Editor’s note: The views expressed here are a reflection of the writer’s views only. This op-ed is not authored on behalf of the organization Vietnamese Friendship Association, for which he currently serves as Executive Director.
As a child of refugee parents and the beneficiary of a public education, I believe in its transformative power. I am a success story by many measures. Yet I recognize, with great humility, that my success is the exception rather than the rule for many students of color, refugees and immigrants.
Over the past few months I have been following the Seattle School Board races in districts 4, 5 and 7 with great anticipation. I wanted to learn more about school board candidates’ views on equity and what they propose to do to close the opportunity and achievement gaps. I’ve attended community forums, heard from parents and met with school board candidates. My big takeaway is that my conversations that involve equity with the latter are either dodgy at best, or ignored altogether.
Nonprofitaf.com proposes that “equity is about ensuring the communities most affected by injustice get the most money to lead in the fight to address that injustice, and if that means we break the rules to make that happen, then that’s what we do.” The popular and accepted idea that fully funding education will close the achievement gap for students of color, for example, ignores the role that systemic racism has played in creating unequal outcomes.
This feels incredibly frustrating because the unfortunate result is our public education system has broken trust with families, and our school board members need to do the hard work of regaining it.
The achievement gap between White students and students of color is real.
While the graduation rate for students overall is 77 percent, English language learners and special education students graduate at about a 56 percent rate, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS’s) 2015-2016 District Scorecard tells us that on-time graduation rates for East African (69 percent), African American (70 percent) and Hispanic/Latino (62 percent) students are lower than those of White students (84 percent). Unfortunately, the data for Asian students are not disaggregated, so I can’t draw any conclusions from that.
The SPS scorecard also reports that the students responding positively to the statement “I am treated with as much respect as other students” dropped by nearly 10 percent from the previous school year.
During a time when schools are ever more racially segregated, with clear disadvantages for students of color, the district has done little to eliminate these barriers to success. This is terrifying considering how much students of color, refugees and immigrants, undocumented students and more are being targeted in today’s social and political climate.
Parents and students intuitively know when a school, classroom or school district has their back. They know when they feel safe and supported, or neglected and marginalized. They want to be in a learning environment that honors and celebrates students’ whole selves, including their culture and language-rich identities. They want a school experience that prepares them to be successful in both school and life.
Our public education system needs to listen and take responsibility, own its failures and do right by students and families.
The priority must be to rebuild trust with those who have been historically neglected and marginalized, including but not limited to students of color, refugees and immigrants, English language learners, as well as students who are LGBTQ, in special education or experiencing homelessness. Our Seattle School Board must critically examine how their votes and decisions, however well-intentioned, may perpetuate harm to these students and their families. This can look a number of ways, including:
- An expanded outside review of district efforts: A 2008 review by the Council of the Great City Schools found that SPS’ bilingual education programs produced “very unsatisfactory academic results,” and recommended “an almost complete overhaul and reform of the district’s efforts.” Our current school board can conduct a similar, albeit greatly expanded, outside audit to better understand how SPS systems, policies and processes either support or harm students who have been historically marginalized. It will provide the public a powerful tool to hold the school board more accountable.
- Mandatory anti-oppression training: All school board members should be required to participate in anti-oppression training. More importantly, an analysis of privilege and oppression needs to be centered in every school board meeting and conversation. It cannot just be a checklist after the fact. Both SPS’ new Department of Racial Equity Advancement and the Seattle Education Association’s Center for Race and Equity have taken sincere and tangible steps toward amplifying the issue of systemic oppression and incorporating practices to combat it. The Seattle School Board cannot afford to remain stagnant on anti-oppression work, and need to follow suit.
If we want to convince families that public education is the best place for their children, SPS needs to do the hard work of making the district a place where all students feel safe, are supported and can succeed. Right now, we know that isn’t true. We need to be on the side of students. Systemic change needs to happen across all levels and, in particular, our school board needs to be a champion of equity both in words and in action.
This story has been updated since its original publication to clarify and add SPS data regarding on-time graduation rates.