Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E7 - "How to Break a School"

October 14, 2023 Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel Season 1 Episode 7
Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E7 - "How to Break a School"
Seattle Hall Pass Podcast +
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Support
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This episode of Seattle Hall Pass is part 1 of 2 that covers the October 11 School Board Meeting (part 2 is coming soon). In protest of the 40 elementary schools that are being disrupted so that the district can comply with a state-mandated student-teacher ratio, public comment was full of parents, teachers, and union staff sharing their thoughts with the district. 

Christie and Jane also share why they think it’s important for “our district” to listen to criticism from the people on the ground.
 
For sources on the facts cited in the podcast and other supporting documentation, see our show notes here.

We want to hear from our listeners. Email us with comments, questions, or corrections at hello@seattlehallpass.org.


Support the show

Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
Sign up for our newsletter

Episode 7 - “How to break a school”

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. This week, we're reporting on the October 11th School Board Meeting. My name is Christie Robertson.

[00:00:12] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel, and we're going to divide this board meeting into two episodes because so many things happened — all of them important. First, we want to cover all the amazing public comment from families, teachers, and union staff about the teacher shuffling that's happening in schools in the last few weeks.

And in the second episode, we will cover the new financial guardrail policy, being proposed by the board.

[00:00:42] Christie Robertson: So yeah, this was the second school board meeting in a row that had quite a lot of people at it. Two weeks ago some anti-trans activists came and brought out a lot of our trans-supportive community. Student board director Luna Crone-Barón started off this meeting with a comment about that session.

[00:01:04] Luna Crone-Barón, student board director: I will say in my experience as a trans student, Seattle Public Schools, as it is now, is not a safe place for trans students. And that is an issue. Countless families that I know, that my parents have contacted through “parents of trans kids” Facebook groups, through community meetings, have quite literally been fleeing Seattle Public Schools due to bullying harassment of their kids. 

And the thing that's the worst part about it to me is that this isn't just kids being mean to each other. In my experience, you know, if kids are mean to me, I'll fight back. I'm a person who is unafraid to speak my mind as many of my colleagues have come to learn. What is the most harmful and what has happened in my experience is that the most malicious and insidious harm and transphobia comes from staff and teachers. 

[00:01:42] Christie Robertson: And then she went on to talk about how policy means nothing without action.

[00:01:52] Luna Crone-Barón, student board director: I am really happy that on the Seattle Public Schools level, we have policy, with language. That is wonderful. It's wonderful to see that language. It's wonderful to hear the words, “I support you. We support you, trans students.” It doesn't mean anything when we're not seeing any of that support in our actual school environments. It's something that makes me angry. It's something that makes me sad. And most of all, it's something that makes me determined to keep this work in conversation going. 

[00:02:49] Christie Robertson: Most of the rest of the public comments were about the teacher shuffling that's been happening this year, which we did our best to understand in Episode 6 of Seattle Hall Pass. So if you're still trying to understand this, you might want to go back and listen to that episode. 

So let's review quickly. What happens every year is what they call an October adjustment, which is when teachers move around between schools based on where students show up in September and how that differs from when they made enrollment projections in March of the previous year.

So that happens every year. And the thing that's different this year. is that we're needing to realign to make for smaller K-through-3 class sizes. As of 2019, districts need to show that they are maintaining student teacher ratios in K-3 classes at 17:1. The law is RCW 28A.150.260, which says that in order to get full funding from OSPI, the Superintendent of Public Schools for the state, districts need to have an average over the whole district of 17:1 one for K-3. And that's not class size. Actually, that's just students to certified teachers. 

[00:04:25] Jane Tunks Demel: It counts every teacher that has contact with that class. So for example, for a kindergarten through 3 grade class, they will also see a PE teacher or an art teacher or a reading specialist and so on. So each of those teachers are counted in the ratio. So that's why, if you're hearing about the 17:1 class size and you see that your kindergartener has 20 students in the class, its because they're also counting the teachers in all these other subjects.

[00:04:57] Christie Robertson: And districts since 2019 have a report called S-275 that shows that they are meeting this ratio in order to get full funding. And this year with all the austerity, they suddenly were off and had to make adjustments to 40 schools to meet it.

It really impacts a lot of individual children who are trying to grow up and learn and become parts of their communities. And the changes are happening as what percentage of the school year?

[00:05:29] Jane Tunks Demel: It's 19 percent of the school year. One parent who testified was saying how it's 35 days into the school year and that’s 19% out of 180 days. 

[00:05:42] Christie Robertson: A couple of directors commented before public testimony. 

