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Seattle schools have forgotten to listen to parents

There's always an open door for businesses and well-financed interest groups with an agenda. Parents? Well, that's another story.

Steve Sundquist, president of the Seattle School Board

Steve Sundquist, president of the Seattle School Board Seattle Public Schools

Susan Enfield, Highline School District Superintendent and former Seattle Public Schools Interim Superintendent.

Susan Enfield, Highline School District Superintendent and former Seattle Public Schools Interim Superintendent. Seattle Public Schools

It's good that Seattle City Council members, our mayor, and the Seattle School Board are finally calling for needed reform and accountability within our district. While many in our community were stunned at the revelations about the depth of ineptitude, obliviousness, and near criminality within our school district, some parents felt a saddened sense of relief mixed with frustration. This is the part of the story that remains untold.

Parents in Seattle Public Schools have never been passive consumers but committed partners. Besides raising millions of dollars each year for our schools, they also get out the vote for our education levies and bonds. Some are watchdogs for our school district.

These “feet on the ground” parents know their schools and neighborhoods well. 

But, despite parents’ knowledge base and hard work, the Seattle School Board hasn’t listened well over the past three years. Concerns about capacity issues, bringing barely qualified Teach for America recruits into our classrooms, high school curriculum alignment, and, yes, damning state audit reports were listened to — and then largely ignored. 

For example, in 2010, an SPS parent, Meg Diaz, had sent the board her own analysis of the district’s purported cuts to central administration. The district hadn’t cut as much as they claimed and she urged the board to review administrative overhead in order to support classroom learning.

Did anything change, despite her evidence?  Not really.

So the fundamental question is: Who are the School Board and superintendent listening to if not parents? Let’s follow the money and look at one example.

The Alliance for Education spends millions on SPS programs and activities, and that's great. But that money seems to buy them a special relationship with district leadership. What does that look like? Well, whoever the current superintendent and School Board president are, they automatically sit on the Alliance’s board. The superintendent has a standing monthly meeting with the head of the Alliance but not with the head of the Seattle Council PTSA.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives money to support the Alliance’s communications using the company Strategies 360. Who did the school district just pick to head its communications department? Someone from Strategies 360

At the same time, Seattle PTAs paid for 32 full-time employees at a cost of about $2.4 million. Those fabulous Garfield and Roosevelt jazz bands? That’s not the work of headquarters; it is the result of the hard work of music directors and parent booster groups, who raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support those programs.

PTAs are now paying for maintenance at some schools.  If you counted all these PTA donations, the overall amount is probably nearly the same as what the Alliance gives. 

With all that PTA work and support, why does the Alliance for Education’s money buy them more access and attention than the supportive Seattle Public Schools parents?

Maybe it’s because of where the Alliance gets its money. It comes from businesses and foundations with an agenda that apparently does not include ensuring that our school district manages its money wisely. Where was the Alliance’s critical-friend voice while our district was slowly sinking under the weight of its problems? Seattle Public Schools leadership must follow the money to ensure that our district is doing its best for kids, not special interests.

While I am heartened by the city’s offers of help as well as the promises made by the board and the new interim superintendent, Dr. Susan Enfield, I remain wary of their impact if those who govern don’t seek out and listen to parents, whose interest is simply the children they entrust to Seattle Public Schools.

Melissa Westbrook is a long-time education activist in Seattle and has written for the education blog, Save Seattle Schools, since 2006. She and her husband are the proud parents of two Seattle Public Schools grads, one from Roosevelt High School and one from Hale High School.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 13, 7:24 a.m. Inappropriate

This parent voted with her feet because the Seattle Public Schools system doesn't listen to the parents who are their customers along with their kids. My kids go to private schools because the district and school board don't listen to the parents when they bring forward concerns about bad math programs (Kumon is making a killing on Public School students in Seattle) and other issues.

Next year, I will once again be making the decision of private or public high school for my 8th grader. Last year, we picked private high school for our oldest mostly due to the crappy math program implemented at the high school level. Whether our youngest goes private or public will largely depend on what happens with the public schools over the next year. I pay taxes for the public schools and I would really like to send my child there but I won't sacrafice my child's education because it is cheaper. I have always voted for public school funding but unless the school system starts listening to parents, they will cease to get my vote.

Rhonwyn

Posted Wed, Apr 13, 8 a.m. Inappropriate

Rhonwyn raises a great point. One way the district should listen to parents is asking why parents leave Seattle Public Schools. That would expose problems like dissatisfaction with the math curriculum, the negative repercussions of school closures, problems with class size or overcrowding, or the desire for additional alternative programs. The superintendent should care that parents decide to leave Seattle's public schools and work to figure out how to get them back.

Greg

Posted Wed, Apr 13, 8:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Parents? Seattle Public Schools serves The Party first and foremost. "The Kids" are convenient little tools for extracting money to give to politically-connected friends under The Party's social-justice agenda.

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Apr 18, 3:52 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not whining when parents raise nearly the same amount as the Alliance and yet get little back.

Thanks for the idea about running for the School Board, Mr. Watson.

I myself am not running but there is a great challenger to Director Martin-Morris in the form of Michelle Buetow who is smart, savvy and knows the district. I am also seeking candidates to challenge the other 3 directors up for election in the fall. Our group will help with organization, funding, volunteers, etc. Contact me at sss.westbrook@gmail.com if you would like to get more information.

westello

Posted Tue, Apr 19, 6:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Running for school board is a fine idea. Four years ago those same charter school advocates and Education Reform groups who have undue influence over the District contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of the four successful candidates. Until then, it was unusual for any school board campaign to raise or spend more than about $10,000 and most ran on half that.

There are no campaign contribution limits in school board races, so individuals, particularly some living outside Seattle, were free to make five-figure contributions to the campaigns of School Board candidates like Steve Sundquist, Peter Maier, Sherry Carr, and Harium Martin-Morris.

And what has been the result? A rubber-stamp Board who, until about 60 days ago, acted like they worked for the superintendent instead of the other way around.

In November Director Martin-Morris scolded his Board colleagues for even trying to confirm a statement make by Dr. Enfield. He told them that they should accept all of her statements as true even if - like the one that was checked - they are actually false.

Director Maier has never - not once in three years - voted against a staff recommended motion. That doesn't make him a rubber-stamp, but it doesn't make him any different from one.

Director Sundquist has repeated staff claims even after they have been proven false: 90 positions cut in the Central Administration (proven false), two-thirds of NTN schools are STEM schools (proven false), no letter sent to teachers (proven false), excess capacity in West Seattle elementary schools justifying the closure of Cooper (proven false). He has not demonstrated any capacity for independent thought, let alone action. He often seeks to diminish the role and authority of the Board. For example, in the vote on the high school math materials, he claimed that th Board was only being asked to approve the process, not the result. He claimed that the Board had no business either approving or rejecting the textbooks on their own merit.

Director Carr has been showing some signs of waking up, but has not taken ownership of governance. She still finds the central office staff more credible than her constituents. She, like the other three elected in 2007, works more to represent the District to the public than to represent the public to the District.

coolpapa

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