Photo depicting a crowd of educators, parents, and students wearing red T-shirts and holding up "On Strike!" protest signs.

Striking Rainier Valley Educators Describe Special Education, Multilingual Learner Challenges

by Ari Robin McKenna


On either Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, Sept. 7–9, Seattleites wouldn’t have had to go far to notice people picketing in red T-shirts. In front of the more than 100 public school buildings across the city, educators and school staff held up signs that read “On Strike!,” “Fair Contract Now!,” and “#ListenToStudents, #ListenToEducators,” often with parent and student support, food, shade tents, and music blasting. They were buoyed by the frequent yells and honks of passersby.

On what would have been the first three days of school, the union that represents them — the Seattle Education Association (SEA) — and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) continued to bargain over a new contract with the assistance of mediators. Any tentative agreement that SEA and SPS bargaining teams reach will need to be ratified by SEA’s general membership and approved by the SPS School Board.

In response to multiple rounds of SPS’ proposals for this three-year contract, SEA has stated their priorities: 

  • Adequate support for special education and multilingual education.
  • Sustainable solutions to growing workloads, class sizes, and caseload.
  • Living wages for all SPS educators.

Though not mentioned explicitly within their priorities, the tension at the center of SEA’s three asks is inclusion. An inclusive school is one where all students are supported in participating in the general education environment as much as is possible, including those with special education and multilingual needs. Though the benefits of inclusion for both general education students and students who receive special education services are well-established, Washington State has been in the bottom 20% nationwide in terms of how often its schools include students with a special education designation in general education settings. Seattle is not much better. Special education also looks different depending on what area of Seattle one is located in.

SPS’ initial Special Education Proposal mentions gradually doing away with student-to-teacher ratios in special education in favor of a “workload calculator” based on student Individual Education Plan (IEP) minutes. The proposal mentions it would start this year at selected schools, but the trust implied in using a workload-calculator model doesn’t yet exist, and likely wouldn’t unless educators see it fully flushed out with experienced educators, special education teachers, and instructional assistants (IA) in the room.

Fearing a bargaining result that could set a course backwards towards “exclusion,” on Sept. 4, the Student Council Parent Teacher Student Association (SCPTSA) and the Special Education PTSA (SSEPTSA) leaked the recommendations of the joint SEA/SPS Special Education Task Force. The recommendations contain a more flushed out approach towards an inclusive public education system, which involves collapsing three of SPS’ pathways into one program. The school district currently channels students into “Resource,” “Access,” and “Social Emotional Learning” programs, but in their recommendations, “the Joint SEA/SPS Bargaining Team explicitly acknowledges the inherent structured institutional racism in the Special Education current service pathways.”

SPS’ multilingual proposal has also been met with consternation by educators. Teachers of multilingual learners (MLL) — formerly called English language learners (ELL) — currently work in “sheltered” classrooms with students new to English, or “push in” to general education settings to support students to access instruction. This proposal calls for changes to teacher-to-student ratios educators have balked at.

One anonymous MLL teacher analysed the proposal in detail, and it spread widely on social media. This educator had the following questions:

A slide image that reads, "Questions for SPS." Questions include, "What are you doing to help current teachers find time to become EL certified?" and "How are EL Teachers expected to co-teach multiple classes per period?"
From a slide posted on Facebook.

This strike comes after two COVID-disrupted school years and a year in which many SPS educators admitted to being overworked to the point of despair during a national substitute teacher shortage. Meanwhile, inflation is currently at a 40-year high, and a recent Economic Policy Institute report noted public educator salaries have stagnated for 26 years compared to other college-educated professions. Seattle also has the ninth highest cost of living in the nation, through wage increases are not the main focus of SEA’s demands.

COVID recently laid bare the impacts of persistent structural racism in King County, and schools in the Rainier Valley have been historically underfunded. At present, educators who work in the region have faced compounding challenges that can lead to quicker teacher turnover rates than other areas of the city.

How Bargaining Impacts SPED and MLL Teachers’ Work

The Emerald interviewed a number of special education (SPED) and multilingual learner (MLL) teachers and instructional assistants (IAs) who work in the Rainier Valley to gain a more nuanced understanding into how bargaining might impact the work they engage in with students. What follows are highlights from conversations with both classified and certificated SPED and MLL educators from Martin Luther King Elementary School, Aki Kurose Middle School, and Rainier Beach High School, all in the Rainier Valley:

Photo depicting Quinton Jackson in a red T-shirt with white text that reads, "Seattle Education Association."
Quinton Jackson, K–5 SPED Access teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

For those particular students who have different ways of learning, we need to be able to give those students the tools that they need. Whether it’s material wise, whether it’s an ally, whether it’s other adults and teachers who understand them, or whether it’s a couple of minutes of a break so they can calm themselves down to process the information, and then to understand their mindset and reprocess the information. Sometimes it’s just a different way of learning than one general education teacher teaching to the majority, but not everyone.