Lisa Rivera Smith pointed out that they're getting a lot of emails, and that she is having a really hard time answering what people are asking her because the staff aren't being responsive to her and that they are really struggling to understand. 

[00:06:05] Lisa Rivera Smith, board director: I, as a board director, I appreciate all the messages, emails, text messages I’ve received. I desperately want to understand the situation better because I want to advocate for you the best I can, but I don't have the information I need right now. I have two emails at this point out to staff, with questions so that I can better understand what's happening. 

[00:06:25] Jane Tunks Demel: And then Lisa Rivera Smith goes on to explain to all the people in the audience that the Superintendent and the Central Office are not answering her emails either about what's going on here. Let's listen to what she says.

[00:06:41] Lisa Rivera Smith, board director: Because I can't do my job if I'm not getting the information I need. I appreciate that there's a lot going on here. And my emails aren't the only ones the Superintendent office is receiving. But I hope that I can get a better understanding of things so that I can help families understand what's going on, because that's really what everybody needs. Everybody needs understanding and actual data, facts, information. 

[00:06:55] Jane Tunks Demel: And then Lisa Rivera Smith explains how this was not a board decision.

[00:07:12] Lisa Rivera Smith, board director: I hope that in addition to emailing the board, that everybody here is emailing the Superintendent’s office as well, because that is really the driver between these classroom. These were not board actions. These are not things that we called for and did. There's a lot of things we do vote on such as the budget, such as policy, such as the CBA, which has ratios. All those things are places we touch, but these classroom reallocations were not something that we had a part in. And I'm speaking for myself, I don't fully understand what happened and I would love to, I want to, I need to. So thank you again for being here and for reaching out and for speaking for your classrooms and your families and your students.  

[00:07:55] Christie Robertson: So let's get into some of the public comment. A lot of really impassioned speakers, mostly parents and teachers. And we'll start with parents. 

[00:08:01] Jane Tunks Demel: A parent from Orca named Jessica Jones. She came up to testify and she listed all the cuts that has happened at Orca the last few years. She also pointed out that Orca is a Title I school, which means it has a significant number of students getting free and reduced lunch. And here's how she explained what's happening at Orca.

[00:08:23] Jessica Jones: Our South Seattle Title 1 school has a majority BIPOC student population, including my two mixed-race children. And due to cuts from the last two years, we have no assistant principal, a half-time librarian, a half-time counselor. We have lost 1.7 academic instructional support staff, and now 3.5. teachers. It’s, frankly, unexpected — unacceptable for a school of nearly 400 students. Our teachers, staff, and administration, including our fabulous kindergarten teacher here with us tonight, have moved mountains over the last two years to cover the gaps from the cuts we keep receiving from the district. But they are not superheroes and they should not be expected to do the work of two or more people because the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund public education. 

[00:09:10] Jane Tunks Demel: I thought it was interesting that she mentioned that this was a school of nearly 400 students, because so often we're told that the prototypical school model for elementary schools has 400 students. But here's a school — and it's actually a K-8 — but it has almost 400 students, and it's still getting all these cuts.

[00:09:30] Christie Robertson: Dr. Thomas Poole, another Orca parent, is a professor at Seattle University. And in his testimony, he mentions the term FTE, which means one full-time job for a teacher.

[00:09:43] Thomas Poole: I recently shared what is happening at Orca with an education professor at a nearby institution with hopes of understanding what's going on in our school. I shared how within two years, position cuts have resulted in a half-time librarian, half-time counselor, along with the full-time removal of a vice -principal, three interventionists, and 3.5 teachers. She told me and I quote, "This is how you break a school."

She said these types of changes, when these types of changes are permitted in a school, each sequential cut of FTE very predictably has more and more dramatic impacts on the school, despite exemplary work by the teachers and admin, doing their best every day. Thus, this last cut, removing this angel from our school will have a disproportionate consequence on our community. 

I will continue to share these details with my colleague because, like it or not, we are now a case study, which she will teach in her undergraduate education class. Please reconsider and do whatever you can as a board to undo, if possible, this last FTE cut for our school. So that Orca can be a positive case study example of how this board responded to the community's concerns and refused an untenable outcome. Thank you very much for your time. 

[00:11:19] Jane Tunks Demel: Another speaker, Robert Cruickshank, who has a student at Adams Elementary, he’s also a founder of Paramount Duty, an education advocacy nonprofit, and he explained how kids are being punished for adult mistakes.

