Public School

What I'm doing about it

You may have heard some jubilant shouting on Twitter last week - that was me announcing that the school board voted the right way. I know. I KNOW. This thing for which we completely lost hope suddenly turned around and the school board HEARD us and then made the right decision! And I do say "right" because the options were 1. let ALL the kids in our school go to the fancy just-built school in 2017 or 2. let everyone but the lowest income, not-white, English language learner kids go back and put those undesirable ones in the super crappy substandard building. I am not exaggerating. This is what the boundary change amounted to. When I used the words "outrageous" and "scandalous" and "segregation" in my letter to the school board I was stating FACTS. 

But the school board voted the right way. Want to know why? Because when the school year started, the REST of North Seattle caught wind of how THEY would be affected by the boundary changes. And they were not happy. Their kids were going to have to move schools for no discernible and/or good reason. Safe routes to school became an issue. Leaving friends became an issue. Getting jerked around by the school district just because became a very big issue. And those parents began to turn out in droves. They showed up to Saturday afternoon school board director meetings at public libraries. They swamped the school board email account. They went to the school board meetings which take place at 4pm on a weekday south of downtown - nigh impossible to get to for a North Seattle family - and signed up for testimony slots. They were mad, they had a voice, and they were making themselves known. Guess who benefited. 

It's clear that the turning point for our issue happened when those families - from whiter and wealthier schools than ours - started advocating for themselves. Several longtime advocates were instrumental in communicating to those families how our specific boundary issue was tied up with theirs. And through Facebook posts and a local blog and communication between PTAs, those families at other schools began to care about what was happening at our school. It was easy to tie in our issue with theirs when testifying before the school board. The school board directors could see the connected dots AND THEY AGREED WITH US. Then they voted the right way. 

Phillip has a less magnanimous and probably more realistic view on this. Because the school district staff got the boundary stuff so incredibly wrong, EVERYONE was angry and we just lucked out. I like my theory better, but I'll accept this one.

It feels good to have this victory so soon after the election (upon which I received a text from my husband, stuck at a work conference in Texas: "I feel like everything I understood about the world is wrong.")

Grappling with what it all means has meant, for me, that I've had ten times as many conversations about race as I've had in my entire life. Some of these are conversations about "ok, white friends, how are we going to be more engaged in this issue." And a lot of them have been, "ok, white friends, here's why your pro-life or anti-Hillary or I-just-want-some-freaking-change vote is frightening to people of color." I have been surprised that people need an explanation. But some do, and I've been providing it. At some point I came to the (terribly belated) realization: I want to do the work of making sure fewer people need this explanation. 

Is this a very low bar? I think it is. But it's more than I've done before. I've talked about race a LOT - with people who are safe. People who think the same as me. People who know more than me, so I can learn and listen and ponder... and what have I done with it? I've kept it to myself. I've avoided awkwardness and confrontation and risk. 

Well, I'm sorry I've avoided. Not that any intervention I'd engaged in earlier would have changed, say, an election result. But I have a better understanding, now, of what my friends of color are working with. Phillip has often talked about being the token Asian in a group, having to explain martial arts or fielding questions about model minority myths. Maybe it's MY turn to be the Race Ambassador. I can be the one to explain why the melting pot metaphor "melts" everyone into sameness and is hurtful. When someone says "I don't even SEE Phillip as Chinese!" instead of rolling my eyes I can say, "But he doesn't have that choice." When someone tries to make racism a "strictly interpersonal issue of hatred and intolerance" I can talk about stuff like, you know, housing segregation and its effect on, say, PUBLIC SCHOOL BOUNDARIES. (That quote is from this article, which resonated hard for me.) 

Today we went to a panel/workshop/discussion thingy about race and public education, put on by a multiethnic church who is committed to having these conversations and promoting justice. For me, and everyone else there, the "church" part is a very important part of this conversation. Or, rather, all of us in this work need Jesus to fill in the gaps. I'm going to say something stupid. Someone else is going to lose her patience. Someone else will misunderstand. All of us may have different priorities. But knowing that we all rested in Jesus made this a truly "safe space". In our fumbling and confusion and awkwardness, Jesus is there to fall back on, to help, to pave a path, to make a Third Way. 

