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Black students: Azure Savage and Jesse Hagopian at a Black Lives Matter at School event

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The fight to make Seattle schools better for Black students

3 veteran educators working for change

By Carla Bell

It’s been more than a year since Seattle Public Schools announced a “laser focus” on improvements to benefit Black boys. What’s changed since then for Black kids and families in SPS? 

 

We talked to three Seattle Public Schools leaders tasked with those improvements.  Their hearts led them to this work, long before they were compelled by a job description or committee agenda.

Tracy Castro-Gill is the Executive Director and co-founder of Washington State Ethnic Studies Now (WSESN). Centering the histories and lived experiences of Black, indigenous, and people of color is a stated purpose of her organization, a non-profit collective of educators, activists, and organizers.

“I don’t see any programs mandating anti-racist professional development for educators,” says Castro-Gill. “I don’t see any shifts in organizational leadership or structures that include racial equity literate leaders in positional power in the district offices, [and] I, personally, haven’t seen any attempts to change schools; only to change Black students.”

 

Backward steps

Castro-Gill’s WSESN is closely affiliated with the work and membership of the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG), composed of anti-racist K-12 educators and like-minded community members. They’ve worked many uncompensated hours together in pursuit of racial equity in Seattle Public Schools.

“A lot of us put in extra time and effort, and [it’s been] met with criticism,” says ESAG member Heather Griffin. It’s added stress for several members of the group, which is mostly BIPOC.

Then, on the cusp of this year’s National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, through an involuntary administrative leave, Castro-Gill was removed from her role as Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Program Manager.

This was just “the latest in a long line of targeted attacks,” read a statement published by members of ESAG. Griffin says Castro-Gill, in her role as Ethnic Studies Program Manager, “used direct communication to educate about and call out racism” in District policy and procedure, especially concerning Black and brown students. “She was punished for it,” says Griffin, “as was the entire Advisory Group,” which had been led by Castro-Gill.  “The district has taken backward steps on a systemic effort,” says Griffin.

 

Tone-policing

Griffin, an educator of 15 years, described ways the district has rebuked ESAG  through a kind of tone-policing. “Superintendent Juneau admonished us for doing this work! The group had several conversations with Superintendent Juneau, and communication with other higher-ups about the work, and we were disrespected multiple times.”

But the Ethnic Studies Program and the students it hoped to serve would suffer another shock.

Superintendent Denise Juneau fired Castro-Gill from the Ethnic Studies Program Manager role, stating Castro-Gill eclipsed protocols and lacked necessary skills. Juneau then transferred Castro-Gill to a non-supervisory teaching role that would begin with the 2020-2021 school year. But, in a recent update, Castro-Gill told Seattle’s Child that she felt going back to the classroom would limit her ability to push ethnic studies on a larger scale, and therefore wholly resigned from Seattle Public Schools.

Griffin and other members of ESAG believe that Seattle Public Schools leadership pushed Castro-Gill out of the position for her commitment to racial equity as the bedrock of systemic change. By doing this, they stripped her of authority to make positive change for Black students and, critically, for Black males in an role designed for that purpose.

The Advisory Group has ceased its in-district work, but through WSESN, several members, along with Castro-Gill, continue their effort to bring quality ethnic studies to Black and brown students, professional development for educators and administrators, and state-level advocacy for ethnic studies to every classroom across the state. Castro-Gill says their work is drawing national attention.

 

More than courses and workshops

Heather Griffin teaches Language Arts to 10th and 11th grade students at Chief Sealth International High School.  She’s a member of the culturally responsive teaching leadership cadre, in addition to her ESAG membership.

“I have a bit of a systemic lens on what the district is doing for action,” Griffin says, explaining that SPS will offer more ethnic studies courses for student credit in the coming school year, and it makes anti-racism training opportunities available at all levels.”

Still, ethnic studies is about much more than courses and workshops, and words on a page. To be sustainable, the work demands a certain spirit and energy, too. It’s an expressly anti-racist combination of pedagogical theory and practice.  Griffin says the failure of Seattle Public Schools to develop “systemic understanding and training in what ethnic studies is and how to do it properly” presents a serious gap in both the reach and effectiveness of the program. “White teachers still just don’t get how their whiteness impacts their work in the classroom, and the district has not done enough yet to get us there.”

