by Erin Okuno
Last Wednesday night the Seattle School Board voted unanimously 7-0 to hire Denise Juneau as the next Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. Juneau will be the first Native American to lead the largest school district in the state with 53,380 students in 103 schools. She is now entering into a phase of negotiating a contract with the board and will start the job in July 2018. She will be the fifth in ten-years.
The superintendent search process took only two months and left many community members out of the feedback process. School board members, citing the need for confidentiality kept tight control of the process, didn’t lay out a transparent timeline, or inclusive process for how they decided on Denise Juneau as the next superintendent.
These oversights were noted by many, including NAACP Youth Coalition students who spoke at the Wednesday night school board meeting. Student Alli Shinn testified the NAACP Youth Coalition sent emails to the board outlining what a student-centered superintendent search forum could look like. Only Director Zachary DeWolf replied, and the forum never happened. This was a lost opportunity by the school board in supporting a new leader in transitioning into a new job.
Many of the school board directors praised Juneau for her ability to build trust. She will need to build trust with many communities, families, and educators to close the seventh largest achievement and opportunity gap in the nation facing Black and African American students in Seattle Public Schools. In this data snapshot from Seattle Public School’s website we can see third grade test scores disaggregated by race groups (data pulled 4/5/18), it clearly illustrates how many students of color are lagging behind their white peers, especially troubling are Native American and Pacific Islander student test scores some of which are falling when they should be climbing. Schools and the school system have tried to close these gaps on their own, we now need to come together and work as a community to leverage resources, knowledge, and share power with each other to close these gaps.
As Superintendent Juneau joins Seattle Public Schools several colleagues of color shared their thoughts. An African American colleague shared that history, place, and context are important to understanding the current Seattle racialized educational landscape. He also mentioned how important it is to recognize the uniqueness and responsibility of being “the first.” Being the first Native American Superintendent brings with it the perspectives and insights that may help students of color, and it brings the burden of representation. As communities of color and allies, we must help by working with the Superintendent to build trusting relationships, which is inclusive of working to understand her views as a leader of color. We also need to have honest, respectful, and brave conversations that lead to change.
Another Native American colleague previously from Montana mentioned: “[She’s] incredibly passionate about making change for students and seeing everyone succeed.” She also mentioned it will be interesting to pay attention to the transition to Seattle politics. Juneau will be moving from state-level Montana politics to managing an urban school district.
India Unwin, the 15-year-old who also applied for the superintendent position, said, “I hope the new superintendent will address AND ACT UPON the unique and individual concerns of every school.” India’s campaign for the superintendent focused on representation and “get our collective foot in the door” for South Seattle students.
With a change in leadership comes a moment to reflect on the past and to cast our hopes for the future. We owe some thanks to outgoing Superintendent Larry Nyland for his years of service. As Seattle Public School’s moves forward this is an important opportunity to continue the racial equity work already started and to refocus on the goal of supporting students, especially those farthest from opportunity.