Optimism for Every Student’s Future
The iconic Nelson Mandela said:
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
This famous quote speaks to the importance of education as catalyst for change and investment in our future.
Where will education lead our students?
What stories will our students write for our nation’s future?
Black History Month is the official recognition of the African Americans who have shaped our country and accomplished great things often in the face of adversity. This reflection on our history reminds us that inequity is at the epicenter of our nation’s story. However, education is at the heart of the movement to undo structural and institutional racism. This quest for educational equity brought me to Seattle Public Schools.
In my personal efforts to learn more, my bookshelf recommendations include both the current bestseller “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and a chapter book for our budding readers “The Life of W.E.B. Du Bois: Civil Rights Champion” by Mark Rowh.
Three years ago, our teaching and learning leadership team shared data that challenged us all to do better by our students. Although Seattle outperforms our peers nationally and statewide, our district has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation for our students of color. This is not our children’s fault. It is ours.
I recently had the pleasure to meet students Eyoub Endris and Marquis Ellis at the SABSE, Seattle Alliance of Black School Educators, annual SABSE conference on January 21 (Eyoub and Marquis are pictured above with me and Dr. Brent Jones at the event). During the SABSE conference, one of the big items of discussion was the lessons we are learning from our schools who are eliminating opportunity gaps.
These schools show how critical it is to:
- Identify students who struggle
- Have a clear plan to support those students who struggle
- Have teams that meet to review student data and monitor progress
- Provide supports to teachers to better meet student needs
- Having caring adults who nurture students
Here in Seattle are we have made a commitment to learn from our schools who are eliminating opportunity gaps and apply them across the district in order to make a positive difference for each and every student.
Welcoming Every Student as a Learner
The real catalyst to eliminate these achievement gaps is beyond recounting heroic stories during a month of recognition. Our educators show us what that change looks like as they welcome and recognize every child as a learner into our educational community.
Our School Board, city and community partners, educators' union, and school leader association all continue to work in partnership with us to elevate and advance the work necessary to reach our goal to eliminate opportunity gaps in our district.
On February 13, 2017, I was honored to join the South Shore PreK-8 community to celebrate National African American Parent Involvement Day. Families, community leaders, and educators welcomed students to school with high fives and beaming smiles.
The festive and affirming atmosphere was a powerful demonstration of how families and educators come together to cheer, encourage, and support our students. Read more and watch a video about South Shore’s African American Parent Involvement Day event.
Every day, educators—such as those at South Shore—are building bridges with students, families, and community partners using the principles of positive partnerships, positive relationships, positive beliefs, and positive learning to help students succeed.
School Expands Focus of Social and Emotional Learning to the Playground
On a recent school visit to Alki Elementary School, Principal Rena Deese showed me a few of the letters students had written her since the start of the school year.
After sharing Ben Clanton’s book “It Came in the Mail,” with students on the first day of school, Deese hung up a mailbox, stocked a station with writing supplies, and offered an open call to students to become her pen pal. She has since received hundreds of notes and letters. They range from colorful drawings to detailed letters of concern. Deese writes back to each student, asking clarifying questions, and further engaging the student in critical thinking about the situation at hand.
Given the focus for the school staff to strengthen relationships, collaboration, and communication, the letters have offered one way students make their voice heard in their community. When student letters confided hurt feelings from reoccurring conflict during recess, Deese set out to make a change.
“We are making social and emotional learning connections from the classroom to lunchroom to the playground,” says Deese. “Our work centers on how we can improve relationships so we can boost student learning and success.”
Deese’s letters from students inspired Alki staff and the PTA to join forces to reimagine recess. With the help from a Portland-based nonprofit, Alki has made great strides to connect what the students are learning in the classroom about emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and cooperation among peers with safe, fun, and healthy playtime.
Like many of our schools, Alki is focusing on how social and emotional learning can engage students and improve academic outcomes. This approach fosters caring relationships between educators and boosts student capacity to effectively deal with life’s daily tasks and challenges. A school-wide focus helps educators consider a child’s social and emotional learning goals and academics in tandem.
Read more and watch a video about how Seattle Public Schools is implementing social and emotional learning curriculum, RULER, in schools across the district.
Promoting Culturally Responsive Teaching
Seattle Public Schools empowers our educators to create safe, inclusive schools that help promote student self-efficacy (students' belief that they will succeed in a certain task). We are learning that students learn better when they know that their culture is recognized and welcomed in school. Our educators are devoted to practicing culturally responsive teaching that promotes positive student learning and strengthens student engagement.
Ongoing district-wide professional training is teaching the importance of how each student’s cultural identity is an asset and entry point to teaching and learning. Two recent workshops brought together educators to learn how they can bring identity safety into their instruction to assure classrooms are inclusive for students with diverse social identities. Identity safe classrooms are those in which adults work from a position that every child’s identity is an asset not a barrier to success.
Read more about how the district is equipping substitute teachers with strategies to help them carry on the work to eliminate opportunity gaps.
Read more about our recent teach-in for educators to make classrooms safe and inclusive for all students.
Examples such as these happen every day across the district. I am thankful for our collaboration with partners such as the Seattle Alliance of Black School Educators, Seattle Education Association, Principal Association of Seattle Schools, community partners, and our educators and central office teams that are helping lead this work.
As Black History Month comes to a close, Seattle Public Schools continues our commitment to improving academic outcomes for all Seattle students, especially those who have been historically underserved.
Our paramount work is to ensure every student has equitable access to a high-quality education. Narrowing opportunity gaps by addressing the whole child, academics, and social and emotional well-being, will make success for all a reality.
Families, thank you for trusting Seattle Public Schools with the education of your child. Staff, thank you for your service and dedication to our community. As I have shared before, these next few months, as the State negotiates basic education funding, and what it means for our district, will be difficult on our educators, families, and staff. My commitment to you is to continue providing regular communication about our progress. An update will be coming out this Thursday, March 2.
Thank you for the privilege of serving Seattle Public Schools.
Dr. Larry Nyland