school serves 1,700 economically and culturally diverse students, grades 7 through 12,  BLA is a vibrant, diverse, academically rigorous school where the Classics Club is just as popular as the football team.  Pretty impressive compared to Garfield!  

Superintendent: We test more than 5,000 elementary students each year, including universal cognitive testing for all second-grade students at Title I schools for admission, yet we still don’t have diverse representation in HCC. When student demographics in any educational service are disproportionate, we must examine our institutional structures to figure out why. We can clearly see that HCC doesn’t represent the district’s diversity.

Why should it?  Shouldn’t it celebrate the academic success of all of Seattle’ kids?  I have another story to tell. 

When our daughter was entering kindergarten we were told that the SPS would re-teach her how to read!  This upset us because she had begun to read on her own since age three!  The District insisted that she must have been taught “the wrong way.”  However, when I talked with people in Headstart I learned that most of the HS kids also knew how to read before entering the SPS.  So, I lobbied and got the SPS to launch an experiment “The Kindergarten Project.”  We got three kindergarten classrooms that would build on what kids already knew. OF COURSE I saw this as another way to promote integration .. taking advantage of the fact that a lot of the Headstart kids were Black.  Sadly, the District segregated the program … we got to two all white classrooms and one all black. 

So, I certainly agree with the Superintendent when she says, 

Superintendent:  SPS must examine and confront systems and approaches that lead to disparate access and uphold institutional racism.

I am not a grammar fanatic but, this sentence needs badly to be proofread.  Obviously the District does not want to uphold institutional racism. Given my experiences, I think the District ought to look in a mirror at its own failures instead of blaming successful gifted programs. 

Superintendent: There’s been a lot of talk and misinformation about the district’s efforts to examine our district policies and practices around Highly Capable services. For close to four decades, the district has endorsed the current model. At the same time, our community has taken the district, superintendents and school boards to task, and called on us to do better and do more. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that upholds racial segregation and continuously produces such clear disparities while failing to address them.

 

HOW CAN THE SPS ADDRESS DISPARITIES WITHOUT SUPPORTING THE HIGHEST GOALS FOR ALL KIDS? 

Superintendent: So, we are trying a new approach. For 17 months, an Advanced Learning Taskforce has been meeting to explore possible solutions to increase diverse representation. Three weeks ago, initial policy recommendations were presented to the School Board. Since then, there’s been confusion about the implications and misinformation about the recommended changes.

The requested policy changes won’t decrease academic rigor or eliminate advanced learning or Highly Capable services. We recognize there will always be students who need an alternative placement to be appropriately served.

Yet, in Superintendent Juneau’s essay, she writes as if the existing “cohort” were something to be ashamed of.  How can you induce some homeless kid or a struggling  immigrant  to aspire for success if you demean success as racist? 

Superintendent: However, we need the opportunity to re-imagine a more equitable model that allows our services to represent the giftedness in all our students, no matter their location, ethnicity or economic status.

Image result for app class at garfield"

I wonder if Superintedent Juneau’s statement about how young people think about gifted classes applies to this group of award winning computer science students at Garfield? More likely  she is repeating the words of Azure Savage, a bright black man who is in this year’s Garfield graduating class.  Savage came to Garfield via the District’s HCC programs in elementary and middle schools.  He is bitter abut being black and gay.  Kids at Garfield are not allowed to be in an identified program because this is seen as elitist. 

We have a chance to undo legacies of racism and chart a new, better course for all advanced learners. Our Highly Capable identification process must change to recognize the giftedness present in our students of color. Under a new model, neighborhood schools would be equipped and supported to identify and serve most of our advanced and gifted students where the cultural context of students and their families is taken into account and honored. No longer will we expect students to fit into a predetermined service model. Instead we will shape advanced learning services and supports around the unique strengths and needs of individual students, expanding access and opportunity in every community. Real change takes courage and a commitment to our values even in the face of the unknown.

This paragraph is bewildering.  What does it mean? I guess my PhD and MD do not qualify me to decipher educational jargon. 

I accepted the superintendent position because of the progressive talk about racial equity in our school district and across our city. However, at every turn, I find that in Seattle, we struggle to live those championed values. I am unwilling to accept this.

Image result for garfield high school logo"

The SPS has many fantasies about its own programs. As one example, they tout Garfield as a top academic school.  WBUR, the PBS station in Boston , interviewed Azure Savage, a Black Garfield HCC student and said that Garfield was among the top 3% of American high schools as rankled by US News and Word Report.  I looked that up. The actual rank was #485 

Garfield High School is the longest standing Highly Capable high school site in the city. During my Listen and Learn Tour, students called Garfield “Apartheid High” or the “slave ship,” referring to the physical segregation of students and classes. While this description of a celebrated school may make many uncomfortable, I encourage our community to listen closely to the words and lived experiences of our young people. Equity work is hard, but our students deserve our best thinking and are asking us to be brave by facing our challenges and confronting racial inequities head on.

