Seattle schools superintendent: A job of Shakespearean challenges

Seattle Public Schools superintendent Jose Banda. Credit: Alison Krupnick

In a thought-provoking, academically challenging high school history class — the kind you hope your children will experience — you may have grappled with the question: Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?

It’s a question that can be applied to Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda, now in his sixth month on the job and coming to the end of the first semester of the 2012-13 school year.

Banda has been something of a blank slate so far, saying that for his first year on the job he prefers not to make any major changes and to listen to stakeholders; not a bad strategy for a city that is known to be hard on agents of change. 

Still, a round of community meetings he undertook early in the school year was criticized as being full of empty rhetoric, yet also contradictory. On the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog, education activist Charlie Mas put it this way: “It was like watching a guy play tennis against himself.”

Banda has expressed some opinions.  He’s talked about creating a college-going culture and raising academic achievement, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and, in his recent State of the District address, acknowledged Seattle Public Schools (SPS) have only met about half of the goals outlined in the 2008 five-year plan created by his predecessor, the late Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

He, along with representatives from 259 other Washington school districts, came out against charter schools, a move that did not endear him to education reform advocacy groups. 

At a recent conference on Finland’s education system he spoke about the need to reconsider the amount of standardized testing in our schools, and could be seen sitting cozily next to Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp. He’s indicated a desire to make leadership changes and has undertaken a nationwide search to fill some key vacancies in the District. 

Whom he surrounds himself with and whom he chooses to listen to will be the source of scrutiny in the months to come.

So far, nobody seems to have jumped squarely on the Banda-wagon.

But, as the usual six-month honeymoon for a new leader comes to an end, Banda continues to make himself available for discussions, including one tomorrow with Crosscut writers and editors. Here’s a look at some of the issues we’ll be talking about; please add any other topic suggestions in the comments below:

  • Money:  The legislature’s Joint Task Force on Education Funding is holding its final meeting today (Dec. 17) to put forth its recommendations for implementation of the McCleary decision, which has charged the state with fulfilling its paramount duty to fully fund K-12 education.  K-12 education expenditures are likely to come under greater scrutiny as the Legislature tries to figure out how to adequately fund K-12 education, supposedly without raising taxes or decimating higher education.

In the meantime, two Seattle Public Schools levy renewals are on the February ballot:  1) the operations levy, which provides nearly 30 percent of the district’s budget and 2) the capital levy (BEX IV), which funds building improvements and earthquake safety upgrades and is an essential part of the district’s strategy for dealing with increasing enrollment.

  • Capacity:  Seattle is projecting a significant enrollment increase in the 2013-14 school year, with enrollment continuing to increase for the foreseeable future. At an SPS-sponsored Short-Term Capacity Management Community Meeting on Dec. 11, the district laid out a variety of options that can be considered in order to add capacity at a number of Seattle schools.  These included adding portables and repurposing music and other non-core academic classrooms. 

The capacity issue is contentious for a number of reasons:  it has the potential to pit neighborhoods and programs against each other, it threatens school-based arts programs and it tries public confidence over the district’s ability to adequately plan for enrollment bumps.

District leaders say boundary changes will be needed in order to alleviate North End school crowding, but they won't begin to discuss potential changes until after they know whether BEX IV has passed. The last time the boundaries were changed, the issue was contentious.  It will likely be so again.

  • Teachers and Testing: The Seattle teachers' contact is up for renewal this summer. According to Seattle School Board Director Michael DeBell and SEA President Jonathan Knapp, contract negotiations should be less contentious than they were in 2010.  DeBell praised the new teacher evaluation system as a win-win for everyone. 

In November SPS released its first teacher evaluations based on student achievement, using standardized test results as the metric. Of the 132 teachers captured in this initial evaluation roll-out, some 71 percent had students who demonstrated “typical” academic growth.

Banda has praised the new evaluation system, but he’s also said he wants to take a look at the frequency and cost of standardized tests. In the meantime, some schools are being asked to pilot Smarter Balanced Assessments, yet another, different standardized test (resulting in additional lost instruction time) and school administrators are concerned that their technology budgets are being held hostage by the need to invest in test-friendly equipment.

  • Vacancies:  Last week Banda announced several new central office appointments, including a permanent director of special education,  good news for a program that has been criticized for receiving inadequate attention from the district.

The district has undertaken a nationwide search to fill key positions within the Teaching and Learning Department, including assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, which Banda says he hopes to have filled by the end of the academic year.  SPS says an executive director of curriculum and instruction will be appointed shortly, along with the announcement of a minor reorganization of that department.

  • Academic rigor, academic support and equity: These are the ongoing issues in the large, diverse school district that every superintendent has struggled with, with varying success. One teacher wonders how Superintendent Banda plans to address academic divisions within our school system. Will a consistent, targeted strategy be developed for providing extra time to meet the needs of struggling students?

In an academically challenging high school language arts class – the kind, again, that you hope your children will experience – you may have spent time considering the implications of this passage from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which Superintendent Banda may have opportunities consider: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

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