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Parents' guide to Seattle Public Schools

Here's what you need to know about test scores, school budgets, achievement gaps, wealth gaps — and what the new superintendent thinks about the district she is taking over.

Ashraf Mohamed, with her two sons, saw a need for more parent involvement at Dearborn Park Elementary and started a PTA.


Welcome to Seattle Public Schools. It’s crowded, largely segregated, and despite decades of effort, there’s a big difference between the achievement of rich and poor students and black and white students. Oh, and they’re not quite sure where the budget is coming from next year. But still, there's reason for optimism.


New Seattle Public Schools superintendent Denise Juneau, speaking to a group of people at Broadview Public Library as a stop on her “listening tour” of Seattle, was upbeat:


"People want Seattle Public Schools to be successful.”


Academic achievement is up. Reading and math proficiency scores have increased a little almost every year. In 2009-10, reading and language arts scores for third- to eighth-graders were 3 percent above the state average. By 2016-17, it was 10 percent.


"People need to know that Seattle Public Schools is a high-performing district,” says Juneau.


A study by Stanford University researchers found that between third and eighth grades, the average Seattle Public Schools student advanced 5.7 grade levels. Compared with the nation’s 200 biggest school districts, Seattle was in third place. But there’s a catch: While everyone improved, not everyone started in the same place. For third graders, the average grade levels of white and black kids were 3.7 years apart. White students were 2.2 years above grade level, while black students were 1.5 years below.


How does this happen? Part of the problem is poverty. Across the country, the pattern plays out; higher-income kids have higher academic achievement than lower-income kids, starting in kindergarten and continuing through college. Groups who are affected by achievement gaps, which Seattle Public Schools calls the “historically underserved population,” all have a large proportion of low-income kids, who have less access to preschool and other educational opportunities.


But that isn’t the whole story. For example, look at the percent meeting the standard on the Smarter Balanced math test for grades 3 to 8 in 2016-17, a typical year gapwise. Among white low-income students, 48 percent met the standard. When it came to low-income students from historically underserved populations, i.e. not white or Asian, the rate was 31 percent. Among students who were not low-income, white students passed 79 percent of the time, while those from historically underserved populations passed 56 percent of the time.


Black, Pacific Islander, Latino and Native American kids are not achieving as much as their are white peers. They are under-enrolled in advanced learning programs. They are more likely to be suspended or expelled. They are less likely to have a teacher with the same background as theirs. They are less likely to go to a school with a PTA that funds the arts.


The district is working to address some of these problems. It is reforming its discipline policies, and working with the city and local arts organizations to expand arts instruction to all schools in the next few years.


Perhaps the biggest hope is the city of Seattle’s public preschool program that launched in 2015. This year, more than 1,500 kids will attend a certified preschool that is affordable, or if parents qualify, free. That means almost a third of next year’s Seattle Public Schools kindergartners will have benefited from the program, including hundreds who until recently would not have had the opportunity.


But as some problems are addressed, others crop up. More and more Seattle students are living with homelessness. The most recent count, in 2016-17, indicated 4,280 Seattle Public School students without a fixed nighttime addresses. That’s about 8 percent of the total student population.


And there’s the money. Seattle Public Schools doesn’t know how it’s going to fund things next year. For many years, the state underfunded the public schools, and the district supplemented funding through local levies. That went on until a court case, McCleary v. Washington, led to a unanimous 2012 State Supreme Court decision that requires the state to fund K-12 education.


But in requiring the state to better fund education, McCleary limited school levies to education enrichment activities.


For Seattle, which has been funding its schools through levies, the state funding falls far short of what it will lose in levy dollars. Seattle Public Schools staff estimate the gap could grow to more than $50 million dollars within two years, and unless the district got a break from the legislature, they would have to cut staff and programs, even though the student population is rising.


Dayna Dealy, mother of a second-grader at West Woodland Elementary School, says the budget is the issue she is most concerned about. 


Along with her second-grader, Dealy has a sixth-grader, who went to West Woodland from grades 2 through 5, and is now in sixth grade in private school at a more intimate school with smaller classes. Her kids have been happy in the neighborhood school.


Set on the west slope of Phinney Ridge, West Woodland is a “have” school. Only 5 percent of its students qualify for a free or a reduced-price lunch, 1 percent are English language learners, all the test scores are above average, and the PTA plans to raise $300,000 this year. Even so, its resources are stretched. For one thing: it’s packed. The school population of about 550 does not fit in the main building. Dealy’s younger son’s classroom is in one of six classroom portables. Lunch happens in shifts, the earliest of which is at 10:10 a.m.


Parents are a big part of helping things work, starting with providing money.


