by Ari Robin McKenna
The only person with K–12 teaching experience on the current Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors represents District 7, which covers the South End — and he is currently teaching virtually during a pandemic. Each weekday at 3 p.m., after Brandon Hersey says goodbye to the 21 members of his online second grade class at Rainier View Elementary School in Federal Way, he pivots and puts on another hat. Then, until about 10 p.m. each day, Brandon Hersey reaches out to his constituents in District 7 and does the never-ending work of a school board director. Even though that job is unpaid, Hersey does not take it lightly.
“My primary concern, even though I am a district-wide, citywide elected official,” Hersey told the Emerald in an interview, “is how am I making this system better for the kids down this way? You know what I’m saying?”
Hersey, a resident of Rainier Beach, says he’s not just passing through or on his way up a career ladder. He’s seen a lot of well-meaning people contribute to the status quo rather than achieving the change they seek by doing just that. “If you’re just on an ‘upward trajectory,’ going from being a teacher to a superintendent,” Hersey says, “every move that you make is moving you farther and farther away from the students who are actually impacted by your decisions.”
Although it’s not uncommon for elected officials to mask their ambition with platitudes about how grounded they are, Hersey’s current day-to-day life as well as his past career decisions provide the receipts for his efforts to connect people and policy.
Despite struggling with dyslexia as a child and becoming an “at risk” teenager, Hersey found strong, stabilizing mentors and ended up graduating with distinction from the University of Southern Mississippi Honors College, where he was the school’s first African American Truman Scholar. A Truman-Albright Fellowship brought him into the Obama Administration as a policy analyst working on children and family issues. It was during this time, Hersey says, that he learned how decision-making worked in government, and he grew disillusioned with the process — even during a presidency marked by hope for racial justice.
“I was incredibly frustrated that the vast majority of people who were making policy for my community — at a national level — had never worked directly with communities [like mine],” he said. “I was sitting around a table with a bunch of folks who had gone to Harvard or Yale for both of their degrees and had never spent time in the South or in marginalized communities. We [were] developing policy that wholeheartedly affected how and why specific communities were being served. And I thought that there was a major disconnect there.”
That community he referred to is Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Hersey grew up in a family full of teachers. His grandmother and great aunt taught preschool, and Hersey’s sister, formerly a teacher, is now the vice principal of the high school that she and Hersey went to — the same school where his mother once taught AP government. Before she passed away, when Hersey was 12, his mother gave him some stark advice: “If you become anything, don’t become a teacher.” She warned him, he says, of both the “workload” and the “minuscule pay.” Yet, weighing these warnings against the fact that teaching was, Hersey says, “Just in my bones and in my blood,” Hersey decided to get off the career ladder and return to his roots.
Working at Rainier View Elementary School in Federal Way, it didn’t take long for the ex-policy analyst to become acutely aware of the systemic nature of the problems facing his students. He quickly noticed how limited his influence was on the twenty or so students in front of him. “I saw kids coming in and coming out due to rapid gentrification and a lack of affordable housing,” he observed. “I would build a relationship with a kid for two or three months, and they would be off to another school in our district or maybe even to a different state, depending on what the housing policies were at the apartment complex where they lived. Or I would begin to build a really strong relationship with a kid in second grade, and then they would get passed on to a teacher who didn’t have the same cultural competencies as I did. And all that work that we put into building a real sense of self and belonging — especially in kids of color and especially in Black kids — would effectively be undone. And so what that said to me was, I need to give everything that I have in my classroom. But I also need to be seeking other opportunities where I can influence policy to make sure that kids have somebody who’s looking out for them not only in the classroom but also in the boardroom.”
Hersey initially got involved in his union, becoming the Federal Way Education Association Political Action Committee (WEA-PAC) chair. When longtime District 7 Board Director Betty Patu — the Board’s only ex-educator — suddenly resigned in 2019, Hersey accepted an appointment to the position.
Though it’s hard to imagine a more difficult time to be a school board director, Hersey is holding to his principles and those involve engaging his constituents in the South End. “We are out here trying. I’m not saying that I’m going to be in a place where I have the complete answer for every situation. I very rarely do, but you know who does: community. And that is how I will continue to show up to this work. As long as folks continue to engage with me, I am willing to go as hard as I possibly can for them and their children, because that’s the only way we are going to dismantle these systems that do so much physical and intellectual harm.”
