by Ari McKenna
The Emerald asked the two finalists in the city’s tightest school board race, Laura Marie Rivera and Vivian Song Maritz, nine questions collected from community members with a stake in education, and then one of our own.
Though the District 4 primary was decided by voters in that district — which includes Ballard, Magnolia, and Northern Queen Anne — the runoff is citywide, so South End voters get to weigh in. The board member elected — while not representing the South End directly — will develop policy that impacts schools, families, and communities here.
Besides writing policy and hiring and evaluating the superintendent, school board directors balance the annual budget and are meant to determine what education entails based on the vision and values of the community they represent. While important, school board director positions are currently unpaid — but for a $4,800 stipend.
Voting closes on Nov. 2, 2021. Vivian Song Maritz’s answers are available here.
*This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), ERIN OKUNO: How do you define educational equity?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: I want to provide the best possible public education to all of our Seattle students, regardless of race, gender, abilities, zip code, first language, economics — all of it. I personally have a very strong, innate sense of fairness, but educational equity is a lot more than that. We need to recognize that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer, and it has definitely not worked that way here in Seattle, and in many places across the country. Students do not all have access to the same education. They don’t have the same facilities. They don’t have the same supplies. They don’t have the same programming, and they don’t have the same opportunities.
We really need to take a look at what we want our education to look like, what we want to be giving our students, the opportunities that we want them to have, what we would like them to be exposed to, and how we’re going to make them able to learn in the best possible environment. My view of educational equity is truly giving every student their best shot at a brighter future. I want this for my four Seattle Public School students, and I want it for all of the students throughout Seattle Public Schools.
2. Southeast Seattle Schools Fundraising Alliance (SESSFA), CHRISTINA JIMENEZ: Please describe your stance on extensive PTA, school-based foundation, or booster fundraising and its impact on our schools across the district. What actions will you take, and what collaborations will you buld in order to support your stance?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: PTAs across Seattle are stepping up to fill in the funding gaps in our district, but we also need to be cognizant of the fact that this can continue to perpetuate the equity divide. I would say that progress has begun and partnerships are at work. I know that this is long overdue but it is definitely forward progress.
I’m on the executive committee of the Coe [Elementary School] PTA in the North End. This year we are partnering with Roxhill Elementary and the southeast Seattle schools. At my suggestion, we will be donating 100% of our fall fund drive to these schools, and I’m hopeful that we can broaden these partnerships in our future years.
We all know that progress tends to take time, and each little seed that is planted takes time to nurture and grow, and each little ripple can turn into a wave. That is what I’m hopeful for, so that until our schools are fully funded, I’m thankful for the funds that these organizations provide, and for the direct impact that they have on students that are furthest from educational justice.
3. Rainier Beach High School Student, FATIMA KABBA: How can you as a school board director slow down gentrification in this neighborhood and make it easy for youth of the South End to access resources?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: I want the youth on the South End to have access to the greatest resources that Seattle Public Schools has to offer. The most immediate step is transportation and access to those resources in other parts of the city. Beyond that, it’s a broader conversation of locating the resources in the communities that truly need them the most.
The even greater conversation is recognizing the work of all the members of our community; we need to make sure that everyone is being paid a living wage. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has served to put a spotlight on the inequities within our city and across the country, and that essential services are just that: They are essential. Like I said, it’s part of a bigger conversation, and it needs to be happening more often, and a lot louder for the people in the back.
4. Graham Hill Elementary Teacher, BETHANY COOPER: You will represent a single district but sit on the board working for all Seattle students and families. How are you prepared to stand up to voices that advocate for narrow interests when they conflict with the pursuit of greater equity district-wide?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: The first part of that question is that we need to make sure that our voices are heard, and we need to recognize that all of our students are individuals. They come to us with different strengths and challenges and interests and goals. A lot of that comes from the families, or it may come from special interests, or it may come from other places, but we at least need to listen to where people are coming from. As a board, it really is our duty to listen, but it is also our duty to make the best decisions that we can for the district as a whole.
In the classroom, each teacher has the opportunity to speak with their class, and they plant the seeds, and they wait for those ideas to grow. As a district, Seattle Public Schools has done a great job recognizing and prioritizing the needs of equity throughout the district. We certainly cannot allow one group, or one individual to take advantage of the district. We need to make sure that the policies and the programs that we’re advocating for will benefit all of the students in the district and our greater community as a whole. Public schools are our first and best opportunity to educate young minds and to open them up to all that the world has to offer. We need to make sure that our options are holistic and inclusive, and will serve to better the community as a whole.
5. Washington Building Leaders of Change (WA-BLOC): Following the removal of school resource officers in June of 2020, students and youth-led organizations outlined three other ongoing demands:
1. Implement more restorative justice in schools.
2. Provide more access to Black and Brown mental health counselors and social workers.
3. Develop capacity for widespread ethnic studies.
How do you plan to address these demands and align with the movement to divest from punitive practices and policing in schools?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: I believe that we need a real reimagining of the security and resource officers in our schools. We are at a place in our country where security is a real concern, and we are also at a place where we recognize that children are not always being treated and respected as children, and students are not being welcomed in an environment that is conducive to learning. I recognize that we have a lot of harmful practices of the past that have continued, and are still happening, in our schools, and the effects of them are ongoing and felt by our students, our families, and our community as a whole. We definitely need to be providing more access to mental health counselors and social workers, and the short part of that answer is that we need to fully fund our schools. The schools need to be fully funded.
