Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E39 - Community Engagement Is Coming, Says Board President Rankin

May 04, 2024 Season 1 Episode 39
E39 - Community Engagement Is Coming, Says Board President Rankin
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Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E39 - Community Engagement Is Coming, Says Board President Rankin
May 04, 2024 Season 1 Episode 39

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School Board President Liza Rankin shares the Seattle School Board’s immediate plans for community engagement to help inform the district's new Strategic Plan.

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Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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School Board President Liza Rankin shares the Seattle School Board’s immediate plans for community engagement to help inform the district's new Strategic Plan.

Support the Show.

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

[00:00:00] Liza Rankin: We have so much wealth and opportunity in our city. And I want to know, as the president of Seattle School Board, that I'm part of an organization that's actually preparing kids to participate in all of that. 

[00:00:14] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. I'm Christie Robertson.

[00:00:28] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. Today we have with us Seattle School Board President Liza Rankin, coming to talk with us about the community engagement Seattle Public Schools is planning for the next couple of months. Liza, thanks for coming.

[00:00:41] Liza Rankin: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:42] Jane Tunks Demel: So tell us: what are the plans for community engagement?

[00:00:46] Liza Rankin: All right, I'll talk specifically about the board's community engagement. Together, the board, the superintendent, staff, students, families, we're all the Seattle Public Schools district. But the board has a really specific role. And a critical part of that role — and why we're elected — is to represent the vision and values of the broader community and to make sure that we're doing what we need to hear from our community. 

So we're about to launch something that in my experience as a school board director — and prior as a community member — I haven't seen it happen on the kind of organized deliberate effort that we are doing as a full board.

As a body of seven, we are your representatives, not just of students and families, but of anybody who lives within the borders of the school district. We are going to launch an effort to hear from all of our community members, so that going into the next strategic plan, we're able to provide direction to the superintendent on behalf of the entire community about what's the most important to us.

[00:01:58] Jane Tunks Demel: Can you give a quick explanation about what the strategic plan is?

[00:02:02] Liza Rankin: Yeah, typically about every five years, Seattle Public Schools — and most public school districts — will craft a strategic plan. And within that, it's the board's job to provide direction on behalf of the community for the priorities and outcomes that we expect for our children. 

And so we're going to be going out and gathering feedback about the vision and values of our Seattle community. We'll use that feedback to come together as a board, look at all the data, look for themes, look for priorities, and create from that a set of goals and guardrails. 

Goals are what we expect students to know and be able to do. 

And then the guardrails are the values of the community that can't be violated on the way to achieving those goals.

And then once we adopt them sometime in the fall — cause we want to give it a little bit of time to sit, give people a chance to say that's not what we thought we said, or yes, that reflects what we as a community said — then that will be the official direction to the superintendent.

And then he will be able to turn around to staff and say, based on direction from our board, these are the goals for the next strategic plan. And now we will work on coming up with the strategies that we believe will achieve those goals while staying within the boundaries of the guardrails. And that will be how we measure success and hold the district accountable for the priorities for the next five years. 

So we're about to sunset the current strategic plan. That was 2019 to 2024. 

We've had a number of things come to us that push the timeline a little bit — some board seat vacancies, a wider reckoning with budget challenges. It would have been great to have started this in January. Now we actually have a way to still keep us on time to get the next strategic plan ready to go and in place when the 2025-26 school year starts.

[00:04:10] Christie Robertson: And I haven't dug up the previous strategic plans, but they probably don’t start over from scratch each time, right? ’Cause you don't want this district to totally switch direction every five years.

[00:04:21] Liza Rankin: Honestly, sometimes that does happen historically. I met with some retired teachers who haven't taught in Seattle Public Schools in over two decades, and their sense was, “Oh, my gosh, every three years, there'd be a new superintendent and everything would get abandoned.” And then we'd have to start all over. 

What we're really trying to do is provide some stability and consistency in our policy and direction that is very much rooted in community vision and values. Because although priorities shift, we don't want to have everybody feel like they're starting from scratch every three years.