[00:11:36] Robert Cruickshank: The mess with K-3 class sizes is not routine. It is offensive to tell families that it was. The district screwed up its class-size projections and its guidance to schools. You're making children suffer for adult failures. And as you see here tonight, those failures are ongoing. My fourth-grader’s school Adams Elementary is having to reshuffle kids and lose one of our best teachers because of the district's mistake. You have the district might still be wrong and some of its projections there at, at numerous schools, the board needs to make this right. The board needs to direct SPS management to find the funding to prevent these reshuffles at every school. If cuts needs to be found, cut staff and salaries here at the central office. Don’t take it out of the classroom and don't take it from kids. 

[00:12:17] Christie Robertson: Robert went on to talk about how this is just a small taste of what's coming when we are actually having to close schools.

[00:12:29] Robert Cruickshank: The proposed closures of public schools will make this K-3 class-size mess look minor. We know from research that closing schools worsens outcomes for students who schools were closed. You cannot tell us that you care about student outcomes and then propose closing schools. It's not even going to solve the budget deficit. Also, if you couldn't correctly predict enrollment this year, how do we know you can correctly predict future enrollment? 

[00:12:51] Christie Robertson: And here's the call to taking our advocacy where it really needs to go, which is to tell our legislators that they are not amply funding our schools.

[00:13:04] Robert Cruickshank: Legislators have told us that there is willingness to add more funding for our schools in 2024, but the board has to help by stepping up and asking for it. We need you to contact our legislators to tax the rich, not embrace austerity. By embracing austerity, you would accept worse outcomes for every child in this district. We won't accept it and we will hold all seven of you accountable if you proceed with this attack on our children's future. Remember ballots are in the mail next week. 

[00:13:34] Christie Robertson: And I hope that everybody who listens to this podcast and who came and testified takes this strong advocacy to their legislators. Send your testimony to your legislators. We have heard from some legislators that they think that Seattle schools get too much money. But one of the things I think you will hear in parent testimony today is that our class sizes are just too big. It's not a good school environment for kids — the shuffle and all of the minutiae of teachers moving around. Yes, that could be managed better. But the root of the matter is that we don't have enough funding for small enough class sizes. 

Jane and I are also working on accumulating public records from legislators some of whom are clearly indicating that because we passed our last CBA and are paying our teachers a living wage to live in the city where they teach. That they are blaming that for our budgetary woes. And our very own Seattle legislators are absolving themselves of the responsibility to fight for amply funding our state schools.

[00:14:55] Jane Tunks Demel: Another parent named Warlina Wheeler came to speak, and she had students at Dunlap. She talked about her experience as a parent of color in Seattle Public Schools. Here's what she said.

[00:15:09] Warlina Wheeler: First of all, the lack of transparency is wild. Watching the students and the teachers the last week. The students don't know what's going on, but they know something's going on because the teachers at Dunlap. I’m sorry, I'm a little bit excited, but this is my daughter's second time possibly be impacted. Last year, she was impacted by being moved into another split class, separating from her teacher. 

[00:15:37] Christie Robertson: She talks about how this is impacting some of the teachers and students that we are really trying to centralize. I hope the district is listening to that this is impacting staff of color who've been in the system for a long time, which we really do not have enough of. So here's what she says.

[00:15:58] Warlina Wheeler: I've never in my life seeing the staffing at a school reflect what the students look like. So for the students to come there and feel like they're accepted. They have teachers that care about them, look like them. It's unacceptable. That's a you problem. Not ours. You're worried about numbers and money. That's not our problem. Our problem — and the solution — should be finding a way to take care of our kids. They're already suffering from the pandemic and so are we. 

I talked to three teachers. I won't be much longer, a meeting of six staff members. Years that they'll be in that Dunlap Elementary while we has been there for 42 years — one 31 and the other one 20. That there alone shows that they are a unit there, and I wouldn't want to leave there either. They were asked to volunteer to leave the school. No one wanted to volunteer to leave so that they wouldn't have to come up with a decision on who has seniority and who leaves. I wouldn't want to either. And I just think that it's a disrespect and a disservice to come into our neighborhood and our school and displace teachers and our students and cram them all into classrooms when they're perfectly fine. 

And to me, I think the lowest number may be 15, 16. That's perfect. They're coming out of the pandemic. They should be able to have that time with their peers and their teachers. So that's what I have to say. 

[00:17:23] Jane Tunks Demel: And a parent from Adams Elementary, Karen Hartman, read a letter that her daughter and a friend wrote. 

[00:17:29] Karen Hartman: So these two little eight year old girls wrote the Adams News and I would like to read it to you. All Adams students in Ms. Windus’s class got surprising news that the class will be split up. Kids might be without their friends in their new classes. 

So we have never had a normal year at Adam. When we were in kindergarten, we had online learning because of Covid. In first grade, our teacher got sick and was gone for half the year. In second grade, our teacher mysteriously disappeared midyear and we had subs for a month before we got a new teacher. And now this is happening! We feel upset! On the next page is all the people that we found who want Ms. Windus to say. It's mostly third and fourth graders. Thank you to everyone who voted. 