Phillip will say this a lot to himself when it's just the two of us struggling to figure out the marriage things we are always struggling to figure out. We both want to find a solution so badly, but sometimes there isn't one. Sometimes we just are the way we are, and Phillip will finally say, "I guess this is why we have GOD." Like, FINE THEN. I GIVE UP. 

I think, on this race issue (and I should say, there are PLENTY of issues to engage in right now, this is just the one I feel called to), it's best if we come to the table already surrendered. Especially us white people. Listen! And then believe what you hear. Do it over and over. Eventually God will give you something to say, probably something to share with other white people. I think that's what's happened with me. 

Last month I went to a churchy conference that was pretty much useless except for this one line that I kept hearing in my heart over and over. The speaker said, "Because I KNOW all lives matter, I am not AFRAID to say that BLACK lives matter." Isn't that the truth of it? As people who believe in a loving creator God, who knows our names, who gives us destinies and desires and hopes and joys and deeply desires relationship with us, we KNOW that all lives matter. I repent of the ways I've held back, out of fear.  I'm praying that in the spaces I move in, I will be bold in speaking up for the lives that our broken culture doesn't value as much as mine. 

Acceptable and unacceptable eye rolls, your own experiences vs. your kid's present and future, and why military bases aren't the always the worst

I will spare us all a blow by blow from last night's school district community meeting about the boundaries because 1) you don't care and 2) nothing new happened. More tone deaf gobbledygook from the district, though I suppose it did reach an impressive new level of condescension, much of which, disappointingly, came from the involved principals. I guess the new thing is that I went from "assuming we've lost and wanting to burn things down" to "whoa, there are a LOT more people pissed off about this now, maybe we still have a chance?" So. 

(What I really want to rant about is the exhortations from the future principal of the "overconcentrated" school to "just believe!" and "think positive!" and "trust us!" as if we are idiot children who think a substandard crappy building will also be full of horrible teachers who will lock up the disadvantaged and underserved children in kennels for six hours a day while they snarf down donuts in the staff room and play Candy Crush. But I already wrote an incredibly bitchy (for me) comment on a local school blog about that and now it's out of my system. Well, not really. But I'm TRYING HERE, OK?)

There is one parent who made the same comment I've heard her make a few times now, and it always makes me think. Her child will be assigned to the substandard school building (mine won't) and she's mainly trying to make peace with it. So she stood up and told the district folks that that neighborhood is exploding in population and what's to say that this tiny neighborhood school won't be instantly overcrowded within a year or two and the boundaries will have to be redrawn all over again? She wants stability, community, and a place where her son will make "lifelong friendships". And I thought: HUH!

Because honestly, the "having to pull a kid out of second grade and send him to another for third grade" is not at all what I find scandalous about this whole situation. And I would bet this parent wouldn't rank it at the top either - she's firmly on the side of This Shouldn't Be Happening. But that's the added consideration for her and, I know, tons of other parents who are facing the redrawn boundaries in all of North Seattle. They are all about not "disrupting" kids and making sure they have "stability". I'm sure a lot of MY unconcern and lack-of-thinking on the topic has to do with the fact that my kids will stay in the same place. But as I thought more about it I also realized how much of my own background has to do with my perspective. How every time I hear a parent talk about "lifelong friendships" I involuntarily (nor do I stop myself) roll my eyes. 

The summer between fourth and fifth grade I moved to a new school in an entirely different country. I did it again between sixth and seventh grades, including the new country part. And again between ninth and tenth grades, to a school in, you guessed it, another new country! (Well, actually, one of the countries I'd already lived in. But the opposite end. Eh.) Andthe  community I was in during those years, that was, like, hardly moving at all. Those military families had been moving every 2 years their whole military lives. My friends had lived in ninety-seven different places before I met them. What stability? 

Which is not to say that I think switching schools and moving and a life that gets turned on end every couple of years is no big. None of those moves were easy ones. And now that I can look back with an adult's eyes, I have more understanding for behavior and attitudes I encountered from my fellow students, especially in high school. I have often thought friendships that began in elementary school would be amazing to have, especially when I was a very lonely college freshman and my roommate had a gang of insta-friends from her high school to do things with. (Of course I thought this was way lame at the time. HIGH SCHOOL. SNORT.) It would be so fun to have peers who knew me way back when, instead of, say, my PE teacher from 2nd grade who stayed friends with my parents all that time. 