“We support the students quite a bit, extra counselors we’ve paid for, art teacher, extra lunch assistants we paid for,” Dealy says.


They also donate a lot of time. Dealy says without parents picking up clerical tasks, and doing things like sitting with kids learning reading, kids’ education would suffer.


“I don’t know how the teacher could do all the things they need to do and still focus on the kids,” she says. “It makes you think about the other schools that don’t have as much parent involvement.”


Ashraf Mohamed knows what that looks like. It looks like the day last year when she dropped her older son off for Mandarin immersion kindergarten at Dearborn Park International Elementary School on Beacon Hill.


“I was like, ‘Oh, my god, there’s so many kids in one classroom,” she says. There were 27 kindergartners, and one teacher. She was scared for her son.


It got better quickly. Instructional assistants and parent volunteers appeared in the classroom.


Dearborn Park is not a “have” school; 74 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and a third are learning English. Most of their test score proficiency rates are below the district average. Because of the challenges that Dearborn students face, the district and federal government fund more staff. So although it has 200 fewer students than West Woodland, it has only five fewer teachers, and far more support workers.


Mohamed decided to get parents more involved.


“We have a lot of Somali kids at Dearborn, and I noticed that most of the Somali parents weren’t involved,” she says. She decided to start a PTA.


This spring, she enlisted the help of interpreters and the principal and called the meeting. The parents came, filling up the room.


“It turned out to be horrible. It was just so many complaints,” Mohamed says.


Parents felt the school was out of touch with the needs of their families and kids, and they let the principal know. But Mohamed says communication between parents and the school improved after that.


Mohamed now has two kids in the school. Her youngest just started kindergarten. She is planning a PTA meeting this fall.


For her, the most important issue facing Seattle Public Schools is the need for higher quality instruction. Her son is bright, learns math rapidly, and is eager to learn more. She would like to see kids like him get more individual attention.


“I think that it should be challenging for the kids,” she says.


At Eryn Geokezas’ neighborhood school, John Rogers Elementary in Lake City, kids from lakefront mansions sit in classrooms (or possibly portables) next to kids from low-income housing. It is one of only a few Seattle schools with demographics that roughly match the average for the district as a whole. Of the school’s 370 students, 38 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 17 percent are English language learners, a bit higher than the district average. The rates of passing standardized tests are a little lower than the district average.


Geokezas’ kids have thrived there. Her son started at Thornton Creek, in the Wedgwood neighborhood, but after finishing first grade unable to read, he switched to John Rogers. The teacher sorted him out immediately. Within three weeks he was working with a reading specialist.


“By the end of second grade he was reading at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and he hasn’t put down a book since,” Geokezas says.


Now in seventh grade at Jane Addams Middle School, he’s in the Highly Capable Cohort program, taking advanced classes. His sister is in the fifth grade at John Rogers.


Geokezas, a former schoolteacher who now teaches spin classes, says that for her, the most important issue facing the school district is equity. While the John Rogers PTA works hard (anticipated budget this year: $125,000), they can’t provide as much as she sees in other Northeast Seattle schools, where parents can raise more.


“It’s completely inequitable. One kiddo at one school is not going to get what another kiddo at another school gets,” she says.


Superintendent Juneau says that many people she has talked to want more equity in Seattle Public Schools, and want to make progress in eradicating the achievement gaps.


“We are not going to shy away from confronting those challenges,” says Juneau.


Take the high school graduation rates. They’re on an upward trend, and the gaps between more advantaged and less advantaged populations are narrowing. While the five-year graduation rate for white students rose 5 percent from 2013 to 2017, the rate for black students rose 13 percent, from 59 percent to 72 percent. If the district can keep up those improvement rates, it might be that when this year’s sixth graders graduate, that particular gap will be gone.


“You’ve got to keep trying and you’ve got to be nimble in your approach,” says Juneau.


Seattle Public Schools by the numbers


Number of students as of 2017: 53,380

Percentage increase over the past decade: 17

Number of schools: 103

Number of schools opened since 2008: 14

Schools  scheduled to open in the next two years: 3

Superintendents since 2007: 5

Percentage of African-American students eligible for the district’s advanced-learning programs in 2016: 2

Percentage of white students signing up for those programs in 2016: 24

Suspension rate for African-American students in 2015: 8.6

Suspension rate for white students, 2015: 1.6

Number of languages the district employs interpreters for: (Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Oromo, Spanish, Somali, Tagalog, Tigrigna and Vietnamese)

Spending per student in 2018: $18,000

Increase in spending per student over the past decade: $5,000


Sources: seattleschools.org, k12.wa.us, SPS 2016-17 District Scorecard


New Superintendent Denise Juneau's first-day-of-school tour at John Rogers Elementary School in Lake City.

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