Meet India Unwin, The Student Vying to Become the Next Superintendent of Seattle’s Public Schools

by Erin Okuno

In January 2018 Seattle Public Schools launched a search for their next Superintendent, the fifth superintendent in a little over a decade. The position is one of two the School Board hires and manages. The superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operation and sets a roadmap and vision for the more than 100 schools in the district serving 53,000 students. This position is the top staff level leadership position for the school district and vital to set a clear direction on closing achievement and opportunity gaps that continue to hurt students of color.Currently, there has been little opportunity for authentic community engagement in the superintendent search process. The school board held one town-hall that was sparsely attended and conducted an online survey that was written by Ray and Associates the national search firm running the search. The survey received 2,090 results from about 70 percent self-identified white people while SPS currently has 54 percent students of color. Very few people utilized the translated versions of the survey which leads me to wonder if immigrant families’ thoughts are included.

I caught up with one applicant to the Superintendent position. India Unwin is a 15-year-old student at Franklin High School who believes she can lead the district and help to bring representation and fresh ideas to supporting students in South Seattle. Here is an interview with India.

Super intendent
India Unwin (Photo courtesy of India Unwin)

Why did you decide to apply for the Superintendent position?

I applied because I wanted to give my community a voice in the search for a superintendent. South Seattle is often painfully marginalized when it comes to city-wide discussions and we are rarely consulted thoroughly regarding changes that impact us very directly. By applying for the superintendent position, my goal was to get our collective foot in the door to ensure the school district would hear my voice and the voices of my neighborhood.

I think I am the most qualified for this position because I am currently enrolled in Seattle Public Schools and have been for the last nine and a half years. I have firsthand experience with our district within the last decade and am acutely aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, I believe as a mixed-race girl, I can bring a unique perspective to the table and make room for underrepresented groups in our community to have a say in matters.

I also decided to apply because I thought it would be funny and I wanted a mid-winter break project. The application seemed funny to me because I found it fascinating how lax the qualifications were. I have never seen such a powerful job with qualifications a teenager could meet. On top of that, the listing mentioned several times that “non-traditional candidates” were encouraged to apply. I can’t think of anyone more “non-traditional” to be school superintendent than a student of the district itself. I also figured it would be good practice for applying for other jobs in the future.

How would you propose closing the achievement and opportunity gaps facing students in Seattle Public Schools?

I would propose closing opportunity and achievement gaps by working to make the district budget as equitable as possible. To do that, I would want to conduct a survey with each school to see how we could best cater to their needs. We would also need to factor in PTA funds, as some schools have much larger PTA program boosters than others.

What makes you excited about the future of the school district and what are the most daunting challenges facing Seattle’s students and families?

I am excited about the future of our district because we are constantly learning and bettering ourselves to improve our schools and communities. In my years enrolled in SPS, I have seen my elementary school hire five different principals since 2008 and each time the school community grew stronger.

The most daunting challenges facing us are opportunity gaps, as well as inequitable resources such as computers or even after-school programs, and a major cultural disconnect between North and South End schools.

Anything else you want us to know?

Toilet paper is another reason I applied! In my school, on any given day, at least one of the bathrooms is completely out of toilet paper, soap, or paper towels. This, of course, is unpleasant anywhere, but at school I find myself losing focus in class to calculate my chances of going to a bathroom with toilet paper in the meager five-minute passing period. I would propose fixing our restroom fiasco by ensuring that every school has enough funding for basic necessities including, but not limited to, toilet paper, soap, paper towels, and printer paper.

Erin Okuno is the Executive Director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a coalition of Community Based Organizations (CBOs), schools, educators, community leaders, parents and caregivers, and concerned SE Seattle residents working to improve education for all children, especially those in SE Seattle and those further away from opportunities.


3 thoughts on “Meet India Unwin, The Student Vying to Become the Next Superintendent of Seattle’s Public Schools”

  1. Raisbeck Aviation High School (RAHS) is next to the Museum of Flight. It is in Tukwilla across the street from being in Seattle. They accept 105 students a year into the 9th grade class. 55 of the 105 are from the Federal Way School District. The school is part of Federal Way School District. 30 of the students are selected from the Seattle School District and 20 from school districts around the State. They accept 105 of the 450 students who apply to go to this very fine Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program. The students are chosen by a lottery of the 450 who apply.

    I have heard that 200 of those not selected are from Seattle. I cannot confirm that. All 200 students are interested in a STEM education. RAHS emphasizes Aeronautical engineering and science. Those students who wish to go into Medicine, Dentistry, Health Sciences or other Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math programs other than aviation have to stretch the truth to get a chance at RAHS lottery.

    Seattle has these 150 to 200 students most who are B+/A- students and do not have a program that is structured to give them the advantages of the RAHS program. The Seattle School district has to educate them, provide teachers, space, books, etc. Why not have such a STEM program to stretch their minds, prepare them for these studies when they get to college.

    If you do this put it in an under producing school. This might just interest some of the students who not performing well. Having such a program might serve to raise the level of such subjects for the whole school. I certainly would make the statistics of such a school improve.