Hersey has been part of some early successes during his first year and a half as a Board director, much of which have involved reaching out for community input. After identifying a part of the SPS budget that was “discretionary,” members of the Board engaged a broad group of students, parents, and community-centered groups to be a part of a participatory budgeting process for these funds. When it became clear that the community’s top priority was restorative justice, the Board allocated funds for the district to hire a Restorative Justice Manager. Additionally, when Rainier Beach High School students Angelina Riley and Kidist Habte started a petition to remove School Resource Officers (SROs) and School Emphasis Officers (SEOs) from SPS, the Board initially proposed a one year moratorium. But after engaging with student and community groups, the Board decided to suspend the district’s relationship with the Seattle Police Department indefinitely.
Yet while praising fellow Board members for these examples of community responsiveness, Hersey also acknowledges how thankless a job being a school board director can be. “There’s a legacy of muck that gets thrown around because everybody loves to hate Seattle Public Schools … But the only thing people are more mad at than Seattle Public Schools is change within Seattle Public Schools. It puts us in a unique position where we get slammed for upholding the status quo, but then we also get slammed for not doing so.”
A recent example of an especially painful change within SPS is the redistricting that precedes the long overdue 2023 renovation of Seattle’s most crowded middle school, Asa Mercer, which serves 87% students of color. Students graduating from Hawthorne and Kimball Elementary Schools — who would normally go to Mercer Middle School — will attend Washington Middle School and Aki Kurose Middle School starting in September 2021 instead, as a result of redrawn middle school attendance boundaries.
Though this has come to a head during a pandemic, and parents have complained about insufficient notification of this change from the district, Mercer’s enrollment began to exceed its physical capacity more than a decade ago. Instead of initiating redistricting, past school boards decided to continue adding portable classrooms as enrollment grew. In part because Mercer has been a notably diverse, award-winning school, it has continued to draw families into its attendance boundaries — even as almost one third of its students learned in portable classrooms. The temporary location for Mercer’s program during construction — Van Asselt — falls short of being able to house Mercer’s roughly 1,200 enrolled students, and so something finally had to give.
After hearing the contentious testimonies of 16 Kimball and Hawthorne parents at a Board meeting on January 27, the Board voted unanimously to adopt the boundary changes. Hersey, who had spent 25–30 hours fielding concerns during the week leading up to the meeting, was very familiar with parents’ concerns about the plan.
In fact, he’d already readied a Recommended Motion — an amendment to the Board vote consisting of 12 measures designed to mitigate the harm done by the move. Those measures included guaranteeing students wouldn’t be separated from their siblings, ensuring that Kimball students would receive yellow bus service to Washington for at least two years, and establishing regular family check-ins starting in October “to ensure the transition goes smoothly” and to encourage “broader family engagement in future decision-making processes to avoid so much confusion and harm going forward.” Hersey’s amendment passed, and he says that delaying redistricting for Mercer any further was never an option. But even though he did his best to proactively address the community’s concerns — even using his lunchtimes, fielding late-night calls, and taking calls before school started in the morning — Hersey says he still received hate mail.
While Hersey knows that part of his job as board director for SPS is to make decisions on behalf of a district that has not earned community trust and that those decisions can’t possibly produce an ideal outcome for everyone, he seeks to remain accountable. “As much as people want to engage, I’m here, willing, and ready. What I would ask is that folks come along with me and continue to hold me accountable.”
Hersey says that when he’s faced with difficult decisions, he approaches it this way: “I distill it down. Is this decision going to perpetuate racial injustice, or is it going to take a step toward eliminating racial injustice?” Since he’s still a classroom teacher, Hersey’s 21 students are on his mind when he’s in the boardroom, to guide him, to make sure he’s avoiding “equity detours,” and to keep him focused on getting their needs met.
And, they inspire him:
“I think that we have to operate with the same courage that our Black and Brown babies have every day walking into a building where they know they’re going to be oppressed, where they know somebody who’s gonna say something sideways to them, where they know — even if they can’t articulate it — harm is being done to them in a significant way. If our kids can have the courage to stomach that, and survive that, and to thrive through that, and to matriculate out of that … then we as Board directors have to have the same courage and political will to meet their demands and dismantle that system in order to develop one where all students can feel safe, loved, and receive a world class education.”
Editors’ Note: This article was updated after publication to address an error in the spelling of of Kidist Habte’s first name, which originally appeared here as “Kidest.” We apologize for the error. We also changed Aki Kurose “K–8” to Aki Kurose Middle School.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
Featured Image: Brandon Hersey, a teacher at Rainier View Elementary School in Federal Way, is the South End’s Director on the Seattle Public Schools Board. (Photo: Scott Faris)
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