Opinion: Expanding Quality Educational Opportunities for ALL Students

by Brandon Hersey

Seattle Public Schools is actively engaged in a new era of focus for our district. Through our strategic plan we have codified our commitment to black boys and their families as well narrowing the opportunity gap for all students who are furthest away from educational justice.

Recently, in service to this commitment, the Seattle School Board voted to approve a joint operating agreement between the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and Washington Middle School located in the Central District. The goal of this partnership is to provide high quality, accessible educational programming for all students. Beginning this fall, 6th graders at Washington Middle School will receive an education on the edge of innovation through project-based learning, rolling up to 7th and 8th grades in subsequent years.

This decision has rippled throughout the Seattle education community and beyond because it replaces the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) pathway at Washington Middle School which has been viewed as non-inclusive of marginalized families and minority students, specifically African American, Latino, and Native students. For example, at Washington Middle School black students make up 22% of the student body but only 3% of black students are enrolled in HCC. While white students represent 36% of the student body, 57% are enrolled in HCC. These numbers represent a culture of academic segregation that is unacceptable in our schools.

District wide in grades 1-8, HCC serves 9% of white students and 7% of Asian students. As opposed to just 1% of black students, 3% of Latino students, and only 1 native student. As an educator myself, I find these truths appalling and believe we as a city can do better and through our partnership with TAF, we will do better.

But how will TAF, in partnership with Washington Middle School, do that?

TAF centers its curriculum and instruction around project-based learning. “Projects in which students pursue long-term investigations of a significant question and produce artifacts that represent answers to those questions have the potential to motivate and help them better understand subject matter content.” Through this model students will learn design-thinking and project management, skills used in many industries today. TAF’s STEM-focused model and their teaching methods foster skills in problem solving and creative thinking that prepares students of all academic abilities for post-secondary success, in college and the workforce.

TAF also offers industry integration and immersion through site visits, job shadowing, internships, and innovation challenges helping students to gain a true perspective of how business and industry work. Students will build an understanding of how academics impact what it takes to be successful in the workplace. Not only that but by exposing students to company culture and practices early, they are able to envision themselves in various careers and leadership roles. This context will be invaluable for countless students who struggle to see themselves reflected in our city’s ever-growing economy.

The TAF model incorporates real world content specialists and instructional support into the classroom to assist educators in teaching and delivering curriculum. Educator buy in will be a key-component for this program’s success and like with many initiatives of change, our educators’ opinions are mixed. Honestly, that’s on us as leadership. We as district leadership failed to communicate our process clearly to the staff of Washington Middle School. Moving forward we must commit to repairing the harm this flawed process has done to our educators. As we develop the implementation plan for this new partnership, we must center not only the voices of our educators but also those of our students and families.

To some families, this feels like a loss, especially to the few black and brown families who have children in HCC. This process inadvertently put many of our most marginalized families at odds. The process in which this change occurred was unacceptable and I am deeply sorry for the confusion and stress the district may have put upon your family as a result. Though some families see this as a loss, many others see it as an opportunity to deliver on the promise of Seattle Public Schools and public education as a whole, to provide an excellent education for all. That includes our students furthest away from educational justice, as well as our students who have been identified as highly capable.

We must and will meet the needs of all students, regardless of the labels we as adults attach to them.

Change is hard for everyone, especially those who experience it the most. However, what we’ve known for years is that HCC has not served or worked for all children, especially not for black and brown families, and especially not for black and brown boys. Instead, the cohort model has perpetuated segregation in our public schools. We have to be a forward-thinking board and revamp our community engagement practices ensuring that TAF’s success does not contribute to the displacement of our black and brown families, further segregating our city.

If we as a city are truly dedicated to closing our crippling opportunity gap, then we have to do our part and offer better educational opportunities to all our students. We must continue to work toward desegregating our schools and reject the status quo. I am confident that this new board will positively change the academic trajectory for many of our most marginalized students. The students of the NAACP Youth Council have demanded for years that we take bold action in providing educational opportunities of academic rigor that allows students of color to show up whole with their full identity.

This decision will be a part of an ecosystem of change that leads to the prosperity of all children.

In partnership with TAF, we will work with our educators and administration to rebuild the culture of academic excellence for all students at Washington Middle School.

As we stand at this intersection of change, I am confident that this is a step in the right direction. A step toward a better future for all of our children. A future where we teach them to live, work and learn, side by side, in community together. If you’d like to continue this conversation, you can reach me at brandon.hersey@seattleschools.org

Brandon Hersey is a Seattle School Board Director Representing District VII, he is also an educator in the Federal Way Public School District. 

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