by Rebecca Chase-Chen
One afternoon in late November, as I was cleaning my classroom and preparing materials for the next day’s lessons, an email arrived. Unlike the colorful advertisements for classroom products and brief reminders about upcoming meetings, I immediately saw this email was different. There was no colorful title, no graphics, just the subject line, in all caps: SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS BUDGET UPDATE. As I started to read, my head, heart and stomach felt sick as I read the words. 74 million dollar shortfall. Crisis. Significant cuts.
At this point, there is limited information about how the district will decide to cut $74 million from its budget. I first thought about my school, Beacon Hill International – what could they cut? I got classroom furniture from a surplus warehouse where other schools give old furniture. Many books on my shelves are giveaways from the Seattle Public Library. I bought paint to give the wall of my classroom a fresh look. The vacuum cleaner I received as a wedding gift now sits in my classroom to keep it clean between the once-a-week vacuum, a legacy of the last budget cuts when custodial cleaning was reduced and never restored to full levels. The PTA paid for school supplies this year. After the district said they couldn’t replace our old playground which was so broken it was unsafe for children, our community spent eight months of family fundraising, grant-writing and hundreds of people donating their labor to make a new playground possible. What is left to cut? People and hours: our community’s greatest assets.
I am writing to call Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to shield high poverty schools from these budget cuts. It is challenging to write this because, in order to prove the importance of this move, some may feel the need to hear about what communities lack. I want to focus on the assets of our community and school: the ways we are strong, resilient, complex and creative, rather than what individuals or groups in our community don’t have. Beacon Hill International School is a vibrant, hardworking community committed to learning, growing and critical thinking. We’ve all heard of children being the first in their families to go to college. At Beacon Hill, I have had the honor of teaching several children who are the first in their families to learn to read. Their parents survived poverty, violence and war, and were denied the opportunity to complete basic education. Now their children are the first to have the opportunity to learn to read and write.
No school and no child should suffer from the economic turmoil of the proposed budget cuts. And, if SPS spreads the budget cuts “equally” across all schools, there are some schools where the children will suffer more. At schools like Beacon Hill, the majority of children and families live in financial insecurity*, speak languages other than English, and live at the whim of immigration law. These factors can contribute to complex trauma, which among other detrimental effects, can make it harder to learn. School communities that support children who face these challenges should not have to endure equal budget cuts, while other communities with more protective factors can weather cuts with less detrimental long term impact.
Walking through the halls of Beacon Hill, you might not always be able to tell that students are experiencing complex trauma. Students come to school each day ready to learn, eagerly chatting and learning in English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Parents linger at the entrances to the classrooms to watch their children learn, and some stop by at lunchtime to drop off a special treat for their sons or daughters.
But if you watch closely, on Friday afternoons you’d see the volunteer coordinator quietly hand teachers slips of paper to give to students who come to the office to pick up a bag of food for the weekend. If you listen closely, you’d hear one student who raises his hand and shares that he lives in a church during a third-grade social studies lesson. If you watch closely, you’d see a student who has been in and out of foster care come back from his visit to the school counselor beaming and whispering to me that he has a little prize in his backpack and he promises he won’t take it out until after school.
One of the key protective factors for people with complex trauma is stable positive relationships. The theme of the district-wide racial equity training this year was positive relationships. Each of the students described above has special positive relationships with adults in the school that help them do their best and learn each day. These are exactly the people whose jobs are at stake in this budget crisis. The loss of these individuals could significantly impact our students’ ability to learn and grow into healthy, resilient members of society. The value of these relationships goes far beyond these individuals’ salaries. Their stable daily presence each day reminds students and families that they have someone to count on.
The school counselor meets with students who need support coping with trauma in their lives, like a child who witnessed abuse and was in and out of foster homes; and another child who is a Muslim girl coming to a greater consciousness of her own targeted identity and struggling with fears.
The reading tutor knows a student’s East African family so well because she has taught her and her siblings for so many years. She walks her home and hand delivers permission slips for field trips to her mother who doesn’t read or write, and explains them to her so she knows where her child is going and that it is safe for her to attend.
The bilingual instructional assistants organize before and after-school classes for parents who never had the opportunity to learn to read alongside their children. They translate countless flyers, make phone calls to families and provide in-person interpretation to provide a bridge for families and the school to communicate, share hopes and challenges, and work towards their children’s success.
Schools like Beacon Hill are working to give families who face so many other challenges a chance for their children to get a strong educational foundation. This foundation includes literacy, social-emotional resilience, critical thinking and community responsibility. These building blocks may help these children bring the next generation of their families more security and will strengthen their communities. While all school communities have children facing challenges, Title 1 schools face higher concentrations of students living with the complex traumas of poverty, racism, and insecurity. We need to prioritize and shield them from budget cuts, which means asking some schools to take larger cuts.
I come from a community of privilege. I am an English speaking, US citizen, with stable housing and income. If my child was in a school made up primarily of families in a financial situation like mine, I would say we need to take up this budget cut and protect families who don’t have those securities. My child and many other children coming from similar backgrounds will be ok; discomfort from budget cuts won’t derail their educational foundation or chances of attending college. The students I teach will face long term impacts and loss of stability if these cuts go through. That is why I am asking for SPS to shelter high poverty schools from budget cuts.
Please join me in making your voice heard, email your school board member at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask them to protect high poverty schools, and sign the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’s petition, translations: Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese by Friday, 6 January.
Rebecca Chase-Chen is a second grade teacher at Beacon Hill International School
*Beacon Hill International School’s free and reduced lunch rate is sixty-percent.
featured image: Beacon Hill International School mural. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Chase-Chen