Mind the Gap

Poor and minority kids are falling through the cracks at Seattle schools. Can a Supreme Court ruling

Imagine receiving a telephone call from your child’s teacher asking you about your family’s academic goals and how you can work together to achieve them. It’s happening in areas of Seattle as part of an innovative new strategy to turn around a troubling trend among local schoolchildren.

These “sunshine calls,” along with home visits from teachers, have been part of a new strategy at Beacon Hill’s Mercer Middle School aimed at closing the so-called “opportunity gap,” a critical and growing problem among minority and low-income students, who fail to meet grade-level standards far more often than their white counterparts. In 2010, nearly 43 percent of our state’s low-income students didn’t meet the standard for third-grade reading; by seventh grade, a staggering 67 percent weren’t meeting math standards. In super-educated Seattle, our kids—especially low-income and minority kids—are falling through educational cracks, right into the opportunity gap: the difference in academic success among racial, economic and language groups. It’s a problem that leaves parents furious, frustrated and feeling disenfranchised by the system.

Flor Alarcon Avendano is one such parent. The West Seattle single mother of three serves as a parent leader for Stand for Children, one of a number of grass-root organizations working to empower minority and low-income families for the sake of their children’s education.

“I pulled my kids out of public school because I felt I couldn’t communicate directly with teachers and principals,” she says. “I got the runaround, and there were layers and layers of bureaucracy.” With her kids back in the public schools now, she’s working for change, hoping increased parental involvement will help turn up the pressure.

When it comes to education, especially in the face of unprecedented budget cuts, Washington state, and the Seattle area, is experiencing a wake-up call. Seattleites are among the most educated people in the nation, ranking 11th nationwide in bachelor’s degree holders and 17th in graduate degrees. By 2018, two-thirds of jobs in our region will require a post-secondary education. Yet we rank 46th in the nation in the number of high school graduates who go on to college. Forty-sixth, as in, fourth from last.

It’s easy to agree that education reform is needed in our state, but there is major—and often extremely heated—disagreement on how best to achieve it. Buoyed by the recent state Supreme Court decision that Washington has failed to meet its “paramount duty” to fund basic education, education reform advocates had high hopes that the 2012 legislative session would kick-start education reform through the passage of bills tying teacher evaluations more closely to student achievement, and allowing for the limited establishment of public charter schools. At press time, the latter bill was stalled, but the former—on teacher evaluations—had passed the senate and was headed to the house.

Frustrated by a lack of progress, many are pinning hopes on the Road Map Project, an initiative by the Seattle-based nonprofit Community Center for Education Results (CCER). Formed in 2010 with the help of a coalition of community, government, business and school district leaders, the project has a lofty goal: a twofold increase in the number of students in south King County and South Seattle on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020.

The project highlights “bright spots” in efforts towards this end, such as the changes underway at Mercer Middle School. Other bright spots: the Auburn School District’s success in providing early intervention by focusing on early literacy and third-grade reading; Federal Way’s academic acceleration initiative, which automatically places students who meet grade-level standards in more challenging courses; and the Renton School District’s partnership with Seattle University to develop a math endorsement program for credentialed teachers.

“I am obsessed with giving the kids who grow up in our region a great shot at success,” says Mary Jean Ryan, CCER’s founding director, formerly Seattle’s economic development director under Mayor Norman Rice, and the former chair of the Washington State Board of Education. What makes the Road Map project unique, she says, is its intensely regional focus, and its emphasis on improving results from cradle to college and career—especially for our region’s low-income kids. The project was partly inspired by a public-private partnership in Cincinnati, Ohio called Strive.

Although the Seattle and south King County school leaders who participate in the project are quick to acknowledge the differences in their respective districts, which preclude a “one size fits all” approach to closing the opportunity gap, they all agree on several things; for one, the problem is urgent.

“We don’t have time to dance around the edges of education reform,” says Federal Way school superintendent Rob Neu. “We have a moral imperative to implement policies to increase our students’ chances of success.” And, according to Renton school superintendent Mary Alice Heuschel, any plan has to be based on mutual respect between school administration and the school board—a critical problem in Seattle, where power struggles are legend and may have led to Seattle interim superintendent Susan Enfield’s decision not to pursue the job permanently. A search is underway to find her replacement.

Another roadblock to reform is our local penchant for consensus building, which can get in the way of concrete accomplishment. So says Trish Millines-Dziko, executive director of the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a non-profit that partners with local school districts to operate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for minority students in grades K-12.

She was recently asked to spend a day at a brainstorming session, “in which we would all put our ideas on yellow sticky notes and then discuss them,” she says. “I declined the invitation; it was not a good use of my time.” Millines Dziko, who over the past 15 years has served on a number of committees aimed at closing the opportunity gap and strengthening STEM in King County schools and across the state, is impressed by the comprehensive baseline data the Road Map Project has collected, which could prove to be a powerful catalyst for change. But she’s wary of efforts that are “all talk and no action,” and doesn’t want the committee’s work to go the way of so many other well-intentioned education reform efforts, developing recommendations that are never heard of again. “Now that we have the data, what are we going to do with it?”

What, indeed? As lawmakers struggle to fund education programs for more kids with less money, and to balance a dwindling state budget, the solutions may well lie in aggressive, hyperlocal efforts like the Road Map Project.


Additional reporting by Kristen Russell.


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