Some of the kids who are under the SELs and the ELLs, it’s not like they have a physical or mental incapability, it’s just sometimes there’s a different pathway of learning and we need to address that different pathway of learning. The norm that has been presented is not everybody’s norm. Everybody’s different.

Photo depicting Quinton Jackson (far left) and fellow educators wearing red T-shirts with white text that reads, "Seattle Education Association."
Quinton Jackson with fellow educators from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School after the close of the first day of the strike. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

You have people in the community that are just calling teachers and SPED teachers and ELL teachers glorified babysitters, when in actuality we’re allies. We’re the ones who were trying to bridge the gap between the kids who are succeeding at a high rate versus the kids who are under succeeding, who have never even had the chance. We’re the ones who are trying to push for them. That’s what we’re working for, and there’s passion behind the work that we’re putting in. I think the people behind closed doors are not seeing that passion that we’re giving, and I think that’s where the missing pieces lay.

Our kids are having different ways of thinking. Are we supposed to just ignore it and teach the regular way that we were taught years ago? Or are we supposed to adapt to our children, and adapt to the way their mind is thinking? Or are we supposed to just ignore it? No. We’re supposed to adapt to our kids and learn them. We are all learners, and we should be learning with our kids. We don’t give up on our kids. Let’s keep teaching them. Let’s keep finding a way to teach them.

—Quinton Jackson, K–5 SPED Access teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School

Photo depicting the educators wearing red T-shirts with the SEA logo on them. All three educators carry protest signs that read either "On Strike!" or "Honk! Support SEA! Union Power!" In the background other educators are marching in front of Aki Kurose Middle School Academy.
McKelle Hilber, MLL teacher(left); Eden Tumbaga (center), bilingual IA; and Fenglan Nancy Yi-Cline (right), head of the Multilingual Learning Department, at Aki Kurose Middle School. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

“If you ask me: Is the current status quo even good enough? No, I would say no. I believe every teacher should be trained and prepared to teach a multilingual, multicultural, diverse student body. And of course that’s a big ask. That’s a dream, right? Everybody goes through teacher ed program gets trained and gets MLL certification.

If you look at the side-by-side proposal, what the union wants versus what the district wants, we just want to maintain the staffing.

But the situation with the contract right now is we do ask that also we have more student voice, parent voice, community voice for our multilingual, multicultural communities, but the district doesn’t support it. They want to use the word inclusion, but inclusion when you are not supporting teachers, means you are just leaving students to sink or swim. You’re just leaving students behind and then our marginalized groups will continue to be marginalized and then we never get the chance to to have equitable education. It’s not equitable when you just put everybody in the classroom and teachers are not prepared to work with our multilingual learners.

—Fenglan Nancy Yi-Cline, head of the Multilingual Learning Department at Aki Kurose Middle School

We need more professional development trainings for bilingual IAs. Even though we speak a different language of our own (like I am Filipino and speak Tagalog), I serve all of the multi-language learners in a classroom. We need also be to be trained in order to be more equipped, how to teach these students who don’t speak our own language, because not all languages are served. So even though we don’t know the language, we try our best. So we need to be trained more on how to teach these kids.

—Eden Tumbaga, bilingual instructional assistant

Photo depicting a crowd of educators, parents, and students wearing red T-shirts and holding up "On Strike!" protest signs.
Dominique Duggins (first row, fourth from the right holding a sign), a SPED Resource ELA teacher, along with educators and students from Aki Kurose Middle School and accompanied by educators from nearby Dearborn Park International Elementary School and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. (Photo: Alvin Muragori)

“If you collapse [the Resource, Access, and SEL pathways] or condense them and add them into other classrooms — especially without any additional training or with fewer resources — it’s not gonna go very well. 

Yes, there’ll be ‘inclusion,’ but if you’re a student who has severe emotional disturbances, and you’re not getting the support that you need, you’re going to be taking away from that student’s learning and all the other students learning in the room when they’re having an outburst.

We lost one of our teachers last year and we had more students come in. I was teaching sixth grade (two classes), seventh grade (two classes), eighth grade (two classes) and case managing I think 28 students. There just wasn’t enough time in the day.