Overall, we always need to be focused on improving student outcomes. That is the whole purpose of a school district. If you go out into community, everybody wants kids to be successful. Everybody wants kids to have basic skills and be good citizens. So really what we're trying to look at with the goals is how do we as a community define what that looks like and in something that we can measure to know if the school district is doing its job or not.

[00:05:25] Jane Tunks Demel: So let's go into what are the plans. What do you guys have lined up for engagement?

[00:05:30] Liza Rankin: We've got a couple of strategies that we've talked about at a certain level in board meetings. We've decided to provide some sort of universal opportunities that anyone could participate in, but also understand that some voices are more easily heard than others. Then we're also going to go out into specific meetings with groups to focus on the voices that are historically marginalized. 

The universal opportunities that anybody can engage with are going to be an online survey. We're going to provide, I think, two in-person board-hosted meetings — one north and one south — that anybody can come to. And then Seattle Council PTSA has offered to support us with an online public board co-hosted meeting that anybody could attend. So those will be the universal experiences 

[00:06:25] Liza Rankin: The targeted engagement we'll be doing — in no fewer than two, no more than three board directors at a time — where we're going to reach out to community leaders and groups that represent marginalized community members and those historically further from educational justice to really make sure that we are reaching the multilingual learner community, immigrant refugee, business, philanthropy, the arts and culture organizations, higher education, early learning.

Everybody has a role to play and a stake in the success of our schools and we as seven representatives are there to represent all of those people.

[00:07:13] Jane Tunks Demel: During the last school board meeting, Liza, you mentioned you were hoping for 20 of those type of engagements. Is that still the plan?

[00:07:21] Christie Robertson: Is that for real?

[00:07:22] Liza Rankin: Well, my challenge actually is 30, but I hope we get to 20.

[00:07:26] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, I didn't want to overcommit you.

[00:07:28] Liza Rankin: 30 is the reach goal. 

[00:07:31] Christie Robertson: Are you already reaching out to the specific groups and will we get to know who they are?

[00:07:35] Liza Rankin: We haven't sent that ask out yet. Right now, I have a spreadsheet of what different groups comprise the community that we represent: business, labor within SPS, non-SPS labor and workforce, community faith groups and leaders, philanthropy, higher education, early childhood and childcare, neighborhood and civic groups. Our other partners in governing, so city council and state legislators and county council. We have the elders or retired community, advocacy groups for children and education, public service, arts and culture. And then we also have demographics of race and ethnicity, age ranges, gender and sexuality, disability, home language, household income.

So we're just trying to hit all the places as much as we can and see who has the capacity to allow us to join them for a conversation. 

And we'll provide a report back at the end. The research team in SPS is supporting us with the online survey, and we've asked that we don't need names of people responding, but we do want to know who we're hearing from. So we're going to probably ask some version of what's your relationship to SPS?  Are you an SPS student? Are you a parent or guardian of a child in SPS? Are you staff? Are you a member of the community at large? Are you a community partner? Are you more than one of these things?

And then ask some demographic information. So that when the survey closes, staff provides us with an overview of “here's who you heard from and here's what they said.” And then we can use that together with information gathered from the engagement sessions to look at and gather from that themes and priorities.

[00:9:01] Jane Tunks Demel: Liza, do you personally plan to engage with District 1 [Rankin’s district]? We were wondering, in general, if all the directors will specifically be reaching out to the districts that they live in 

[00:09:15] Liza Rankin: If we have time, I think we will. We're going to reach out to our city council people, which are mostly aligned to school director districts. 

[00:9:22] Jane Tunks Demel: I think it would be a great idea to do that, Liza, because it's another way to capture that general audience. There are many people who aren't involved in a community organization, especially with two income working families. 

[00:09:35] Liza Rankin: We also have neighborhood and civic groups. There's like the Haller Lake Community Club and different groups like that. And then all of these intersect and overlap with each other, right? What we're going to try to do is find ways to make sure that we're not getting the same people in various iterations, but actually different groups of people we want to hear from the folks that are like, “Oh my gosh, nobody's ever asked me that. And I actually really care.”

