by Matt Halvorson
I wrote recently about the implications of Denise Juneau being chosen as the new superintendent in Seattle, and about the meaningful impact I think she will make for our most marginalized students just by her very presence in that top office.
But just being there, of course, will not be enough by itself. Juneau knows that, and so do we. She will also have to act with courage and conviction. She’ll have to do bold, innovative work with a laser-focus on equity in order to have the kind of transformational impact our schools need more broadly.
I feel good about having Denise Juneau run our schools. Short of finding someone more revolutionary, more radical, which was the completely unrealistic nugget of hope I’d clung to, she is a stronger choice than I ever expected the Seattle School Board to possibly make.
I feel good.
But I don’t feel great. I don’t feel like, holy shit, this is it! We’re really doing it!
It’s more like… good. She’ll be a much-needed departure from the norm, and a better superintendent than we’ve had in a while. Nice and good.
In other words, I like this decision, but it’s more of a long-term play than an immediate game-changer. And since our long-term plays have literally never worked, well, is this going to be different?
It doesn’t feel like we’ve found a savior. We’ve got Wedge Antilles here, not Luke Skywalker. Wedge is nice, but he’s just one good pilot, you know? He’s a quiet leader, an accomplished rebel, but we need to blow up the Death Star, and we all know he’s not going to be the one to do that.
With Juneau, it feels similar, like we’ve found a good, highly qualified public school superintendent who will be committed to doing more than just paying lip service to the need for equity. She’s all in. That much is crystal clear within a few minutes with her. But because she doesn’t have a fully revolutionary track record, I don’t believe she will make a difference in time for my kids. I don’t think she’s going to move to Seattle and blow up the Death Star.
More than anything, I want a superintendent who’s going to walk into the office and flip over a table on her first day and draw a line in the sand: we are never, ever going back to the way things were before I walked in this office. Ever. It’s going to be really uncomfortable, and if you’re too fragile, you’ll break, and I won’t apologize for that. This is the only way, and it has already begun.
And then I want to see a concrete plan. A document that lays out how we’ll do it starting literally immediately, backed up by action.
This is possible. Truly.
But because the majority of white parents won’t fully understand the meaning and intention and necessity of the kinds of changes that would bring equity to our district, they’ll feel and act defensively, and they’ll use all their resources and clout and privilege to argue and “advocate” for their own kids at the expense of others, and to keep a stranglehold on privilege by impeding the kinds of policy and mindset shifts that would extend the same opportunities to all kids in Seattle.
And Juneau is going to want to, like, keep her job, and not seem insane, and not insult people, and get the lay of the land, and form coalitions, and build on the district’s strengths, and we’ll be reminded as always that real change takes time and to focus on the progress. Be patient. Invest in the system. The children are our future. Etc.
During her time as Montana’s state superintendent, Juneau’s Graduation Matters initiative raised statewide graduation rates by 4-5 percent over a period of just a few short years.
Impressive. Most impressive. But incremental progress is not enough for the individuals currently in the system. A few percentage points will not dramatically change my third-grader’s experience in Seattle Public Schools in the next nine years. Even if we are on the right track, the cars on this road are not moving fast enough to get my kids to the promised land before the sun sets.
Matt Halvorson is the parent of a South Seattle student.