And then you will see 45 signatures they collected during recess. 

[00:18:24] Christie Robertson: I love that they got 45 signatures.

[00:18:26] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, and it was also amazing to hear straight from the kids about all the disruption they've had every single year of their K through 5 experience so far. 

[00:18:36] Christie Robertson: And speaking of hearing straight from the kids, here is a — was he a kindergarten student? Here's what he says about his classroom.

[00:18:48] Child: And I'm in Teacher Tyler's class, and I love it. 

[00:18:53] Naomi Strand: That's right. 

[00:18:55] Jane Tunks Demel: And that student is not the only one who loves Teacher Tyler. Listen here to Teacher Tyler's comments about all the cuts they've had at Orca K-8.

[00:19:06] Tyler Dupuis: These changes, they make no sense. They don't make anything better and they benefit no one. Especially our students furthest from educational justice. Now, I assume I know that you are in a tough position here. There's the budget deficit and everything. But we're standing here in incredibly rich Seattle. The richest corporations in the entire world are a few blocks away. This is one of the richest cities in the richest country that has ever existed on the face of this planet. So no money, not enough money for public schools. That's not a good enough answer for me. 

[00:19:40] Jane Tunks Demel: And then he went one step further, challenging the board to prove they support public education

[00:19:47] Tyler Dupuis: That doesn't seem like it supports public education to me. It probably definitely supports those who would love to see public education fail. They've a vested interest in that. And there's a lot of money to be made there if they do. But that's not why you're here. Right? You're here to serve public education, to serve our students. So if that is indeed true, you have the opportunity to prove it right now. You'll just have to be brave. But you will have to reject, we'll have to reject these measures of austerity. You rejected the idea that there isn't enough money. It is there. We just go and bang down the doors in the halls of power and say, no, we want fully funded schools for everyone. 

I'll end by saying this. The teachers and parents will be perfectly willing to do that job for you, but I don't think you want to be caught on the other side of our solidarity. So I just will end with a question. Whose side are you on? 

[00:20:44] Jane Tunks Demel: And the Seattle Education Association, which is the teacher's union, they put a call out to their members, asking everybody to come testify about the K through 3rd grade staffing adjustments. They encouraged their members to testify that the changes were not routine. And also to share their stories about how these preventable disruptions are impacting their school communities.

[00:21:09] Christie Robertson: Jennifer Matter, the president of the Seattle Education Association, she talks about how the district was not communicative with the union and that they didn't have a heads-up and that they could have done the adjustments earlier. And so here's what she says.

[00:21:26] Jennifer Matter: Despite SEA having two regularly scheduled meetings with district leaders in September. the district did not communicate any information to SEA about this K-3 classroom issue in advance of instructing school leaders to adjust  K-3 classroom sizes. As a result to educators, parents, students were left in the dark with more questions than answers. Thursday, we met with district leaders, and at that time, learned the district approved certain classroom sizes, staffing levels, last spring that were inconsistent with the state  K-3 class size funding requirements. And now they are scrambling to correct this mistake. 

We need the district to be transparent and honest with the school community about what is happening and what actions it will take, especially when mistakes happen.

[00:22:11] Jane Tunks Demel: And then there was a teacher from Roxhill, Martie Binkow, and she shared what's happening at her school.

[00:22:21] Martie Binkow: Our school is ranked in the bottom 5% of schools in the state of Washington. We are all working tirelessly to improve our students' academic performance while receiving absolutely no support from the district in these efforts. Our school is high poverty, high needs, with an exceptionally diverse student body. In fact, we have one of the most diverse international populations across the entire district. 

[00:22:43] Jane Tunks Demel: And she also noted what was happening districtwide. 

[00:22:48] Martie Binkow: Over 60% of the impacted schools have at least 50% students of color. Of the 32 SPS-identified Title 1 elementary schools, 24 of those schools are impacted by this decision. At the beginning of this year, every school spent many hours learning about and implementing the racial equity analysis tool. I'm wondering if the district utilizes this in regards to their decision to reshuffle students. 

As I tried to use it to analyze this decision, I found it very much impossible to find the equity. Which of my students would you like me to displace from my classroom? The one who barely came to school last year before and now has perfect attendance. The one who I bring a snack for every day because she doesn't have food at home. The one who has repeated behavioral challenges, who I have built a relationship finally with, and I'm started to make real progress with. The one who is receiving specialized instruction with an IEP. The one who's learning English. The one who is working toward being a straight A student for the first time in school. My list could go on. The decision is wrong and it does not have the student's best interests in mind. 