Seattle Public Schools’ 5-year strategic plan, which began in 2019, is an incredibly slow drip of implementations, benchmarks, and surveys.  For students farthest from educational justice, often Black, more often Black and male, and for the teachers and community members working to bridge the equity gap, the district must do much more, with balance and speed.

Passionate about bringing an end to cycles of inequity within the school system, Griffin, who is white, says, “I worry that we’re business as usual over here. Our Black students need to experience justice now.”

 

Reinventing how the community supports Black Students

Last year, Mia Williams took over the Seattle Public Schools Department of African American Male Achievement (AAMA). Williams is a veteran educator with 26 years in Seattle schools.

According to her, “In every strategic space, the district is holding itself accountable to Black male students.”  (For many, this idea is difficult to reconcile with the historical and ongoing reluctance by Seattle Public Schools to create anti-racist policy mandates.)

The district formed Seattle Kingmakers in 2017 in partnership with the City of Seattle. The program is modeled after the Kingmakers of Oakland Unified School District. Williams says “AAMA has been focused on building buy-in and reinventing how the community and the district supports Seattle’s Black students.” This is necessary and foundational work, but transformative and measurable work is happening too.

 

Better learning experiences for Black boys

“We have already started to [put] the onus squarely on SPS to serve our students through elevating the voices of Black boys and teens on the AAMA Student Leadership Committee.” Castro-Gill credits the City’s Kingmakers program and AAMA for the work they do.

Through Kingmakers, AAMA strengthens the spirits of the young Kings, as they’re known in the program. Its rituals, routines, and practices honor their cultural strengths, ultimately fostering better learning experiences for Black boys and male youth, says Williams.

The Kingmakers program is currently housed in just four pilot levy-funded schools, but will expand to at least two more in the 2021-22 school year. “Budgetary issues impact implementation with fidelity,” says Williams, but there’s an effort to expand the program over the next five years. “We’re dreaming for a minimum of 25 schools.”

 

Radical change needed

Still, Griffin says, “SPS is a behemoth designed to maintain itself, and the kind of radical change we need is impossible to achieve at more than a snail’s pace with the current traditional hierarchy.” And it is Black students that are hurting the most, because they’re “not seeing teachers and staff who look like them. Black male administrators are leaving, teachers of color are being burned out, and they’re not seeing themselves in the curriculum.”

A three-pronged system – a Eurocentric worldview, a mostly white teaching profession, and a white-washed curriculum – has historically held the center of American education, forcing Blacks and “others” to the perimeter.

Williams acknowledges that hiring Black staff into leadership positions, and retaining them, demands an intentional pipeline. She says transforming the district and classrooms in support of Black boys and teens is everyone’s work to do, pointing to the Academy for Rising Educators, “targeted at high school students in their junior and senior years who have an interest in the teaching profession,” and the Seattle Teacher Residency Program addressing poverty-impacted schools.  And in August, more than 500 district staff, teachers and community members enrolled with the Liberation Through Anti-Racist Education Institute, a four-day program focused, Williams says, “on the conditions and learning experiences our Black students have said they need.”

 

Support these women

This is all encouraging, and it is evidence that, in pockets, the work is underway, but the district’s posture and questionable standard of care about the psychosocial outcomes for Black students, coupled with its look-busy work style, is wearing thin with educators and students alike. The words and experiences of Castro-Gill and Griffin make clear the magnitude of adversity and ongoing struggle for racial equity within Seattle Public Schools, and the swelling need of support for our Black boys and girls.

Tracy Castro-Gill and Washington State Ethnic Studies Now, Heather Griffin and the SPS Ethnic Studies Advisory Group, Mia Williams and the Seattle Public Schools Department of African American Male Achievement. Support these women. They’re championing Black students when no one’s looking, and even when no one’s cutting a check.

Seattle’s Child received no reply on multiple requests for comment from Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools Denise Juneau.


Carla Bell is a Seattle writer of cultural criticism with bylines at Forbes, the Miami Herald, Ebony and Essence Magazines, The Seattle Times, and others.


 

About the Author

Carla Bell

Carla Bell is a Seattle writer of cultural criticism with bylines at Forbes, the Miami Herald, Ebony and Essence Magazines, The Seattle Times, and others.