Photo depicting a group of First Student yellow school buses parked in a lot with a chain-linked fence.

How SPS’ Equity Tiers Are Used to Address Educational Debt

by Ari Robin McKenna


There has been a series of historically cascading phrases to describe racial inequity in public school systems nationwide. “Achievement gap” was preferred for a while — but that phrase was inseparable from standardized tests proven both to consistently favor white students and to delineate “achievement” that actually just mirrored the family income levels of test takers. Then, “opportunity gap” began to replace it, but reeked of well-meaning na​​ïveté. The phrase leaves room for the “gap” to have been arbitrarily created, and for a deficit perspective to persist about Communities of Color, when structural racism impacting educational opportunity is well-documented nationwide. Lately, the phrase “education debt” has gained traction, and puts the onus squarely on school districts to actively address past disparity.

During this school year, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) district employees were able to make quick decisions that addressed educational debt in principle, and in deed, using a process SPS has been developing since 2012 called “equity tiers.”

Many parents may remember how at the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year, dozens of bus routes were one, two, even three hours late to pick up students — if they showed up at all. This was the result of a national bus driver shortage. SPS’ 2017 decision to outsource its bus driving to a private entity — currently First Student, owned by large private investment firm EQT Infrastructure — also complicated matters. In 2021, Ashley Davies took over as the SPS executive director of operations, which includes transportation, and began leading the team responsible for getting students to school and back and managing SPS’ relationship with First Student. 

To frame the task, SPS currently requires 400 school bus drivers, with most driving two morning routes and two afternoon routes. In the majority of cases, this means an earlier elementary route and a later high school or middle school route. Before October, First Student bus drivers would choose which routes they wanted based on their seniority, leaving SPS no decision-making power when the number of available drivers was stretched thin.

When Davies began receiving concerns and complaints from families about “our southeast [Seattle] or highest-needs routes,” she says her team took it personally. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t resolve that with our current setup. … It was extremely frustrating and sad. … We weren’t meeting our commitment to our strategic plan, and we knew that.” With further driver shortages pending after the Oct. 18 vaccination deadline, things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Davies, who previously headed SPS’ enrollment department, says she was initially drawn to this work “because I felt like a student’s neighborhood and race shouldn’t dictate their opportunities.” Though her team was in a pinch, Davies says their commitment to using an equity lens to analyze potential solutions didn’t waver. “When we talk about educational opportunities, you can’t fully realize your opportunities without having the proper supports to do that. And transportation is a big part of it for many students. … If we’re truly committed to supporting the students who need the most support, that means trying to stabilize their experience, even when there is not only district disruption, but national disruption.”

So Davies’ team decided to change tactics.

Davies recalled, “We have the option of continuing to try to serve all of our schools with two-hour, three-hour delays, or maybe some buses not showing up at all, or we could reevaluate how we were serving our schools and cut routes — because we knew we were short — and let families know so that they could plan for alternate transportation. And it gave us the ability to tell our partner, First Student, what routes needed to run.”

Of course, what routes needed to run, and where those routes would be located, was the million-dollar question. In lieu of actual equity, SPS’ decisions have often been guided by parent pressure, and the many “nice white parents” of Seattle — centered in SPS Districts 2, 3, and 4 — historically don’t hold back. Oftentimes, they’re able to get what they want from the district without even having to know that someone else could have used it more. In a recent documentary by Roosevelt Alumni for Racial Equity, SPS School Board President Brandon Hersey says, “White parents have absolutely had an outsized voice in terms of advocacy in the school district. The consequences of listening to one subgroup to the detriment of other groups is clear. … It’s clear in our graduation rates, it’s clear in the way we offer and provide services throughout our district, and how our systems are set up at every level of government.”