Image result for azure savage"

“I wasn’t sure if I was per se allowed to be black. I wasn’t sure if that was an identity that I was even allowed to take on because I felt like I didn’t know much about it,”  “I didn’t have any friends who were black. It made me very confused as a child about who I was and where I fit in.” Savage doesn’t think changing the program can make it equitable for students of color —  “I think that above all, this program needs to be dismantled completely,” he says. “Underlying all of this is a lot of institutional racism and I don’t see how this program, in the way it’s set up, could ever possibly be fully equitable and have absolutely no racism involved.”

These comments about Garfield interested me because our son did attend Garfield, although briefly.  I worked with Principal Amon McWashington, to celebrate his academic achievement along with Garfield’s celebrated athletic teams.  Amon was demeaned by the District for his academic ambitions.  

The superindent goes on.. There are no broken students. There are only broken systems. The cohort model as it exists right now does not serve all our students well. All students that walk through our doors should know that we believe in their brilliance and potential, and our policies and practices need to reflect this belief. Change is necessary. Change is possible. We just need the will.

I applaud Superintendent Juneau for taking on this issue but, to use a loaded phrase, I see her essay as tarring the very programs these kids need and deserve.   The comments by Azure Savage, a Garfield student who is black, gay and outspoken, may do a lot to explain the Superintendent’s point view. 

The comparison I made above to Boston’s Latin Academy shows what can be done! Frankly, from what I see, I feel pride in what Azure Savage is accomplishing.  This young man may show that IPP and its District successor programs are VERY successful. Why wouldn’t this be possible in a school like BLA that addresses both diversity and academic rigor? 

My question for the District is whether they believe that Azure Savage would have achieved as much if he were not

For the record.  I have never agreed to be called “white.” As a Sephardic Jew growing up in a Nazi neighborhood my life was threatened and I was called “kike” and “nigger.”  My wife and I also chose to live in a black community where, our family refused to visit because they were afraid of black folks. But, the rent was good and our neighbors great!   .”

in an elite program with high academic goals?  Azure writes in his book that he had difficulty choosing to be in classes where he felt culturally isolated as opposed to being in general education classes where he would be more likely to find community. “It’s more than having someone to laugh with during class,” Savage writes. “It’s the advantage of having someone to ask for help on homework, to study for the test with, to stand up for you, to confront the racist teacher with.  I also wonder if the SPS has brought in experts who have had successes in dealing with highly talented minority kids. Have they visited BLA or similar schools like some of the southside charters in Chicago? 

Another example of a great source should be my friend Moses Williams.   Moses runs a program called STEMPREP that crosses all 50 states and the territories.  His kids are amazing. STEMPREP kids attend great, local schools … not usually minority schools … across the US but spend their summers in STEMPREP programs run by Moses.  100% go to high ranking colleges. 100% graduate from these elite colleges. 83% go on to achieve doctoral degrees.  I doubt that any Seattle School, public or private, can beat that record. Sadly, despite several efforts on my part, I have never been able to get the SPS to meet with Moses.

My bottom line?

A comment on the Seattle School Blog sums up my bottom line pretty well.  “Kellie” writes “While everyone had some war stories what really struck me was the overall stability in surrounding districts. Seattle just ping-pongs from one extreme to the other, and is always chasing some magic bullet that is going to fix everything.  “Kellie” goes on to point out that people make choices about schools based on multi-year plans and activities.  She says “The system was crazy-making for so many families.”  I wonder why the District does not see that antagonism toward its own programs will alienate just the people the District wants to serve?  

My guess is that the real reason that the SPS is destroying its elite programs is because of white liberal oppositon to the very idea that schools should encourage kids to strive to be their best.  One School Board Director, Jill Schlegel Geary , recently summarized this all too well in a Facebook post demeaning Seattle parents who were lining up to get their kids tested for private school.  “As I stand in line, the looooong line, for the ISEE (Independent School Exam),….with all these predominantly white families, it occurs to me they are here because we have created Self-contained smart schools that their children do NOT have access to.  So whole some argue dismantling a closed highly capable pathway will drive families out of SPS, it appears to have the exact opposite impact. Everyone one wants a challenging, engaging education for their child and we have a system that says we won’t deliver it if your kid isn’t at the tippy top.”  

 

How can anyone support “separate but equal” gifted programs? 

As a long time civl rights activist, I also see this  action by the SPS as out and out, possibly illegal, segregation.  Does the district assumes that a Image result for separate but equal"great kid like Azure will do better only if he is kept away from other kids who are his intellectual peers but have the right skin color?

Jill is just wrong. Parents with means, including affluent parents of color, will move out of Seattle, use the private schools or organize locally in affluent neighborhoods to see that their kids get the best education. The result will be no support for the less affluent kids, in effect condemning them to inferior educations. 

CLICKHERE

for a good discussion of SDS efforts on the Seattle Schools Blog

CLICKHERE

To send comments to Denise Juneau at SPS

CLICKHERE

for a discussion of a narrow vote )3-3) of the District to abolish Seattle’s only junior high level gifted program in a minority part of town.