As for ethnic studies, there are truly so many stories that make up the story of our country’s history, and we need to be telling and celebrating all of those stories. There are so many people in our district and in our country that we just don’t know what we don’t know. There’s a big historical gap in what our public schooling has been teaching and the stories that they’ve been sharing, and it’s past time that we correct that to create a more inclusive story, and a more inclusive community, and a history that reflects all of our nation’s people.
6. Concord Elementary Principal, MIGUEL SANSALONE: Heritage speakers in SPS are often BIPOC and low-income; how does housing justice intersect with these students’ access to multilingual education, and how do you see a school board director leveraging their power to advocate for these things?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: One of the opportunities that I have been most excited about in Seattle Public Schools is the dual language immersion program. It’s not a program that I grew up with — anywhere where I was — and I really appreciate that students here in Seattle have the opportunity to learn another language, or to learn in their native language. With all of the programming here in the district, I want to make sure that we’re opening up access to them, and that we are providing more spaces for more students, and more opportunities. We need to be especially mindful of where those opportunities are located. We have a lot of students that are English as a second language here in Seattle Public Schools, and we also know that it’s much easier to think in your first language, and to learn in your first language, and to be welcomed in your first language. I think we should be doing that as often as possible here in Seattle.
These programs are an amazing opportunity for the kids that are learning a second language, but they’re a necessity for our heritage speakers and their families. So what I would like to see is more capacity for these dual language immersion programs, and we need to geographically center them in the communities that they serve.
7. Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) Executive Director TRACY-CASTRO-GILL: How can the school board hold staff accountable for supporting an authentic ethnic studies program grounded in the volumes of research and literature that exists, instead of settling for a single framework and pretending its ethnic studies?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: In addition to the fact that we need to welcome more diverse voices in our teachers, administrations, classrooms … we need to work with the existing teachers and staff to appreciate and value and celebrate the many voices and stories that have not yet been included. It starts with better understanding, and it builds toward greater accountability and inclusion. These are the things that we work in our personal circles, and as a school board director, it extends to the work of the board, to the administration, to the district, and to the students and families in the community that we serve.
8. Seattle Public Schools School Board Vice President, BRANDON HERSEY: Given that the South End has been historically neglected and underserved and there is a culture of broken trust with Seattle Public Schools, what active steps will you take — short term and long term — as school board director to rebuild that trust?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: So first of all, we need to be listening to our communities and respecting the opinions and life experiences that they bring to our district. We need to recognize that things in our district and in our country have not always been fair, and it has just not been right. Slowly — and I do know that it’s slowly — people are starting to notice and realize.
Personally I will approach the school board in a similar way to how I approach teaching in a classroom. I tend to see each student as I would like my own child to be seen. I think about what I would hope their teacher — or in this case the district — would do for them. When we place ourselves, or picture our own children in these situations, it’s very clear to see what the right answer is, and how we would like to be treated. That’s what I would aim for in the district, and to work to rebuild that trust. Seeing how I would like to be treated and giving the same considerations to the members of our community.
9. NAACP Youth Council: How will you implement systems of accountability so that students can call you out and changes will be made when you make mistakes?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: A special thank you to our youth council for that question. It’s so important that we really talk about — not only our goals and our hopes, and what we would like to see, and how we would like to make it better — but the pitfalls along the way, and the mistakes that have happened.
I know that we all make mistakes: adults, students, teachers, the government. We all make mistakes, and we need to create a more open culture, where we can acknowledge those mistakes, and hopefully address the harm that may have been caused, and work together to move forward. If we’re not listening to those that disagree, we will never have true progress. I’ve repeatedly pledged to listen and to learn, and I absolutely extend that pledge to the students along with all of the members of our community.
10. South Seattle Emerald: Why are you the best school board candidate for the South End?
LAURA MARIE RIVERA: Laura Marie Rivera is the best candidate for the South End, because I see all of the wonderful opportunities in our students, and in our district. I’m committed to opening up the access — and whether that means more seats, more advantageous geographical locations, more languages, and more community leaders — I want to make sure that the students have access to all of it. Once again, public education opens the doors for opportunity for a lifetime of, not only learning but living and leading within our community. These school days are our chance to share the world with our children, and show them how to be a member of our community, how to go forth, how to make a difference.
Seattle as a city is a very rich city, and we are leaders in technology, innovation, culture, and the arts and opportunity. I want to make sure that our students have access to all of it. I want to make sure that they have the skills and the confidence that they will need after graduation. Whether they are looking forward to a college degree across the country, or here in Seattle, or looking forward to a career in the arts, or sports, or if they are looking to get to work in a trade or vocational profession … we need to make sure that they have those opportunities, they’ve made those connections, and they have the skills that they’re going to need in any avenue they wish to pursue.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Laura Marie Rivera.
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