An ambitious new effort to improve south end schools

Mary Jean Ryan Credit: Courtesy of the Center for Educational Results

When regional education leader Mary Jean Ryan talks about improving schools around Seattle, economists’ concepts of supply and demand keep appearing. Ryan, a one-time economic-development specialist, has worries about supply: Our future is dependent on a supply of well-educated young people in much larger proportions than the region is anywhere close to producing on its own (as opposed to importing brains). About demand, Ryan is shocked by the low level of public expectations for schools, teaching, and results in students’ lives.

Ryan, a veteran of the Nickels and Schell administrations at Seattle City Hall, is both realistic and big-picture, so her dismay is telling. She sees a region that has coasted on its ability to attract smart, well-educated employees from the rest of the nation and the world. As a result, Seattle and the region enjoy exceptionally high levels of educational attainment, without Washington being particularly committed to schools at any level. She doesn’t think that reliance on drawing people to the water and mountains is sustainable in an era of globalization, much less fair to the region’s own young people.

Ryan, who talked with Crosscut writers and editors this week, took a prominent role in economic development issues at City Hall and the Clinton administration’s Small Business Adminstration. She has focused in recent years on education. She served as chair of the state Board of Education during a period in the Gregoire administration when it briefly appeared the board might be able to blast through the standoffs among ossified institutions to bring about systemic change. She is throwing her most forceful efforts into work as executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, an ambitious non-profit that aims to dramatically and comprehensively improve educational results for south Seattle and south King County.

The group has set a high goal: by 2020 to double the number of students in the south parts of the Seattle School District and districts in south county on track to earn a college degree or meaningful professional certification. Do the math: For a region where overall only 27 percent of the school population is now making that kind of progress, the goal would be to have 54 percent or more headed toward a degree or a post-secondary credential that has meaning in the job market. 

That goal is all the more ambitious when you consider that the region is actually losing ground in such a measurement, while nearly all the rest of the nation is making progress.

Ryan concedes promise in individual schools that succeed in dramatically improving the achievements of struggling students. For all the individual successes, she says, the gains haven’t been turned into any sort of systemwide progress at districts. Nevertheless, she adds, we are “very blessed in this region to have the group of school leaders we have.” Part of the Community Center for Education Results strategy is to involve the school districts’ leadership, and Ryan says the response has been excellent. Seattle Public Schools have been “very, very supportive.” Ryan notes, however, “We are at a very early stage in this project. It is very easy to say, ‘We support your big project.’ It is rather motherhood and apple pie.”

So, what can be different this time? What can actually keep south end students’ futures from falling off the radar amid conflicting bureaucratic imperatives and the challenges of maintaining any serious commitment to educational changes long enough to make a difference? How does something as distant as a 2020 goal stay meaningful in a region where the public has come to expect lofty talk from political leaders (such as “No Child Left Behind”), followed by inaction, excuses, and revised priorities?

It is here that supply and demand come back into play. Ryan points to the stark data about Washington’s failure to create its own supply of well-educated young people, rather than passively relying on an inflow of talent from elsewhere. The state is notoriously low on the number of spaces it provides in universities for students studying for bachelor’s degrees or more advanced degrees. Ryan points to another measure, the chance a student will graduate high school and continue into college by age 19. An educational newsletter, Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY, last year tracked how the states did in that regard over recent decades and ranked Washington 46th nationally as of 2008, tied with Oregon at 34.8 percent of students getting that far and trailed only by Arizona, Alaska, and Nevada. 

For this state, it is instructive to look at South Carolina, where Boeing relocated a Puget Sound assembly operation. At 43rd in the chance a student will to to college by 19, South Carolina scores almost as miserably as Washington, but it is going forward while Washington is dropping. Between 1998 and 2008, the newsletter found, South Carolina achieved a 5.2 percent gain in students moving on to college, matching the national average in improvement over that period. Washington was one of just four states that actually lost ground, recording a 2.2 percent drop in the odds for its students to make it through high school and enter college by 19.

For Ryan, an answer to what we might call Washington’s supply-side disaster in education lies in the demand it might inspire from parents and communities for better opportunities for local young people. Like many of those working for educational improvements, she sees data as part of the key to making progress, along with careful alignment of funding around effective educational practices and a conscious creation of a powerful community voice.

The Community Center brought Kati Haycock, perhaps the premier figure in advocating for school improvements nationally, to Seattle for a visit. Ryan says Haycock, president of The Education Trust, “can’t believe that we have the schools that we have” in Seattle, a city that could be doing much better.

Asked whether Seattle Public Schools’ transition back to a neighborhood schools attendance pattern would just leave low-income and minority communities more isolated in poor schools than ever, Ryan said that “the opposite could be true.” Groups and parents might fight harder for school improvements. “You are seeing a level of organizing and angst in Southeast Seattle that we haven’t seen before,” Ryan said. 

Current angst aside, Seattle has proven quite able to remain comfortable about avoiding changes. But Ryan sees examples in other cities, including Cincinnati, that are coordinating their efforts across large sectors of the region, and she points to theories about the need for working across all sorts of sectors, including business, philanthropy, and education’s various levels, to achieve what has been called “collective impact” in a celebrated essay in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Here, Ryan’s center has brought school superintendents and community college presidents together for first-ever regular meetings, and Ryan has found south King County mayors as interested in schools as the Seattle mayors she has known. 

But there is still the history of good intentions and inaction. That will only change if leaders feel the community’s loud and persistent  demand for better schools. That’s precisely what Ryan and her coalition hopes to build.


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