“If you have over your limit [of student IEPs] you’re supposed to be reimbursed [per student over]. I’ve had overages with extra students, and more than once I’ve put in for having the overages and I haven’t been reimbursed for it. What would be most helpful for me is to keep a cap on the number of students that I case manage.

And something that many people don’t realize is that this building’s 77 years old. Some of the rooms you physically can’t fit enough students in. Some of our classes are 36 [students] with two teachers and some students who are in different [SPED or MLL] programs. One student has a wheelchair so they also have an additional IA. Physical space is also an issue right now.

“You can only put so much on a plate before people stop. The only reason that I’m still back here is because this is home. We lost a number of Brown men last year. I’m one of two certificate teachers that look like me, that looks like my students. That’s powerful … and yet, there’s going to be a breaking point where there’s literally just not enough time to do everything with fidelity. And we’re nearing it.

—Dominique Duggins, SPED Resource ELA teacher

Photo depicting the above educators wearing red T-shirts with white text that reads, "Seattle Education Association." Linda Carlson holds a red-and-white sign that reads, "On Strike!"; Jennifer Goldman holds a banner with an image of an individual playing electric guitar and text that reads, "#ListenToEducators, #ListenToStudents"; and Patrick Santiago holds a sign that reads, "Liberation Through Public Education."
Linda Carlson (left), MLL English language arts (ELA) teacher; Jennifer Goldman (center), MLL science teacher; and Patrick Santiago (right), MLL ELA teacher at Rainier Beach High School, during day one of the strike. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

I would say, there are easily 30 languages at the school, and it’s very easy for me to have 12 different languages in one class. There are places where teaching a multilingual class might just be about speaking Spanish, and at Rainier Beach, being in such a diverse community, it’s not just about knowing how to teach science and Spanish.

We don’t just have a diversity of languages, but we have a huge diversity of educational backgrounds that our students come to us with. So some students have been in higher level chemistry classes, but they were in Vietnamese. Other students, maybe they spent a couple years in a refugee camp where they were not receiving any formal schooling at that time. So within a class you have many different languages, but you also have many different things that students are bringing to the table in terms of their strengths and also their needs to be developed.

“I think people need stability and manageability to feel like they have the time and the energy to plan great lessons, to execute those lessons, to give students the feedback and support their needs, to potentially still have energy left to support with stuff like extracurriculars, and to have programs like Parent Night or ways to invite the community in to see what’s going on with school. What I see is at our school usually people are giving more than they have, and there’s only so many years that you can keep that up for.

—Jennifer Goldman, MLL science teacher

Photo depicting the educators protesting on the school lawn. Kevin Hiller wears a red baseball cap; Christopher Willis and Marcus Daniels wear red T-shirts with white text that reads, "Seattle Education Association." Marcus Daniels holds a protest sign depicting a record player and text that reads, "Listen to Educators and Students."
Kevin Hiller (left), SPED teacher; Christopher Willis (right), SPED IA; and Marcus Daniels (center), IA, across the street at Rainier Beach High School near Be’er Sheva Park. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

I would say we (IAs) should make more money. We only get 35 hours a week. We should get 40. We do just as much work as everybody else. We should be able to plan and then leave. We don’t want to plan because we’re not getting paid for it.

—Marcus Daniels, instructional assistant

[We need] time to do appropriate planning, time to collaborate with our colleagues. So what happens is, when I have my planning time, Mr. Daniels is supposed to take the kids to gen[eral] ed[ucation] classes. So when is our time to collaborate? When is our time to effectively plan instruction and talk about the needs of the kids, etc.? We don’t get that time. We have to come in early or stay late, which we do, but it’s hard when you have families. My wife is sick with cancer; there’s all kind of stuff going on.

“So we do it on the fly in the hallway or in the classroom. We run it down: ‘Here’s what I saw with such and such a kid today. Here’s what I’m thinking. What have you been seeing? What are your thoughts? OK, let’s handle it this way today.’ It’s all on the fly.

“They’re going to say we have common planning time, but we don’t. In theory, we’re supposed to get it, but we don’t have it.

Full inclusion obviously is the ideal, but if you don’t have appropriate planning, if you don’t have collaboration among people in the school and with the district, if you don’t have a game plan, it’s not going to work. It’s going to be a train wreck. It’s going to create more harm than good.

—Kevin Hiller, SPED teacher

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 through his website.

📸 Featured Image: In front of the more than 100 public school buildings across the city, educators and school staff picketed in red T-shirts, holding up signs that read “On Strike!,” “Fair Contract Now!,” and “#ListenToStudents, #ListenToEducators” from Sept. 7 through Sept. 9, 2022. (Photo: Alvin Muragori)

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