When we're doing the outreach, we want to reach, in general, folks who have historically been on the margins. But also in connection to our current strategic plan, we as a community have defined students of color furthest from educational justice. 

And the disability community and multilingual community is going to be, for me, groups that I really want to prioritize. I'm not just talking about parents with students with disabilities in SPS. I'm talking about members of our community who live with disabilities. What is their perspective on what students should know and be able to do as a result of attending public schools? 

And the same with multilingual learners. The immigrant and refugee experience is something very different from a lot of people and so what's a priority for them, for their kids? Low income, housing insecure, all of these folks that we, as a school district, we serve the children of all of these communities. So it's really important that we ask what a successful school system would look like for them. 

[00:11:46] Jane Tunks Demel: That sounds amazing. And we pulled up the OSPI report card because it breaks down different groups and gender, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics. And there's just a few I wanted to find out from you that you didn't mention. Trans kids. And the Asian community is often forgotten in engagement.

[00:12:00] Liza Rankin: Well, and the Asian community includes so many different experiences and backgrounds that breaking that down and working with community partners is going to be really important. 

Native students are hugely important and is also part of our responsibility as a government is to report back out to tribes how Seattle Public Schools is doing in serving Native children. So that is also a priority group. 

I mean, you get to the point where everybody's a priority group. But looking at who our community comprises of and making sure that we have an attempt at proportionate input and then also looking at who we're most struggling to serve as a school system and focus on those communities — to do better by them is going to be where our board wants to focus.

Our final board meeting of this school year is at the beginning of July, and then we're going to come together in a retreat and look at the survey responses and feedback collected in our engagement sessions.

I have asked the superintendent to provide us with also some academic overview data so that we can look at the same time of — what did we hear from our community, and then what's the current status of how are our students doing, and kind of crosswalk that information to see where our greatest focus of effort needs to be so that all students can be successful.

[00:13:28] Jane Tunks Demel: Awesome. Will you also be reaching out to groups for foster care students and houseless students?

[00:13:38] Liza Rankin: Yes. Foster and homeless is huge. During the pandemic. there was an encampment on school district property in Bitter Lake, and I spent a lot of time at the encampment. And the majority of folks there were from Seattle, and they were our former students. And so that's hugely critical. 

What did you need that you didn't get from us? What do you believe students should know and be able to do to be prepared to lead the life that they want as adults? Yeah, that's huge. 

We also have one, a group I'm interested in engaging with is adults and students who are in recovery. Drug and alcohol use. That's a unique need. And also interested in students who have been engaging with the criminal justice system. How do we build a school district that gives kids what they need? 

And we have to first start by asking people what do kids need? What do you think kids need to know and be able to do when they leave Seattle Public Schools? To have the knowledge and skills and the ability to follow the path of their choosing. 

[00:14:56] Christie Robertson: This is going to be fascinating. 

[00:14:58] Liza Rankin: We're going to hear a lot of hard things and I'm also just really excited. We don't need to get in a conversation about math and literacy. We know those are important. They're state standards. Those are things that are required. What we want to know is — 

And I would really like to engage with recent graduates of Seattle Public Schools. And they're going to be tough to reach as a group, I think. But try to find ways to engage with groups like Seattle Student Union and NAACP Youth Council, who may be recent graduates or have connections to students who are recent graduates. About two, five years after graduation: Do they feel like they got what they needed? And if they didn't, I want to know what was missing.

[00:15:42] Jane Tunks Demel: I love the idea of you talking to young adults to get their feedback, who have been so recently in Seattle Public Schools.

[00:15:49] Liza Rankin: Yeah. And we have so much wealth and opportunity in our city and I want to know, as the president of Seattle School Board, that I'm part of an organization that's actually preparing kids to participate in all of that. What are we doing if the students of our city graduate and have to go elsewhere to find opportunity and to survive.