But I think there is also a lot to be said for Something New, and I think if capacity issues (which are huge and real in our district) required my kids going to a new school, I don't THINK I'd freak out about it. I probably would freak, but more for my own self (having to get to know a whole new school/principal/teachers/system) than the kids. Last year Molly didn't stay with the cohort of 2nd graders who'd been mostly kept together since kindergarten because the parents (and kids) were so happy and gelled together. She made new friends in her new class and this year she's back with much of that cohort, but also knows all the OTHER kids. Granted this is Molly, the most easy going child on earth, but this would have been good for Jack too. I shared this with a parent friend who is upset with the class her daughter is in this year in hopes of encouraging her. Sometimes change is really good. 

I see, though, that this is me looking back at my experience and thinking, "I turned out okay!" (RIGHT?) I am actually often wowed by the idea that my kids WON'T move, that they'll live HERE and be from HERE and won't be 25 or 30 until they feel like they're FROM somewhere. My kids are going to have a completely different experience! WHOA! (An eye roll here WOULD be appropriate.) 

One thing I DO feel strongly about is the experience of attending diverse and equitable schools. There was ONE school and EVERYONE went to it. We were all different ethnicities and races, and while there were socioeconomic factors, the base commander's kids went to the same school as the lowest NCO's kids and everyone partook of the same resources and offerings. The first time I realized this was my first week on the University of Washington campus. There were tons of white kids, more Asian kids than I'd ever seen in my life, and the handful of black students were all, as far as I could tell, athletes. Were there Hispanics? No idea. I remember calling my dad and babbling incoherently about it. (And then my best friend from high school, a Filipino-Chinese guy who went to Berkeley came up to visit me and and marveled about my "whitey" campus. Which - could there BE more Asian people at a campus? APPARENTLY SO.) 

I don't know that American Department of Defense schools overseas are the model of integrated funded schools (hello, your taxpayer dollars funded many foreign country crazy fun extracurricular trips for me, thank you) but it does give you a certain frame of reference. 

Because I went to those schools I also got to go to very small schools where everyone knew you (it helped, perhaps, that your parents were teachers). And if I got to choose for my kids, they'd go to very small schools. Our school has grown from 250 to 350 and next year the brand new school can fit 660. It's not my ideal, but we live in Seattle where the reality is that there is no space for a whole bunch of small schools and maybe not even enough space and funding to build the giant schools we need. I don't want to live in Small Town, WA so this is the trade off we make. I may have had the opportunity to play sports AND do drama AND be on the student council AND be in the band AND pretty much everything else my high school offered, but I hear the giant local high schools will have way more opportunities and pathways not to mention all different kinds of people than the tiny somewhat stifling 50-person graduating class I had. 

Speaking of high school - moving during high school was probably the Premier Formative Event in my personal history and I probably will do everything I can to make it so my kids don't have to switch high schools because it was so miserable for me. Does this negate everything I said above? Hopefully not - even if my kids had to move high schools, it wouldn't be the same experience I had. It could be worse (but I think because it wouldn't also be in a new country with all new everything and where everyone's dad is off bombing Bosnia a few times a week and a Thick Dark Existential Fog hangs over the community it would be easier... but I digress.) 

ANYWAY. The fact that Seattle Public Schools is, in essence, creating a segregated school FROM SCRATCH remains utterly scandalous, in my opinion, and yes, my own experience colors this and I need to be more understanding and open to the other reasons other people object to it. I need to save all my eye rolling for principals cautioning us to "speak positively" about the decision, even though THEY are the ones creating the negative environment, not ME. FTLOG. 

I don't really know if I made a point, if I was trying to make a point, or if I was exploring my own convoluted thoughts on a convoluted subject AS PER USUAL. I've just noticed this idea has come up in my brain more than a few times and sometimes getting it out on virtual paper at least reminds me that I told myself my thinking should expand. I  have now spent all of preschool time writing this instead of writing the most interesting PTA newsletter on earth, YOU'RE WELCOME. 


Update on What Exactly Are You Using That "Race And Equity Toolkit" FOR, Seattle Public Schools?

