If I was Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools…

Seattle-Public-Schools-logo-e1452449611277My friend Juan and I had a spirited conversation about the latest article in the Seattle Times concerning the persistent “achievement gap”. Juan noted there was not a lot of response from the usual African American and Latino individuals and organizations either. I told him they have moved on because no matter what they’ve tried, the district response was never effective. Juan wanted to know what could be done and I said it needed to be something drastic to get folks’ attention. I made a pretty drastic suggestion, which I won’t cover here, but when I started thinking about it, my mind went down the road of wondering “what would I do if I was Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools (SPS)”.  I’m not in the market for a new job, nor do I have the traditional background that would qualify me for it, but my current job as Executive Director of

I’m not in the market for the job, nor do I have the traditional background that would qualify me for it, but my current job as Executive Director of TAF is very much dependent on high functioning school districts and since SPS is the largest (and arguably the most dysfunctional) district in our state, so I’d like to actually try to help.

So, if I was Superintendent of SPS I would have to operate under some clear guiding principles in order to be successful.  Here’s what comes to mind:

  • The people on the ground know best, so they have a larger voice this anyone else.  That includes students, families, educators and staff.
  • Everything that is done has to show benefit to students.
  • There would have to be total transparency. No sneaking around, no crafty messaging, no backroom deals, etc.
  • Every single team that is put together to implement the work would be as close as possible to matching the student demographics socioeconomically.

A month or so ago, I attended a presentation from a young man who worked at the Oakland Unified School District, specifically charged to with running the African American Male Achievement program.  He used a very clever metaphor of cleaning a pond to describe their approach to change.  Essentially if you want a clean pond, you have to inoculate the fish first so they can survive while you’re in the process of doing what’s necessary to give them a clean pond to grow and thrive in. So In this case, like he did, I’m going to call the students the “fish” and the district the “pond”.

So in order to “inoculate the fish”…

This is a simple concept, yet not really simple task.  Basically, I’d put together a team to handle critical issues that need solving now and to also make sure students are protected.  These are things that truly inhibit learning and may be a danger to student wellbeing.  For this period of time, the district would have to operate in its current structure with the notion that any change would have to take into account the work that is being done to “clean up the pond”.

Now for cleaning up the “pond”…

First and foremost, I would put the focus on what should be and not how we tweak around the edges to make incremental change.  We’re well beyond that and the “fish” are not going to stop growing.  There is a lot to do and what you read below is only a fraction of what needs to happen.

Next, I would simultaneously do three things:

  1. Hold meaningful parent and students (current and past) engagement to get their view on what kind of school they want(ed) for their kids with a goal of at least 50% participation from each school. These conversations would be video or audio taped so as not to lose any valuable information.  Summaries of the conversations would be published on the website.
  2. Get a team together to define what it means to be well educated in SPS.
  3. Define the minimum criteria for a school to operate, that way regardless of what SPS school you attend or the active principal, you’re guaranteed a model that is highly functional even though it may have a completely different theme (arts, STEM, community, etc.) and culture. So when defining we should look at things such as:
    • Class size. Target class size depending on grade level.  Today middle and high school teachers are responsible for 120-180 students each year, well beyond the advised 80.  Can we set up our schools with lower class size and a more manageable load for teachers?
    • Governance. Composition of the building leadership team, role of the PTA/PTO, role of the students, etc.
    • Staff selection. How staff is selected, who is on the committee, etc.
    • Standards-based teaching, learning, and assessment. – No more grading for turning in homework, coming to class prepared, etc.  Only grading on whether students meet standards, giving them multiple ways to demonstrate they’ve met standards, and letting kids have the entire school year to meet them.
    • Role of the principal. We require principals to have been teachers first, yet once they become principals they’re hardly in the classroom.  I’d look at having a building manager to handle building operations, freeing up time for the principal to create conditions for great teaching and learning.
    • Role of the assistant principal. Traditionally this is a disciplinarian role.  I’d make the AP serve more as a curriculum and instruction coach that works with both teachers and students.  It doesn’t mean they won’t handle disciplinary issues, just in a completely different way.
  4. Restructure the central office to support students, families and staff as their primary role.

Over time I’d put teams together to look at these items (in no particular order):

  • Special Education. As a parent of a student who receives extensive special education services, this is near and dear to my heart.  The system needs an overhaul for sure.
  • Diversifying the teaching staff. Finding better ways to increase the number and retention of teachers of color with a goal of every student of color having at least 15% of the teaching staff who can relate to them.
  • Food service. Don’t need to say much other than students need better nutritional food choices.
  • World language emersion elementary schools.  At the moment, there’s no feeder pattern to middle school and high school, so if students are at a Chinese emersion school there is no middle school they can attend to keep up their skills, so by the time the get to high school they’ve lost three years of opportunity to develop.
  • Budgeting. I’d also make the budgeting process clear and publically available.  Every parent should be able to understand how the district and their school spends money.
  • Making schools a community resource.  Most of the schools close the building as soon as after school programming (if there is any) is completed.  We need to figure out a way to keep them open for the community so there’s a better relationship between community members and the school.

Obviously, there is so much to do and all these things take time, money, amazing human capital and other resources.  But that should not be the deterrent to change.

The district and Washington State need a visionary

The district needs a visionary that will make SPS the shining example in Washington State, and then eventually somebody in the State might step up and lead a vision for what it means to be well educated in Washington State.  It’s a chicken and egg thing I guess.

Like I said, I’m not vying for the job (it’s not open anyway) but I need to jot these ideas down so maybe somebody will use them one day.

My focus right now is trying to raise $10M in growth capital so TAF can expand our work partnering with public school districts, to create schools with academic environments that eliminate race-based disparity in academic achievement, and promote the highest level of student learning and teacher development.  With that kind of environment, we know students will learn to succeed–not for standards or teacher expectations, not to compete in the workforce and fuel the economy, not for personal gain and prestige–but so they can position themselves to create the world they envision, personally, communally, nationally and globally.

Recent Posts
Showing 4 comments
  • JR Lorca

    I agree with a lot you mentioned, with nuts and bolts question for each category. I’ll ask you in a more in depth message. I agree the roles of principal, asst. Principal and teachers need to change. As well as how and who chooses the staff. I want to work with people who want to be there and are willing to do the work.

  • Melissa Westbrook

    Great thoughts, Trish. Here’s my blog post on going thru what you have written (as someone who knows SPS very well.)

    Here’s my main thought:

    “Interesting focus points. You’ll note that she doesn’t say anything about the opportunity gap. She doesn’t say anything about highly capable students either. She worries about what food is going into kids bodies during the school day. And she wants schools to be part of their neighborhood beyond the school day.

    What’s great is that she’s not saying something like “flip the district.” Her changes are reasoned but subtle. But, if what she suggests was done, I think it would be noticeable in every corner of the district. Again, the John Stanford School of Superintendents – make sure every school, every principal, every teacher, every parent and every student knows it’s a new day in Seattle Schools.

    One of these days, the post of superintendent WILL be open. And I hope you consider applying because you’d do a kick-ass job.

  • Jennifer Ogle

    There is quite a large community of folks that want “to create schools with academic environments that eliminate race-based disparity in academic achievement, and promote the highest level of student learning and teacher development.” We understand the need for a visionary at the helm to give people a focus to rally around. Until that void is filled, we are trying the bottom-up approach to affecting change.

    It is my understanding that the most respected superintendent in decades came from a military/government background, so there is no reason to disqualify yourself because you have a technology/non-profit background. I’ll second Melissa.

Leave a Comment

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.