Elevate Our Students: A Conversation with Erin Jones

by Cliff Cawthon

 In Washington if you say ‘McCleary’ many wonks will either become uncomfortable or indignant. Constitutionally, the state is obligated to use its resources to fund and maintain an education system that serves every child. In 2007, the McCleary case deemed the state wasn’t living up to this obligation and in 2015 the legislature passed a budget that took significant steps toward it, but what about the administration of our education

Yesterday, I spoke with Erin Jones, who is running for Superintendent of Public Instruction; the executive officer responsible for administrating our state’s education system. Erin’s passion was that equity needs to be norm, not the exception, and we need to be intentional about it. This past session the mandate for educational equity came in the form of the Opportunity Gap bill sponsored and passed by Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos. The bill mandates that educators receive culturally responsive teacher trainings. However, there are no paid training days provided by the state, signaling that there is still work to be done. Erin and I sat down to discuss how she would better equip educators to equitably reach their students.

Thank you for talking to me today. I know this is probably the question that you get all the time but, what influenced your decision to run for Superintendent of Public Instruction?

I’ve had people asking me to run for Superintendent of Public Instruction for the last four years. It didn’t make sense four years ago because I had kids at home. I knew it was going to be crazy, and I didn’t feel it was responsible to run with kids in school. My husband said to me, I feel like it’s something that you may want to do because people are pressuring you, not because you want to. One day my friend called and said, “Imagine running OSPI like you lead in Federal Way and Tacoma. You’re out in the community, and you’re not acting like the top dog but doing the work with the community.” I didn’t want to be the OSPI who was hanging out in the office or with legislators or on golf courses. I wanted to be out working with and listening to the people. I feel that I cannot ask staff to do something I’m unwilling to do myself.

In Tacoma, I was a district administrator, and I made a promise to myself that I would visit all 13 buildings and each one of the AVID classrooms in each building. In the first week of school, I visited every classroom. I tried to spend 2 days a week out in buildings, walking the halls and talking to staff or teaching in classrooms. Three weeks ago, I resigned from my job to campaign full-time.

I feel like in Olympia people are making decisions based on theory, and, really, stereotypes. Seeing people and meeting people is how I’ve run my campaign.

 

From walking around in South Seattle, what did residents express about what they wanted in schools?

What they want is educators and schools that believe that their kids can be amazing. They want the same chance at success for their students as any other parent in any other place in our state.

 

How would you inspire our educators to believe their kids can be amazing?

 It’s about how we talk about kids. I spend time in predominantly white spaces, where people talk about “those kids” and that usually ends up with them deciding whether some kids will be supported and prosper and others will fail. “Those kids” are usually, black, brown and/or poor. I believe that from the top I have to talk about OUR kids, and that narrative – that ALL children in Washington State are OUR kids – has to be modeled from the top. Whether I am talking in the legislature or in a coffee shop, we have to elevate how we talk about our young people. When I hear a legislator talk or anyone else in leadership about kids in that way, I have to call it out.

 

You’ve mentioned a couple of changes. Education is one of the biggest, one of the top three issues on the minds of voters this year. So as SPI how would you manage our public education system?

My leadership team has to look and be diverse. As an executive, we have a platform. We can model a diverse team and we absolutely do not model equity at the moment at all. We (OSPI) have a leadership team that is white, predominantly male, 60 or older and upper-middle class.

I want to model a team that reflects the demographics of the state. I am looking to have a leadership team that includes representation from the LGBTQ community and people of color. I’m going to be intentional about who’s at the table to make leadership decisions.

I want the staff in the OPSI to be trained in equity and culturally-responsive behaviors. This is really critical to me. I want to be able to push it out to districts and say that “I have done it with my staff, and you can do it, too.”

Testing is another critical issue. Tests are important and necessary for accountability, but, the current focus on assessment has become all that school is about. The focus on assessment is pushing students out, and we are losing teachers who do really great work. We shouldn’t have tests be all-consuming. We should have tests that measure accurately what our students know and how we can support them.

Third, I really have to advocate for better funding for our schools. Lack of resources is leaving many of our students behind. I’ve met with legislators across the aisle, because it will take a bi-partisan effort and compromise to get what’s best for all our students.

 

Olympia is one of the most divided state legislatures in the nation, so with such limited resources because of gridlock, how would you put your goals into action?

I’ve spent almost my entire career in spaces where resources are limited. I’m good at doing a lot with a little. When I testified in the McCleary case, one of the things I said is “we desperately need more money but, money alone isn’t the answer”. How are we using the money, training teachers, and supporting them?

One of the things I firmly believe is that there’s a dynamic between middle-class white educators and young black boys. If we look at Seattle Public Schools, or even Tacoma, the over-disciplining of Black boys is unconscionable. How do we help educators interact more effectively with Black boys in order to engage them in learning, not in conflict? We need to help teachers unpack what they’ve heard about young black boys and help them understand their experiences and unpack their cultural biases.

Are we preparing teachers for the classroom today, or are we preparing them for the Washington classroom of 20-30 years ago? I believe, for the most part, we are training teachers for the culturally homogeneous classroom of long ago, not the highly diverse classrooms of today.

 

How would you be able to create a training comprehensive enough to deal with this?

As the SPI, I would be on the Professional Educator Standards Board. This board creates the standards all teacher education programs require for those entering teaching. I would need to be the voice on that board to bring these concerns – both as an educator and as a mother – that we need to address to ensure all students get what they need.

 

What’s your favorite thing to do in South Seattle?

Walk! I love to walk South Seattle. I love to eat! I love to stop at the different restaurants – Ethiopian, Somali, Thai – but, my absolutely favorite thing to do is just to walk South Seattle and interact with the community.

Photo courtesy of Erin Jones

 

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