“How can Seattle be a progressive, inclusive sanctuary city for all of our students if we work quietly? There is no such thing as closing the gap by being quiet”— Cameron Paine-Thaler, giving her testimony at the #EthnicStudiesNow event. Full testimony video below.
July 1, 2017
I walked through the double doors of the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence on Wednesday evening and was instantly gathered up into a spirit and energy that honors the man himself. I came to cover an event called ‘Seattle Needs to Commit to #EthnicStudiesNow,’ a meeting of the Board of Directors of Seattle Public Schools, specifically the Board’s response to the Seattle King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Resolution on Ethnic Studies proposed in January 2017.
Here’s where I’ll have to admit some things. I’m bringing baggage. Checked and carry-on. As a Black single woman and mother of a Black child, a boy that I’ve raised alone from the start, I realized several years ago the inequities that thrive in Seattle Public Schools (SPS)—including those in student advocacy, teacher-student interaction, lesson delivery methods, and verbal and non-verbal communication between teacher to student. The near absence of ethnic and cultural diversity and representation among instructors, within educational materials, classroom activities, field trips, and even in the cafeteria food, are what has fostered and cultivated this deficient atmosphere.
In what has been done, as much as what has been left undone, through its special tools, special staff, special parent meetings, and special planning meetings, SPS has othered students and parents of color, sustaining and almost promulgating a “white is right” ideology that’s older than the District—founded in 1867—itself.
As my son enters senior year, I find myself in a place of gratitude—no, giddiness—for the approaching end of our dealings with SPS, but there are many families of color that are just now embarking on their journey through SPS education. Now a little background…
The NAACP Resolution
The NAACP’s January 2017 resolution calls upon SPS to make ethnic studies happen now in Seattle schools where Racial Equity Teams are in place. First on a voluntary basis, but mandated in those schools beginning next Fall, the 2018-19 school year. The NAACP Resolution goes even further, proposing mandatory district-wide ethnic studies as a prerequisite to graduation as of the 2019-20 school year. It references elimination of opportunity gaps, an SPS directive established by the Board in August 2012 under Policy 0030, Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity, Section D-Professional Development. Important to note, the NAACP Resolution loosely defines ethnic studies as curriculum that highlights and values contributions to society by People of Color.
The Seattle Public School Board Resolution
The School Board Action Report dated June 5, 2017, introduces a new resolution titled Seattle School District #1 Board Resolution No. 2016/17-17 which, according to the Action Report, takes into account a series of conversations with community advocates and incorporates feedback from the District’s own Ethnic Studies Task Force. But the SPS Family and Community’s webpage titled Who is on the Ethnic Studies Task Force doesn’t answer its own question. It provides no membership list.
The Board, in its resolution, references the same 2012 Policy, but points to Section H – Recognizing Diversity, which reads in part, “Consistent with state regulations and District policy and within budgetary considerations, the district shall provide materials and assessments that reflect the diversity of students and staff.” The inclusion of this language in the resolution, and the reinforcement of this message by Director Leslie Harris during Wednesday’s Board meeting, could read as a plan for delay in the implementation of ethnic studies in SPS.
Testimonies in Favor of Ethnic Studies Now
“I have to say that I am very disappointed that we are still fighting for a better school learning environment and for ethnic studies. How often is it that we learn about our People of Color’s history?…You know what is so insulting? The fact that you’ve managed to pull 90 million dollars from your assets to renovate Lincoln! It’s like, basically, discharging a dying patient and looking for a new one”—Naj Ali, an outspoken Rainier Beach High School student in the graduating class of 2018.
Cameron Paine-Thaler, a self-identified “concerned white citizen” expressed two main points of frustration: white dismissiveness and tone-deaf presentation about implementation of ethnic studies, and lack of urgency in implementation of ethnic studies by SPS. Her message: Ethnic studies. Now.
A Pessimist’s Viewpoint
From the perspective of a realistic pessimist—that’s me—it was apparent that the Board chose not to acknowledge the NAACP’s loose definition of ethnic studies. Neither did it offer a definition of its own, in either its resolution or Board meeting. Director Stephan Blanford, however, did present a question to Kyle Kinoshita, Chief of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction.
Blanford asked, “Just in the interest of clarity, has there been a working definition that has been developed?” Kinoshita responded that there are a couple of definitions in the research, possibly referencing national studies, and added that determination of the definition and scope of ethnic studies for SPS is on the agenda and he hopes to begin that discussion in August. This may seem insignificant, but it isn’t. What SPS ethnic studies will ultimately look like, including its definition and scope, may be determined through a rather sterile and bureaucratic process, a portion of which is described in the Fiscal Impact/Revenue Source section of the Action Report. Families of color should follow that process and discussion very closely to insure appropriate outcomes for students of color.
An Optimist’s Viewpoint
From the perspective of an optimist—also me—Item 5 of the Board’s resolution directing “the Superintendent to create a schedule in calendar year 2017 and subsequently implement plans for district-wide integration of ethnic studies into existing and future K-12 curriculum, including courses required for graduation,” finally takes a step towards delivering directly relatable educational experiences for children and families of color in the Greater Seattle area.
Now, we wait until the next meeting scheduled for Wednesday, July 5, where there is every expectation that the Board’s resolution will be approved. From there—thanks to the leadership of the Seattle King County NAACP—we’ll hopefully be on our way establishing a better scholastic standard of intentional, sustained, and culturally-relevant education across the entire Seattle School District.
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Carla Bell is a seattle-area freelance writer focused on the human condition, civil rights, culture, arts, illuminating corners and crevices, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, and, sometimes, running.