Our New Superintendent Is the Change We Need, But Frankly Not as Much Change as I Want

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.

2 thoughts on “Our New Superintendent Is the Change We Need, But Frankly Not as Much Change as I Want”

  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 from 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 with 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. Of the last 20 students only 2 have been selected through the lottery for RAHS.

    Why cannot the Seattle Public schools do the same? Give our kids the opportunity offered by the Raisbeck Aviation High School. Place the program in an under performing school.