- Monthly coffee with Michael
The 4th Saturday of every month, 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM at
Caffe Appassionato Coffee Co
4001 21st Ave W, Seattle, WA
Seattle Public Schools is finding its bearings and regaining the confidence of the community.
Four years ago, I began campaigning for a seat on the Seattle School Board, a decision making body which at that time was embroiled in controversy. Now, I find myself President of an ambitious and effective Board working with a decisive, well-informed Superintendent, Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson. It has been a challenging journey that has produced more than a few grey hairs, but it has been well worth the effort.
Our Strategic Plan is the central formulation of how our shared vision for student achievement gets translated into restructuring, reorganization and budget priorities affecting every school and department in the district. The clear and measurable goals of our Strategic Plan are the benchmarks of accountability for Seattle schools and the standard by which the School Board will evaluate the Superintendent.
The central focus of this transformative work is improving the quality and rigor of classroom instruction at every school. This is the key to overcoming the achievement gap that has kept children born into poverty from leaving it behind, diploma in hand, and participating in the American dream.
Since our work is education, I would like to share a few lessons learned in the last four years. School Board Directors spend a great deal of time listening to and asking questions of staff members, parents, students and taxpayers. We apply what we learn in making decisions, large and small. My record on those decisions is detailed under "On the Issues." In the meantime, here are my top ten observations:
1. Academic achievement must be our primary focus.
Public education has been asked to solve some of society's most vexing and intractable problems--racial segregation, poverty, workforce readiness in a rapidly changing economy--with little political capital, unfunded mandates instead of taxing authority, and few willing partners at city and state levels. This is not fair or reasonable, and most importantly, it fails the children who most need our help. It's time to narrow our focus to academic achievement - which is challenge enough.
2. Accountability must be real for everyone who works on education for the taxpayers of Seattle.
School Board Directors have media and parents watching and an election every four years. Superintendents answer to the Board and in turn hold their senior staff directly accountable. What has long been missing is performance measurement, evaluation and management for principals, teachers, and instructional aides - the adults who work directly with children. School Districts will never succeed in educating ALL children unless ALL staff can provide high quality instruction and support. We need a dialogue with our partners at Seattle Education Association about how to accomplish this together.
3. Fundamental reform of public education, a top priority of our new President, is a vital necessity.
In Olympia, the Basic Education Task Force provided a strong model for reform in our state. The Seattle School Board supported this work but saw much of that bold agenda rejected by our state teacher's union, the Washington Education Association. There is $5 billion dollars available for innovation in the federal stimulus package that Seattle and other districts cannot qualify for because of our stagnant state education policies. We need reform.
4. Public education in Washington State is woefully underfunded, putting enormous pressure on school districts to meet rising expectations.
This pressure requires restructuring and cuts which antagonize our labor partners and require that basic educational needs like all-day kindergarten, music and art be paid for by parents. Unless the public engages broadly around this failure of political will, our children will languish at the bottom of measures of state spending on K-12 education and suffer diminished opportunities for college and work.
5. The School Board and Superintendent govern the School District together and need a good balance.
Board members shall not micro-manage or really manage at all, nor shall superintendents decide all things, only slowing for Board affirmation. We have had both extremes in the past decade. I believe we are at a healthy balance at present based on trust and an ability to compromise in the interest of improved outcomes.
6. Seattle Public Schools must be responsive to parent preferences and concerns regarding students' educational environment.
We must replicate what parents seek out (e.g., International Education language immersion schools; the personalized, family engaging model of schools like TOPS, Salmon Bay or the New School; and rigorous high school programs). Likewise, we must intervene quickly and decisively whenever families avoid enrolling in a school perceived as weak or failing. We are getting better but change is difficult, constrained by budgets and labor contracts.
7. Public input really matters.
Thoughtful commentary and analysis make us better decision makers, and suggestions from the public often get incorporated into our work. I take Board testimony seriously, as well as community meetings, e-mails, forums and blogs. The PTSA organizations and many community groups do a good job of public education and advocacy.
8. Schools cannot do it alone.
Schools seldom if ever succeed and blossom without parent and neighborhood engagement. Education can happen in every home, and we need the help. As President Obama said, "Turn off the television or game system and help your children with their homework." Read to your children, volunteer in the schools, be an industry mentor at one of the career academies. You will discover just how wonderful and curious our children are.
9. Successes deserve celebration.
How do we know if our public schools are succeeding? If test scores go up, graduation rates improve, enrollment increases, prestigious awards are won? All these things are happening, but impressions and news coverage are often stubbornly critical. The Gates Foundation is backing our Strategic Plan with money and brainpower, and Seattle Schools is increasingly seen as a leader at national conventions. Let's celebrate our successes along with calling out our shortcomings.
10. Board service is immensely rewarding.
Very often over the last four years I have been told, "You have a thankless job." The hours are tough, the pay mostly non-existent, the responsibilities are formidable, and the decisions are seldom easy. People sometimes behave badly at meetings and parents can become very upset about changes, closures, math books and school assignments. What keeps me going are the bright smiles and great accomplishments of children across Seattle who often come from all over the world, the dedication and compassion of so many educators, and the respect I have for my fellow Board members and our Superintendent. Thanks enough.