Ugh. I don't even know where to start. Do we all even know what's going on? I barely know. Okay, so in 2017 we are looking at two schools opening - one brand new, ginormous, full of community resources LIKE A CLINIC school, and one very small, very old, landmarked so you can't knock any walls down, computer lab ON THE STAGE school. The original proposed boundaries will result in Ginormous School having a more white, less poor, more English speaking population than it did before (though still "diverse", statistically speaking) and Small School starting out "overconcentrated" in ELL, FRL, and minority populations. I believe "overconcentrated" is the word I'm supposed to use instead of "segregated". 

Parents pushed back. Teachers pushed back. We had a handful of entirely pointless "community engagement meetings". After the last one, our own Phillip Cheung went out to coffee with a Race and Equity team representative to be all, "WTF, District?" And, shocker, the Race and Equity Team rep confessed that this whole "race and equity toolkit" the district kept jabbering about wasn't even really established. The team was still learning its job and figuring out their role. They hadn't been involved in boundary decisions before. 


Then the district offered to meet with three engaged parents (including Phillip), the principals of the three schools involved (including the future new principal of the new Small School), and members of the Race and Equity team. The district may have been genuine in wanting feedback and finding a compromise, or at the very least, the least bad solution, but at this point, the options are as follows:

1) Open Small School at the right size, but "overconcentrated" 

2) Open Small School with underenrollment and therefore not enough funding (and possibly over enroll Ginormous School, though some of us strongly dispute those numbers)

Also, at this point, the district has announced these small meetings are finished; it will now meet with the three affected principals, and they'll choose a solution to propose to the board in the fall. 

Because despite the race and equity "lens" the conversations at the meetings were focused more on numbers and right sizes, because a right size school is preferred by the incoming Small School principal, because the right size school option makes concessions to the third school's concerns, because the district would obviously like to go with the easier, less angry parent-making right size option, and because OUR school principal left for a new job (we found out yesterday) the chances of the equitable option being chosen are very slim indeed. 

There IS a way to right size the schools AND make them equitable, but it means drawing boundaries in crazypants ways, uprooting tons of kids at tons of schools, and infuriating all of NE Seattle. Ruminating over all of that has led me into the quagmire of neighborhood schools vs. busing vs. the sort of "apply to the school you want" system Seattle had before it returned to neighborhood schools in 2010. Because that's what's really happening here. Small School, in order to be the right size and assist with the overcrowding that's happening all over the district, will draw students from low income areas, where people are predominantly not white, non native English speaking, and in subsidized housing. Because those are the neighborhoods it draws from, that's what this neighborhood school will look like. Meanwhile, the school that used to draw those neighborhoods (and many others) is being rebuilt with plenty of amenities and resources to serve just those demographics. Opening Small School as a neighborhood school means those students are prevented from taking advantage of those resources, as well as the benefits of going to a school made up of families with more resources. 

Some people have said not to worry, that Ginormous School is still going to have its ELL and FRL population, but we'll be drawing those kids from another school and quite frankly I want to advocate for OUR kids who ARE losing out. These are not interchangeable widgets, folks. The neighborhood school system relies on having a "quality" school in every neighborhood. Because many of our current teachers will stay at Small School when it opens, I can say that Small School will have a stellar teaching staff. But they'll be teaching in a run down building with a library stuffed into a classroom, a computer lab on the stage, no plumbing in the portables, and horribly insufficient bathroom facilities. Should they ever have the funding for art or music there's nowhere to do it. 

I have been sympathetic to the anti-school choice crowd, because it takes funding away from public schools. But a whole lot of good that's doing for our disadvantaged kids in 2017. "Mitigation" is the new buzzword to make us all feel better about how UNequitable this decision is, but does that money even exist? And all the mitigation funding in the world can't help if your tiny crappy building is landmarked, like Small School is, and you're not allowed to knock down walls or build out. Honestly, if it turns out we do get all the funding we're supposed to get under McCleary, who's to say this bloated opposite-of-transparent district is going to spend that money on the kids? Bring on the vouchers, Campbell Brown. 