Map depicting Seattle Public Schools by equity tiers with red dots representing tier 1 schools, orange dots representing tier 2 schools, yellow tier 3, and grey tier 4.
A map of Seattle Public Schools by equity tiers hints at the educational debt owed certain regions. School directors of Districts 2 and 3 for example, have no Tier 1, 2, or 3 equity schools, while Districts 5 (the Central District) and 7 (southeast Seattle) have all of the Tier 1 equity schools. (Graphic: Ari Robin McKenna; Map Source: Seattle Public Schools’ Director District Map)

The reason things took a turn, in this instance away from the well-worn path of reinforced racial privilege, is in large part because Davies’ team utilized equity tiers, a tool that provides clarity for how they would prioritize bus service based on the districts purported values and, perhaps more importantly, how to defend this decision to a parent demographic used to getting their way for generations.

Essentially, schools are given a single composite score, between 1 and 10, based on the percent and number of students they have from six historically underserved student groups: African American males, “Students of Color Furthest from Educational Justice,” low-income students, “multilingual learners,” immigrants, and “students experiencing homelessness.” An additional factor — an inverse measure of how a school’s students “achieve” on standardized tests — was dropped for the 2021–2022 edition of equity tiering. Eric Anderson, the research and evaluation director at SPS, explained that the department is moving away from “an excessive reliance on administrative data or standardized test scores, and more towards centering the voice and experience of the students and families we serve.”

The higher the composite equity tier score, the more prioritization a school gets, and the lower tier it is. For example, Rising Star Elementary School in the south Beacon Hill area of the South End has an equity index of 8.9 and is a Tier 1 equity school; Stephen Decatur Elementary School in Wedgewood in northeast Seattle has an index of 1.5 and is a Tier 4 equity school. Davies says that after satisfying the legally mandated routes for students receiving special education services, her team was able to accommodate all the 2020–2021 Tier 1, 2, and 3 schools. “So not only were we able to maintain transportation, but we’re able to provide better service than we were before,” said Davies.

List of Seattle Public Schools' equity tiers for 2021-2022.
Sourced from Seattle Public Schools.

Since Davies and her team made this move, 84 of the 138 dropped routes have been restored, and her department recently released a phased plan to get the rest of the Tier 4 routes restored as First Student is able to hire more drivers. Southeast Seattle, a region with more than its share of educational debt and containing the vast majority of the Tier 1 equity schools citywide, had all its routes restored by Nov. 3, 2021.

Initially developed about a decade ago to help make decisions about reallocating educators in situations of scarcity or excess, the utility of equity tiers has proved to have other applications. Anderson, speaking to their generalized purpose, says that while any kind of algorithmic data tool has limitations, it helps decision makers to be able to “rely on some sort of objective information … consistent with our values.”

Current SPS Associate Superintendent and former Director of Racial Equity Advancement (2017​​–2019), Concie Pedroza is keenly aware of what had to happen internally for the equity tiers to be used as intended. In 2012, SPS adopted anti-racist School Board Policy No. 0030, which stated, “all applicable new policies, programs and procedures will be developed using a racial equity analysis tool.” Pedroza, who was involved with this process while principal of Orca K-8, recalled, “We had a beautiful, aspirational policy, but we had no procedures behind it, we had no process behind it.”

Two years in development, even when the equity tier tool was ready, people within the district were not necessarily ready to use it. Pedroza said, “You can’t use the tool without doing the racial equity work, the individual work. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Pedroza says constant training is necessary, and that after five years, there was enough equity literacy within the district for it to be embedded in decision-making; the school board was engaged in a similar process. Equity analysis has also become codified into the district’s bargaining agreement with the Seattle Education Association (SEA), so that each school improvement plan review involves that lens.

Though Pedroza is aware of how far this work has come, she is also aware of how much there is left to do, and how tenuous the gains are. At this point, she says only 50% of SPS departments have facility with equity analysis, yet “everyone knows it’s their job.” Pedroza also related that there was severe overrepresentation of Tier 4 equity schools in a recent meeting about redoing the equity tiering system, so much so that Pedroza didn’t feel comfortable proceeding. “If we use equity analysis, the first question is: Who’s in the room? … We cannot have a conversation around redesigning equity tiering, and rethinking about equity tiering, without those school representatives [from Tier 1, 2, and 3 schools] in this space.”


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: Photo by VDB Photos/Shutterstock.com

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