They should be able to have access to all of the wonderful, incredible things and resources that are within our city.

[00:16:24] Jane Tunks Demel: Definitely. And for some of those opportunities that require a college degree, will you also be checking in with students who have matriculated to four-year colleges?

[00:16:36] Liza Rankin: Yes. And we're also going to ask folks in higher education, especially as after the pandemic, what are you seeing? How are we preparing kids? What are we missing, as you see students come to you from Seattle Public Schools?

[00:16:50] Jane Tunks Demel: That sounds great. 

[00:16:51] Christie Robertson: Liza, let's go over the questions that you're going to be asking each of these groups.

[00:16:58] Liza Rankin: Yeah, I mean, basically we want to try to stick at the level of vision and values. The first question is going to be how should we be able to describe a graduate of Seattle Public Schools? And what knowledge and skills do our students need to have to be successful after completing high school?

And it's been really fun asking these questions to some groups as we sort of get ready to roll this out. People really, so far, want kids to, of course, have basic academic skills. But also, civics keeps coming up, and I think will keep coming up, so that students understand how to engage in the world beyond school in the way that they want. Where are their opportunities for input? How do they fully participate in community and society? 

[00:17:51] Christie Robertson: It's a great first question because it takes people out of the — you can kind of get stuck in the narrow of — but in seventh grade, kids should be able to do XYZ. And it makes you just pan out and be like what are we trying to get to at the end?

[00:18:07] Liza Rankin: Yeah. What's the ultimate end goal? And then, as we measure how we get there we may end up with a goal that's more about seventh grade math. 

After that we'll be asking, what does educational equity mean to you and how should it be measured? Equity has become sort of a buzzword and we don't all mean the same thing when we say it and it can be weaponized. So what we really want to have a clear idea about is what our community wants us to focus on. And then also how could it be measured? Once we define what educational equity means, how do we know if we're achieving it or not?

And then the next couple of questions hopefully don't get too operational, but wanted to give an opportunity for people to share with us something that's not working and should stop. And that could be on the large scale or the small scale. And then what is the strength or something that should continue in support of improving student outcomes in Seattle Public Schools.

And then the last question that we want to ask people is: What is one thing you are willing to commit to that would support the success of our students in Seattle Public Schools? And we really see this as an opportunity to draw more people into the participation of and support of Seattle Public Schools, that it's not just a service that's provided to families who have students who are the recipients of the services and programs. Public Schools is something that we all benefit from, we all have a vested interest in. 

The majority of children in Seattle, in Washington, in the United States, attend public schools. And our public dollars support public schools. So whether it's monetary return on investment or wanting to support kids to become successful adults, we all have a role to play in supporting the success of students in Seattle Public Schools.

And so we wanted to both give people an opportunity to name that, but also see if maybe, oh gosh, there are a whole bunch of people who would really like to do X. Let's figure out a way to implement that and lift that up so that we can all benefit from that. I don't know what will come from that.

[00:20:25] Christie Robertson: Yeah. I was going to ask what kinds of answers are you expecting?

[00:20:29] Liza Rankin: I mean, I don't know. I think it could be any range of things. I think for some people it might be, I will make sure that my student is a active participant and finishes their homework and completes graduation requirements. How will I commit to the success? I'll commit to making sure my student gets there. 

It could be offering to volunteer. It could be advocating in Olympia, anything. We really wanted to bring people in on whether or not you have kids there's something that everybody can do if they would like to help make sure that we're successful in serving our students.

[00:21:03] Jane Tunks Demel: What if you hear some unexpected answers? What if someone says that they love the Highly Capable Cohort program or something like that?

[00:21:12] Liza Rankin: Yeah, yeah, the question about what's not working and should be stopped, what's a strength, that's something that should continue, I imagine are the most likely places where there will be contradictory responses. And we're not tallying votes and going with whatever the most people say.