    Do I have a site in mind? Rainier Beach High School has many kids who have problems. They tend to graduate a lower percentage of their students. Many students are minority, single parent, poor, many recent immigrants, many English as a second language families. They need and deserve to have access to such a program.

    Again all of these kids need programs and teachers, books, space and desks. Why not provide a program equal to RAHS and help bring up profile of Rainier Beach High School. Help give students a head start for college STEM programs. Offer the program to students who through no fault of their own have no access to such a program.

    Do students want this? The 450 students who apply to RAHS tells me they do. Two retired aeronautical engineers myself a retired dentist and certified instrument flight instructor do a Saturday STEM program using laptop computer flight simulators and have done this for 6 years. It is free to the kids. The kids give up a Saturday morning for 12 or 13 weeks to attend this program. There is no cost to them, they get no special credit in school for giving up these Saturdays but our attendance is close to 100%. There are Seattle students applying to get into the RAHS program. They will even come to our Saturday morning class to get exposure to such topics. They come from as far away as Eastern Washington.

    Why cannot the Seattle Public schools do the same?

  2. the following is a post that I sent to komonews after they ran the story about the teenager running for school superintendent . . Greetings C Harger and/or Michelle Esteban at komonews and any others
    Wednesday, March 21, 2018

    I read the news every day at various websites and I see that there is an article up on the topic of a young lady student who is running for the position of Seattle schools superintendent! Ha! How fun and interesting!

    The article says that there is a fellow named Nyland and the board has not continued his contract and is looking for a different superintendent, though it seems to be the case that they were mostly happy with Nyland, though that is not clear.

    I am not in the city of Seattle and I do not have kids in schools. However, just as some people enjoy rooting for football teams, I enjoy rooting for wise and helpful good policy, in any city, when such policy is likely to make a difference for good in the lives of some people.

    I enjoy learning and thinking about problems and solutions to problems. If you folks at komonews do run another article on the superintendent finalists, and if the sup finalists have any input into creating policy, I would be curious about three areas.

    Of course, I assume that school superintendents, while full time, are chiefly the instrument of the school board at implementing policy. I could be wrong, but I assume that the average superintendent is chosen to be good at implementing policy chosen by the board, but in this case, perhaps the Seattle board wishes to be impressed by a candidate who has a vision that they can agree they would like to implement.

    In any case, I have questions in 3 areas in the event that any school sup candidates or any school sup finalists have a position on them or wish to comment on them.

    I have no strong stake in the selection of the seattle sup, but it is nice to root for any persons who are wise, if any. And, given that the shootings have come up as a topic of conversation in some schools in the last few years, I have done some research on some topics, and I have questions in 3 areas.

    In any case, in the event that you folks at komonews have any further conversations with candidates, I have questions in the following 3 areas:

    1) A recent Seattle times news article informs us that a death and shooting threat was recently made at Garfield high school and the threat was reported by a student to a teacher. According to the Seattle times article, this first teacher laughed off the threat and did nothing and no action was taken to investigate or apprehend the person making the threats, until a subsequent occasion on which the same evil-doer had made another threat, and this 2nd threat was then reported to another teacher, who apparently decided that students making death threats should be reported to police or others for investigation and apprehension if in fact making death threats.

    What action or what policy, if any, does the sup finalist propose to ensure that teachers at Garfield or other local schools do in fact report to law enforcement death and shooting threats, given the reporting found in the recent Seattle times article?

    Or, is the failure to report death threats when reported by students to teachers fairly normal?

    2) Given that, statistically speaking, some students bring firearms and/or bombs and/or explosives to schools, what views, if any, does the sup finalist have on the topic of the use of security dogs as a protective and deterrent measure?

    3) Given that some fraction of the female student body in any given high school seems to be subject to the risk of rape and that rapes were in fact reported at Mountlake Terrace high school in the last 2 years and some sort of unspecified assault was reported in the last 2 weeks as having taken place upon a female student of Mount Si high school, when she was within walking distance of the school, what views if any, does the sup finalist have or propose on the topic of rape awareness and prevention programs such as EAAA (or classes substantially similar to it), one of the few programs statistically proven over time to substantially reduce the rate of rape and attempted rape of those who take it?

    4) Are there any of the school superintendent candidates, even if not finalists, who have any views on these topics? Are there any of the school board members who have views on these topics?

    5) Also, you have an article about a school sup candidate, but your article lacks a reasonable means for a person such as myself to make these inquiries of any sup candidates. Since you who are komonews have an article about 1 school board candidate, why not also have a listing of all the candidates, together with a summary of major areas of proposed policy and means of contact?

    By the way, since I assume that the board itself creates policy, if any, and that the sup merely and chiefly implements the policy created by the fed gov, state gov and the board, my other question would be, if and when there are any candidates for Seattle school board, do any of those candidates have different positions on the 3 main topics I have listed above?

    It would seem that, given the most recent report in the Seattle Times of the teacher who failed to report a meaningful death threat made against a student, and who instead laughed off the death and shooting threat, that response to death and shooting threats should be a topic of consideration, either for school board candidates or for implementors of policy such as superintendents.

    Are you who are komonews proposing to tell me by omission that none of the Seattle school board and none of the candidates for superintendent have proposed or discussed measures to reduce the failure to report death and shooting threats?