What's happening at MY Seattle Public School

Fresh off the teacher strike we have a new reason to be outraged at the Seattle school district: due to lower than projected enrollment numbers, the district is cutting 25 teachers. They say they are "reassigning" them, though how "reassigning" saves the school district any money, I am unclear. Also! The Superintendent helpfully blamed the strike: 

Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that more than 1,000 students left Seattle for neighboring districts, up from 350 last year, Superintendent Larry Nyland said at Wednesday’s school board meeting. District officials say they’re looking into why more students left, but did note that the delay in the start of school due to the teachers strike could have had an impact.

Schools near district boundaries “lost students during the strike as parents found spots in Highline or Shoreline or Renton,” Nyland said at Wednesday’s meeting.

You guys, I think he is for actual serious. 

We live near one of these district boundaries and as far as I know, we are not losing a teacher. Huh! But I'd like to share OUR school's reason for flabbergasted speechless outrage. Ready?

This summer my kids' school - we'll call it Cute Kid Academy - was torn down [YAY!] to be replaced, in two years, with a much prettier, shinier, fancier Cute Kid Academy. You know how bad your building has to be to finally get money for a new building, right? REALLY SUPER BAD. 

In the meantime! Allll the CKA kids were moved into a nearby building that used to be a school, but has been some sort of artist in residence community hang out space? for the last 20 years. The district spent ten million renovating this interim building - we'll call it Portable City - to get it ready for our 300 or so kids. 

However, because this chunk of Seattle is growing crazy fast and because capacity seems to be Seattle Public Schools' most pressing issue, SPS has decided to keep Portable City open, even when the new Cute Kids Academy opens. 

THEN [cue the silent movie-style Ominous Music] they REDREW THE BOUNDARIES. 

Cute Kid Academy's free and reduced lunch rate is over 70%. We have a large population of immigrant families and English Language Learners. The new boundaries slice CKA's current attendance area in such a way that a seriously significant chunk of those kids, the most marginalized and underserved kids in our district, are reassigned to Portable City in 2017 instead of the brand spanking new CKA. 

One of our school parents collected some data and made a heat map of where our FRL, ELL, and public housing families live and overlaid the new school boundaries for 2017. This visual representation makes it abundantly clear that Seattle Public Schools is, in effect, creating an estimated 90%+ FRL student population and cramming them into an old, hastily cobbled together building, in an ignored corner of our city. Our current 300 kids barely fit into Portable City and the school is slated for FOUR hundred in 2017. Meanwhile, the new CKA, which was designed with this population in mind (a health clinic open until 7pm! A large kitchen with space for community involvement! A counseling center!) will have 650+ seats. 

There must be some explanation, right? How could a district in this famously progressive city, with Race and Equity teams on staff, who supposedly have a Race and Equity TOOL to help in creating school boundaries, have made such a colossal ERROR? 

But not only do they not offer an explanation, they won't acknowledge that this new boundary is a mistake. I have asked the district via email and in person for their rationale and have yet to receive it. I've also asked absolutely everyone I know who is even remotely involved - the district hasn't explained itself to anyone. For over a year, CKA staff and concerned parents have been trying to get the district to redraw the boundary in a more equitable way, but no one at the district or school board level appears to care. I was there when the director for facilities and capacity brushed off our concerns, backed up with real numbers, as "well, we don't REALLY know what those numbers are going to be." 

Collecting and stashing poor, marginalized, under-resourced kids at a too-small, barely functioning building flies in the face of all the research about how to best serve those kids. THOSE kids need to be at the new CKA. The new CKA was designed FOR THEM. 

CKA's staff, parents, and community members are going after this decision on a few different fronts, from cost of transportation to capacity issues. There are real reasons why redrawing the boundary in a more equitable way would work for us, save money, and not adversely affect other boundaries. And yes, we should be shoving those reasons in the face of the school board. But in my opinion, the shockingly blatant equity issue should be enough. It should be enough for reasonable people who care about educating all children. 

As I continue to learn about the myriad issues Seattle parents have with Seattle Public Schools I become more and more pessimistic about our chances. But I can't not send my little emails and ask my nervous questions and go these meetings at the school where I hardly know what to do, other than just sit there and participate in Being Concerned. Hopefully, eventually, I'll fumble my way into being useful. For now, be righteously indignant with me, Internet, and think good thoughts for our CKA kids. This is not okay.