The highly capable cohort, for example, identifying and serving students as highly capable is part of basic education in Washington state. So if people said we think that should stop — it's state law. But what's not state law is the cohort part and the vote to or the decision to eliminate the cohort and serve students who are identified as highly capable in their neighborhood school was taken five or something years ago. So that's something that's behind us already. That's been decided.

[00:21:59] Jane Tunks Demel: Right, right, right. 

[00:22:01] Liza Rankin: So I will say, asking people these questions doesn't mean that every single person will see a result that's something that exactly aligns with what they individually said because we're gonna have things that are contradictory from within our community. There's 750,000 people in Seattle, people are going to have different opinions. But overall we want to capture what we believe will provide the best direction to the district based on our whole community. 

[00:22:32] Jane Tunks Demel: And do you have any hints yet of what sorts of goals and guardrails may come out of this community engagement?

[00:22:39] Liza Rankin: I don't know. I really don't. So far the sample trial questions that we've asked for some groups, which are not super-representative, right? Have been about preparing to engage as adults past graduation. Not just having the academic skills, but having a post-graduation plan and knowing what steps they can take to achieve it.

It feels like the academic pieces are all very important and what we're looking for is context and agency for our students. And how do we measure that? How do we implement that? How do we support students in using what they learn past graduation?

That seems to be so far where things are going, but that's again a small sample. And we're going to hopefully hear from such a wide variety of folks that I think it's too early to say where we're gonna go. 

With technology advancing the way it is and with the gap in wealth in Seattle and in general, I feel like those two things are going to be how do we make sure that students have a path to either a job or higher education that's going to serve them well into adulthood.

[00:24:01] Jane Tunks Demel: And not every college degree equals a livable wage.

[00:24:03] Liza Rankin: Right. And college can lead to a lot of debt

[00:24:07] Christie Robertson: And there are a lot of really great opportunities that don't require going to college. And we've got our Skills Center and some really great resources there within Seattle Public Schools that I want more people to know about and take advantage of. 

[00:24:22] Liza Rankin: And we also have a state-required High School and Beyond Plan, which is a tool that I think we should take more advantage of. People say that they want students to have a plan and be prepared to take action on it. 

The High School and Beyond Plan is a tool that we're required to use. I'm interested in seeing how we can boost the advantages of that more and move it past a checkbox to actually using it as a way for students to really understand what they want to pursue and for families to understand if their student is getting what they need and is ready to not just meet graduation requirements but pursue the life beyond K-12 that they want for themselves.

[00:25:04] Jane Tunks Demel: Liza, you mentioned that you will be gathering this community engagement in the next couple months and then have a board retreat in late June or July? Is that correct?

[00:25:13] Liza Rankin: Yeah, late June, early July, we haven't set the date yet.

[00:25:16] Jane Tunks Demel: And then what happens after that? You did mention earlier that there'll be time for the community to look at the outcomes of the engagement and maybe weigh in again.

[00:25:27] Liza Rankin: We will take all of the feedback from the survey. The feedback from the engagement sessions, an overview of the status of academics in SPS for different student groups, and look at them together and we'll spend a whole day wading through all of that and developing things and coming up with the drafts for goals and guardrails. And then we'll share those back out along with a report of all of the information received who we heard from, what they said. And sort of let those float out for people to look at over the summer and respond to or ask questions if they want. 

And then when we come back together in August, September, we will re-look at our drafts, see if anything new or different has come up, any feedback that we want to act on or implement.

During that time, the superintendent and his staff will also be starting to create the interim goals and guardrails. So for each of the board goals, the superintendent should have three to five interim measures that he believes will indicate progress on the top line goal. 

And when we come back in the fall. We will look at our drafts together and look at the suggested interim [guardrails] and make sure we have alignment. Sometimes the interim [guardrails] produced by staff can let us know, oh, that's not really what we meant. Maybe we should change the way we phrase that because the interim doesn't make sense to us, or whatever different things come up.

And so we check back for alignment between the interim goals and guardrails and the top-line goals and guardrails consider any feedback or new information we may have received. And then we will — in public meeting — introduce the final goals and guardrails and then also adopt them in a formal board action in a regular board meeting.

