Seattle Public Schools’ New Department of Racial Equity Advancement Aims to Support Equitable Opportunities for Greatness

by Melia LaCour

As the search for a new Seattle Public Schools’ superintendent launches, one district department is ready to forge ahead by reorganizing, revitalizing and realigning its plan to tackle racialized opportunity gaps in a new way.  While many people feel gravely disheartened by the district’s failure to improve outcomes for scholars of color, the new Department of Racial Equity Advancement is positioning itself to provide strategic leadership and guidance to turn results around.

Previously known as the Department of Equity and Race Relations, led by former Director, Bernardo Ruiz, the new department is now spearheaded by Dr. Keisha Scarlett, a 19-year veteran educator and leader in the Seattle School District.  Appointed by Dr. Nyland in June, Dr. Scarlett will serve in a newly created position as the Executive Director of Organizational Development and Equity.

 “My vision is that our strategic plan creates a really clear through line from district policy to successful student achievement,” said Dr. Scarlett. “Our organization will have a strategic plan to lead a racial equity agenda across the system. We will not only provide professional development, but technical assistance, whether it’s for our racial equity teams or for our central office leadership and middle-management.”

Scarlett’s vast experience, which ranges from her early career as a math teacher at Mercer Middle School in 1999 to her most recent positions as the Principal at South Shore K-8 and the Human Resource Director of Professional Growth and Educator Support, gives her sharp clarity about the district’s shortcomings and strengths with regards to their racial equity work.

“No one is having conversations about institutional racism in the central office. They aren’t having conversations about having racial equity goals,” she called out. “There is not a mindset shift that we are all part of an institutionally racist organization.  We must eradicate it through normalizing a focus on it. My goal is to help our most top level of leadership understand their complicity in the outcomes we see at the building level.”

To set the wheels of transformation in motion, Scarlett worked with supervisor, Dr. Brent Jones, Assistant Superintendent of the Strategy and Partnerships Division, to secure necessary support and resources. Almost immediately, Jones repurposed funds allowing Scarlett to hire additional staff equipped to engage in the heavy lift required for closing gaps.

Earlier this month, Scarlett hired longtime district leader, Principal Leadership Coach and former Principal of Orca K-8, Dr. Concie Pedroza, as the Director of Leadership Development for Equity and Impact.  Additionally, Deborah Northern, former Equity in Education Manager at Puget Sound Educational Service District, will join Abraham Rodriquez-Hernandez as a Racial Equity Advancement Coordinator. Scarlett shared that they will also hire a Racial Equity Advancement Specialist, a teacher certificated position.

In addition to expanding her team, Scarlett has focused on aligning the district’s work with the “Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity” policy that was adopted on August 15th, 2012. 

“Let’s be honest, when I first started this position and asked a room full of administrators if they knew about the policy, very few hands went up.  It’s been underutilized, we have not been leaning into it.  We need to operationalize the work and do a better job with that.”

With this goal in mind, Scarlett worked in partnership with the district’s African American Male Advisory Committee to ensure their recent set of recommendations aligned with the policy. Policy tenants such as “Racial Equity Analysis,” along with “Workforce Equity” and “Welcoming School Environments” are now embedded in their work.

Another critical partnership was established between the district and the Seattle Education Association’s Center for Race and Equity.

“Marquita Prinzing, at SEA’s Center for Race and Equity is partnering with us to build capacity at the teacher level. They are creating a sense of urgency around this work,” Scarlett praised. She added that ten equity partners who are teacher members of SEA, will support the development of building-based equity teams by providing professional development in Saturday institutes and offering technical assistance to new or struggling equity teams to ensure success.

 “Bernardo did a great job of mapping the work into the DNA of the district. Under his leadership, 31 buildings started equity teams,” she added. “Now we have the capacity to serve more teams.  This year, we have received 20 applications for more building based teams to participate. That’s the level of engagement that’s happening. Not just on paper, but performatively.”

Scarlett and her new department will support equity team development by creating a centralized approach to the work.  “Currently, the teams are all working on different issues. We will be developing a template for the School Improvement Plan so we can see what’s going on.”  She explained that creating such a template will allow them to tailor technical assistance for each team while aligning the work to their strategic plan.

While Scarlett is excited to launch this department with a refreshed plan and new vision, she is quick to give credit to former leaders who have paved the way. 

“I would be remiss in not mentioning Dr. Caprice Hollins, who started this work and how important that is for the system,” she said. She also expressed gratitude for the professional development and leadership offered by former staff members, Bernardo Ruiz, Fran Partridge, Anita Morales and current member Abraham Rodriguez-Hernandez. “They have been pioneering this work.” 

As she and her new team prepare themselves to build upon this groundwork, Scarlett emphasized the importance of partnering with community.

“I grew up in south Seattle my entire life. My parents are pastors and I have a lot of intersections in the community. My community means so much to me,” she shared. “We need our community, it’s going to be all of us together – every single one of us is vital and interdependent in this work.”

Scarlett wants the community to know there is a strong level of investment across the system, from teachers to principals who are frustrated but hungry for change. “We have had an Eliminating Opportunity Gaps movement,” she said, “and now we are focused on, EOG 2.0, Equitable Opportunities for Greatness.”

Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.

Featured Image by Joe Wolf


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