Why do our students have to suffer due to a mistake made by the district? I hope you will recognize the huge impact your decision makes on our entire school community. 

[00:24:06] Christie Robertson: And here's Ashley Allison, a fifth-grade teacher at Dunlap, talking about what a huge difference her smaller class size was making and trying to imagine what it's going to be like to put 10 more kids in there. 

[00:24:11] Ashley Alison:  This is my third year teaching and I finally feel like I have a hold on my class. It's like smaller and I can really get to know students and I can really get to know their parents. And I have formed this community where i know where each student is at. 

And we're throwing 10 more kids in my class and that doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make any sense, $3.6 million in in the whole scheme of things is a drop in the bucket. That doesn't make any sense why we're cutting teachers there. I don't know your policy. You influence policy Well, make splits not a thing. Influence that policy. I don't know, think outside the box.

[00:25:02] Jane Tunks Demel: She heard the school board directors saying that they're there to set policy. And so she's like, “Okay, fine. If you want to set policy, set a policy for no split-grade classrooms.”

I love that.

[00:25:15] Christie Robertson: And that's my biggest question. The directors answer, which is going to be tied into our next podcast about the financial policy, is, well, we're trying to make policy so things are student-centered. And so we have guardrails. But tell me if that financial policy was in place, how would this have been any different? And if there's an answer to that, like I'm open to there being an answer to that. I really want to hear it.

[00:25:41] Jane Tunks Demel: My criticism about student outcomes-focused governance is that I think it sounds great in theory, but in practice, there are still some things that need to be figured out. There's no mechanism for the board to have any accountability from the district when something like this happens. 

It's a similar example as to when they weren't being kept informed about the bargaining, there's just no consequence after that. And not that everything has to be a consequence, but it doesn't seem like there's anything that happens after that to try to figure out where we went wrong.

Most important to me, the central office has not admitted its error. And it also makes me feel like, how can I trust them to make student-centered decisions with the school closures if they do something like this and then won't even admit that they made a mistake?

Christie and I were actually at the Alliance for Education luncheon yesterday. And during that event, Superintendent Jones, well, he did a really great call to the community saying, instead of saying “the district,” let's just say “our district.” And then, I really love that because it really is our district and people like Christie and I, we care about this district so much that we're spending our spare time making a podcast trying to inform people about what's happening because we care about it so much.

And then later on at the event he said, and I don't remember what the quote was, Christie, I don't know if you have it, but um, 

[00:27:13] Christie Robertson: Yes, he actually had everybody echo him saying our district, which is great. And how we, I think all really want to feel. 

[00:27:23] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, it was a really powerful feeling being in a roomful of people saying our district.

[00:27:29] Christie Robertson: So he said, "So I'm asking all the players, all the stakeholders to get into the room to get into many rooms, figure it out. We actually have the resource, the intellect, the innovation, the tools to get us over the hump. I'm tired of hearing the critiques of Seattle Public Schools.

“I am tired of the criticism of Seattle Public Schools. There is greatness happening every single day and I need you to find those, be champions of those and continue to push us forward so that the community understands it's our school district." 

[00:28:03] Jane Tunks Demel: I thought what he said was amazing, but I did take issue with him saying he's tired of hearing of the criticism. He's tired of hearing the critique. I think that, as later on at that event, there was another speaker who was talking about something else, when a community critiques, it's because they care, it’s because they love. 

So I hope Superintendent Jones listens to critiques with an open heart, because anybody who's taking the time to critique Seattle Public Schools is because they love Seattle Public Schools.

[00:28:21] Christie Robertson: What really was hard for me about him making those comments at that lunch was that it was right after all these parents came and poured their hearts out and teachers came and poured their hearts out about describing impacts that these decisions were having on their families. And that is the kind of criticism that you have got to listen to. 

And one of my biggest criticisms of the district that I am really hoping will be taken as a constructive criticism is you've got to listen to what's people on the ground are saying what's happening. 

So that concludes this episode. Tune in later for a discussion of the financial policy. You can find our show notes at Seattlehallpass.org.

[00:29:17] Jane Tunks Demel: And if you're the sort of person who made it this far, then we want to hear from you. Email us at hello@seattlehallpass.org

[00:29:24] Christie Robertson: I'm Christy Robertson. 

[00:29:27] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. We'll be back with more episodes soon, and we hope you'll join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.

Life of a Trans Student
Why Are They Shuffling Kids and Teachers?
School Board Directors Shrug
Parents Are Up in Arms
Real Talk from Teachers and SEA
Constructive Criticism in Our District