[00:27:32] Jane Tunks Demel:And when do you think that will be?

[00:27:36] Liza Rankin: Probably September, October.

[00:27:38] Jane Tunks Demel: At some point, will you be sharing [a list of] the different community groups that you've engaged with during this process?

[00:27:45] Liza Rankin: Yeah. I expect that we'll include that in the full report out of who we heard from and what we heard. My anticipation would be that we have some breakdown information from the survey of — we heard from this percent parents and guardians, this percent community members, this percent students, whatever. And then also have the board engaged with the following groups over this period of time in a list of the groups. That would be, that's my expectation.

[00:28:16] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, that sounds great. I think it's really helpful for people it's just like showing your work, like, who you engage with. And I think it just gives people so much more faith in the process, especially when they see all the work you're doing. If you're going to 20 or 30 groups, that's incredible. 

[00:28:32] Liza Rankin: And what I'm hoping to do, too, is use this as an opportunity to, build in some best practices so that, we should as a board have our own kind of framework for community engagement that includes groups we've engaged with in the past that we could add to or change every time the board wants to do engagement, they shouldn't be like, huh, who should we talk to? We should have kind of a living document for ourselves with the contacts and with the groups represented. 

If there's a state law change about multilingual instruction, for example, and the board wants to adopt a policy about it, we should be able to say who have we contacted in the past. Or who do we have relationships with that represent multilingual learners. 

[00:29:22] Christie Robertson: Yeah. And they should be board relationships.  I hope you bring back a lot of what you're hearing from people. ’Cause I'm very curious to hear what all the different groups have to say about these questions.

[00:29:30] Liza Rankin: Yeah, I can't wait. We have a really enthusiastic and committed board, and we're all really looking forward to just spending the next two months being out and with the folks that we represent and having these really important conversations about all of our kids. I'm honestly, it's going to be a lot of work, but I'm really excited.And the rest of the board is too.

And then we will be creating an actual board policy on community engagement. Which doesn't currently exist in any form.

[00:30:00] Christie Robertson: That's wild. 

[00:30:09] Liza Rankin: I know!

[00:30:12] Christie Robertson: You'd think it'd be buried in there somewhere.

[00:30:16] Liza Rankin: Wll, there is. But it's kind of policy for staff and it's not particularly actionable. And that should be in a governance policy. The board providing direction to itself. 

[00:30:28] Christie Robertson: part of what's exciting about this engagement that we're going to do is that we're really focused on the board's responsibility of representing the vision and values of community. And our engagement is solidly focused on that. The Superintendent and staff also has our continuing engagement on the well-resourced schools, which is more about the inputs into the system.

[00:30:50] Liza Rankin: And what people expect from a complete school building. What needs to be provided in order for us to achieve our vision for students. And so the relationship between what the school board does versus what the superintendent does and how it all makes up the district can be a little muddy and confusing.

I have created a basic infographic about the different responsibilities of the superintendent and the school board and another infographic about how federal law, state law, and then school district policy relate to each other, which I would be happy to share with you if you'd like to include those in show notes.

It's just a hopefully not wonky overview for folks who may be new to advocacy in public schools or who are seasoned pros in just outlining what the rules really are as authorized by the state. So happy to provide those if you want to include them for your listeners.

[00:31:51] Jane Tunks Demel: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Liza. And thank you so much for coming today.

[00:31:56] Liza Rankin: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited about this and thanks for helping us get the word out.

[00:32:01] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, and we can't wait to see the results in the fall. 

[00:32:04] Christie Robertson: Yes, thank you so much for coming Liza. It's been a really interesting conversation.

[00:32:10] Liza Rankin: Great. Thanks again.

[00:32:11] Jane Tunks Demel: And that concludes this episode. If you like the podcast, you can support us by donating at, subscribing, or reviewing us on your podcast app.

[00:32:21] Christie Robertson: You can also email us tips and ideas at hello I'm Christy Robertson.

[00:32:27] 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.