By Maria Ramirez
For Northwest Asian Weekly
In 1999, the Seattle School District formed the EAGAC — Eliminating the Achievement Gap Action Committee.
Like the two previous task forces formed in 1986 and 1992, the charge was to have a group of leaders in education and human services to make recommendations to the school district to close the achievement gap — in eight years.
I’m going to be brutally honest here in this commentary — what I saw was a denial of a child’s human and civil right, the right to an education. Every child has a right to an education.
Part of the process of getting to the recommendations was exploring answers to our questions.
Why aren’t more Black, Native American, Samoan, Filipino, and Vietnamese students achieving — especially males? What can we do to keep high school students engaged? Why aren’t more parents involved in their child’s education? Why is there a lack of diversity in our teaching staff? Why did a young man, after three years of bilingual education in Seattle schools, still need an interpreter when he questioned a disciplinary action against him? Why do we limit the number of great schools and programs, and why are they found primarily in the north end?
For two years, we attended many meetings where we had difficult conversations. We explored the role of special education and how it affected many students of color who were directed to this program with no entrance or exit criteria. We looked at discipline data and asked how it could be that children of color were being disciplined at up to eight times the rate of white children. It was very evident to us that there were very few, if any, evaluations of programs.
Few decisions were based on data. There was a lot of rubber stamping by the school board — most members only had a shallow understanding of the gap and how to close it. They were running schools the way they did in the times of “Little House on the Prairie.”
In 2001, the EAGAC recommendations were presented to the school board and published in the papers. This was followed by talk in the community and much hand-wrenching by the mayor, school administrators, business roundtable, and board members. The official response from the school district was that there was not enough money to implement the recommendations.
These excuses should have been expressed as, “We don’t know what we’re doing.” These ills weren’t unique to Seattle schools. All across the country, administrators and teachers were grappling with high dropout rates, poor academic achievement, and crime in schools.
In Seattle, the high school dropout rate for students of color reached as high as 70 percent for some ethnicities. English language learners achieved at levels below students in special education.
Educators accepted these data, attributing poor achievement to poverty and apathy on the part of the parents. Children of color and immigrant children are perceived as at-risk from the moment they walk in the door.
I learned a lot from the members of the task force. Some members had served on the first two task forces.
I met grandmothers who — as girls — fought for their little brother — as mothers — fought for their children — and then as grandmothers — fought for their grandchildren to be educated. One of the most poignant questions I heard a mother ask was, “Do I have to beg for my son to get an education?” I learned about how, after the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, folks trusted the system to educate their children in integrated schools. There were very few voices from immigrant communities at these meetings. None of the recommendations from any of the task forces addressed the needs of English language learners.
What has changed in the past 10 years for Seattle schools? Some people working at the district know what they are doing. There is now an exit criteria for special education. They have almost entirely stopped the practice of ‘pull out’ for English language learners — a practice compared to child abuse by a noted researcher in education. Simultaneous language interpretation is offered at most public meetings and hearings. Parents are learning that they have a right to receive interpretation services.
I can now see that what we really needed was a whole new paradigm for how the community and parents engage with schools.
As a community, we need to be present at the hearings and special meetings concerning our neighborhoods, schools, and children. If you are a parent, I implore you to get involved in your child’s education. Don’t miss any opportunities to go to the open house, school concerts, parent-teacher conferences, or celebrations at your child’s school. If you don’t have children, I invite you to consider volunteering at any Seattle Public Library to tutor children after school.
It takes a village to demand excellence in our schools. The next time you get a postcard in the mail from Seattle Public Schools inviting you to a community meeting, consider going. I’m glad I went on June 6, 1999.
This commentary is written in memory of Mrs. Edith Mae Giles. She was my mentor and I miss her passion and wisdom greatly. ♦
Maria Ramirez is the executive director of Campana Quetzal.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.