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Mayor’s youth initiative: Is it a bad time to lift hopes?

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn kicks off Seattle Schools' 2010 levy campaign: Sometimes Seattle unites around schools but there has been frequent discord. Credit: Schools First!

Talk about having someone looking over Seattle Public Schools’ shoulder: The mayor’s office has just launched its movement to examine what youth and families need for kids to succeed in education and life. And the City Council is busy looking over the mayor’s shoulder.

This could hardly be a higher profile examination. Mayor Mike McGinn has selected former Mayor Norm Rice as one of the chairs, along with Estela Ortega, executive director and a founder of El Centro de la Raza, and former deputy mayor Bob Watt, widely respected for his work on youth issues. The effort is being rolled out almost exactly 20 years after an education summit that Rice organized to improve schools. The mayor’s office has put its considerable skills in building community support to work in a big way, doing everything from posting a video by McGinn himself to encourage engagement to hiring an important education reform group, the statewide League of Education Voters, to organize dozens of small-groups meetings mainly aimed at ensuring minority parents and families are heard.

Well designed though it may be, the McGinn effort has a very democratic, transparent feel. One result: Some 220 people showed up at the initial meeting in the Rainier Community Center on Monday (Feb. 22), spilling out of a meeting room into a gym and even hallways for small-group discussions, according to McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus.

For young people, their families, the community, and the schools themselves, the rewards of the mayor’s Youth and Families Initiative could be rich. The undertaking aims to identify the most pressing needs for kids and families, come up with solutions, and implement them.

The goals are really larger than what the schools can handle themselves. As the city puts it, the initiative “is committed to eliminating racial disparities in key indicators such as education, child care, children’s health, and the criminal justice system.” Those are issues that, in many ways, aren’t addressed well in most communities, to the detriment of schools and students.

But the concerns really all come together in where the young people gather, the schools. During his campaign for office, McGinn made his own desire for improvements in public schools clear, even talking about the idea of the city’s taking over the schools if they don’t improve quickly. He downplayed that idea considerably last Friday while meeting with reporters, stressing a desire to see improvements in the next two years and pointing out that any change in governance would require legislative action. He added that the city and the community, as well as schools, need to be accountable.

Still, McGinn made it clear that education is at the center of his initiative, saying, “We are not achieving what we need to achieve in school. There are tremendous disparities” around race and family income.

City and school district officials say Seattle Public Schools aren’t involved directly in the ongoing planning of the initiative but they are communicating. On both sides, there is talk of especially good communications at the staff level on issues like the Families and Education Levy, which brings city money into programs to support schools and which will come up for renewal next year.

School Board President Michael DeBell voiced a mixture of interest and caution about the city initiative. “I’m certainly open-minded about it,” DeBell said this week. “Mayor McGinn seems to have a very keen interest in youth and education.”

But, harking back to the McGinn campaign, DeBell said, “Some of his early statements were a little bit disconcerting.” DeBell said that at this point, with the initiative just beginning, it’s hard to see if ideas that come out of it would be a “good fit” with Seattle Public Schools’ own strategic plan. In the past levy, there was tension between the district and the city over how much measurable accountability would be applied, and whether schools that failed to meet the standards would lose city funding.

DeBell also expressed mixed feelings about the large, community-oriented process. “I could tell you from my experience in the governance arena that it is useful in some cases,” he cautioned. He said that the forums and meetings in the initiative process will spur neighborhoods and individuals to tell the city what their needs are.

Fulfilling the hopes and needs will require services. But, as DeBell noted, both the city and school district will face substantial budget deficits. He called the raising of expectations in the current financial situation “a tricky challenge in governance.”

Chris Korsmo, the League of Education Voters’ executive director, called the question of the city’s ability to deliver on these raised expectations “a fair concern.” Indeed, she said, questions about whether the initiative will over-promise come up as she talks to communities about taking part in the initiative.

Yet, if the turnouts continue to be strong, it will likely be because parents see an opportunity to speak about their family and community needs, especially at a time when they are worried about the economic prospects for their children. Korsmo said families are also concerned about having their children believe that there will actually be job opportunities, as motivation to remain focused on school.

“It is a moment for this new administration to sort of seize the issue,” Korsmo said. “They are really going to have to focus on what they hear and how they manage” the response.

The administration is very focused on a robust public process, one that encompasses, among other opportunities for engagement, four other major community meetings like the Rainier one, a hundred or so smaller gatherings, and a June “congress” of representatives elected from earlier meetings. Action plans should be fleshed out in the fall.

For all the differences and maneuvering between the mayor’s office and the city council on a wide range of matters, this is one issue where the two have managed to create at least some semblance of unity. Councilmember Tim Burgess and the mayor’s office praise one another’s efforts, with the McGinn people saying that the forums Burgess plans to organize with national experts on youth and family issues will help inform the thinking for the initiative.

Administration officials seem aware of the need to deliver. Mayoral spokesman Pickus said the initiative will influence not just the planned levy renewal request but also the other programs that the city funds through its regular budget.

McGinn himself tied together public engagement and results. “The goal here is to build a broad-based coalition for change,” he said. When the initiative is done, he said, “there will be a work plan and there will be expectations.” If the recession leads to the kind of lost decade experienced in Japan not long ago, meeting those expectations may be especially challenging.

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