Interview conducted by Marcus Harrison Green
Parents, educators, school district officials, and city council members will gather at Garfield High School on Saturday morning for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Education Summit. The Summit will attempt to foster a strong coalition between the city, the Seattle Public School District, and community members in hopes of developing an effective strategy to address persistent educational disparities faced by Seattle public school students.
City officials have spent the last two months gathering feedback on how to narrow the Seattle public school system’s achievement gap during a series of community conversations hosted at local schools and community centers. A summary of those conversations, and the actions the city plans to take as a result of them, will be presented at Saturday’s Summit which begins at 9am. The Emerald sat down with Mayor Murray to discuss his hopes for the Summit, what he still finds shocking about the Seattle public school system, and why he’s urging South End parents to attend Saturday’s event despite the skepticism he knows some may have about its impact.
Emerald: The city had more than 20 community conversations to gather feedback on how to solve the problem of educational disparities within our school system. What led the city to do this?
Ed Murray: When it comes to the issue of education, this is a city that is roughly 75 percent white, and school age children in this city are about 60 percent white. But the majority of our kids in public schools are children of color, and of those, a huge number are on a free or reduced lunch program; they live in poverty to some extent or another.
Seattle has a 13 percent poverty rate, which is not great, but it is way better than most cities. So you have a school district and a city that don’t look like each other. Engaging the community in a conversation was real important for those who are a part of the school system, and also for folks who live in the city who are living a different reality than the kids in our school system. Those conversations needed to happen.
Emerald: How do you hope to transform these conversations into actionable steps the City takes?
Murray: I have hesitated to say this is what I want to do. I am more interested in hearing what it is people think we need to do. And then after these twenty plus conversations, and the Summit is over, we will spend time trying to understand that information better and decide what things the city should do that are not necessarily the responsibility of the Seattle Public School District, then we’ll figure out how to implement that.
We’ve heard all sorts of things from these conversations. We’ve heard about year-round learning as an issue for some parents. We’ve heard about longer school days. We’ve heard a lot about the makeup of those who work in our schools looking very different than the makeup of those who go to our schools. So, we would have to do some pretty serious thinking about how we would implement certain suggestions.
I was a legislator for 18 years in Olympia before I was mayor, so my history with the school district goes back a ways, and there are things that have not improved at all. There are some things that have improved, but when we look at graduation rates, again particularly among African Americans and Latinos, and then African Americans reading at grade level, we are not moving the needle.
Emerald: Many of your predecessors have had a very difficult time coordinating with the Seattle Public School District in terms of implementing educational reforms. What makes you hopeful that this Summit can actually produce an improved partnership between the City and school district?
Murray: I am a little more nervous about this than I am about our work on affordable housing, or than I am about our work on the minimum wage because we do have to somehow find a way to grow together with the school district. As you pointed out there is a lot of bad history between the City and the Seattle School District depending on different councils, different school board members, different mayors, and different superintendents. So I am not sure of how we are going to do it but I think the advantage I have is a whole bunch of people in the schools have done things with mixed results.
Businesses, the big non-profits, and the big philanthropies in the city have put a lot of ideas in the schools that haven’t really worked. The state is very stuck and doesn’t look like it is going to get unstuck. I think a lot of the players right now are looking at each other and saying maybe we need to find a way to do this. Maybe we need to come up with a common vision that this is how we are going to approach the problem with discipline, for instance, and that we all buy into that common vision, so that when people run for re-election whether for mayor, council, or school board, they’re asked if they are committed to that common vision.
I think my hiring Dwane Chappelle as the director of the Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning should help. I was trying to send a signal to the school district that here is somebody you feel is really skilled and who you have a good relationship with, and here is somebody I also think is really skilled and who I think will create a dialogue between the city and district, instead of the tension that existed before. You hear some hesitation in my voice because we don’t yet know how this is going to work. This could possibly be a place where we grow towards each other or it could fall apart.
Emerald: What are you hoping to take away from the Summit?
Ed Murray: I’m most looking forward to listening. When I listened to principals, teachers and other folks connected to schools and students at this community discussions, I learned things I didn’t truly understand. I knew we had an issue of school age children that were homeless, but until the principals walked me through just how big it was, I didn’t fully understand the scope. I listened when people also told me that we are dealing with classrooms full of kids who come to school traumatized. We’ve had numerous discussions on race before in our city and I hadn’t expected to hear about the bias are young people experience in our schools.
Emerald: What else has come as a surprise to you about our educational system?
Murray: I feel almost that I am talking to two different school districts at times. There is a grade school principal in the North End who used to be a principal in the South End. In the North End they raised tens of thousands of dollar, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in their Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) for things like their art programs. Their meetings were always packed. When this person was a principal in the South End, only one to two parents showed up for their PTSA meetings, and they had no money for art programs. We have students in some of our high schools who are collecting money from each other to help out with certain supplies and instruments. It’s just kind of stunning because this city is pretty wealthy.
Emerald: There are many parents in the South End who are skeptical about the Summit making any real impact on our school system, as they’re have been similar events in the past that bore little fruit. How do you reassure them that this time is different?
Murray: I’ve heard that – I mean I’ve heard folks say that but I am going to be positive. It’s true, we have been here before and the only thing I can say is that I am driven by actually having a chance to do something. In my political career in Olympia I didn’t sponsor that many bills but the ones I did were pretty big and I spent years on them. We’ve led the nation on income and equality, we’ve led the nation on minimum wage, we are doing it on affordable housing and I want to do it on education. I can give those parents my personal commitment. I get that they’re skeptical, and I have to admit I am a little nervous about our ability to produce, but I really want to produce on this issue.
Emerald: How will this summit directly address bringing equity to our public school system?
Murray: Equity in the Seattle Public Schools is mostly an issue of race, not always, but almost entirely. It is also an issue of excellence. It’s not just about graduating kids of color; it’s graduating them so that they don’t need to get remedial education when they go to Seattle Central Community College. There’s a study that focused on young black men ages 14 to 24. Over and over again, they expressed that they were not a problem to be fixed, which really changes one’s approach to this whole thing. That’s why I say we as a city are at our best, when they are at their best.
Emerald: When it comes to something like gun violence, which I know many people in South Seattle, as well as the rest of the city, have concerns about, how do you think the Summit will play a role in reducing it?
Murray: I would agree with the expression that it’s education and jobs that stop bullets. My first spring in office, I gave a special speech to the council on public safety. There are a whole bunch of things that go into that, sometimes it’s changing the physical environment, cleaning up a bad lot, bright lighting, or making sure a neighborhood has sidewalks that are not broken, all of these are positive things that can help improve a neighborhood, and that is also what the Education Summit is about.
If you feel good about yourself there is hope. We are focusing on youth employment this summer, and we’ve increased our goal from providing 600 jobs for youth to 2000 jobs, hopefully, we will get to 4000 jobs, but again that is based on actual studies that say a young person is 50 percent less likely to be a victim of crime if they have a summer job. If folks are focused on their homework, or their summer job, or their after school job, and are feeling good about themselves, the chances of them being a victim of a crime drops pretty significantly. I’m sure your readers are aware, but it bears repeating, gun violence is up in the city and shots fired are up, but In South Seattle, unlike North Seattle, crime overall has actually dropped, just not the gun thing.
More information on Mayor Murray’s Education Summit can be found at this link.
Featured photo: cc licensed image SDOT/Flickr