Seattle Schools Headed in Right Direction

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Today Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield released the district's annual scorecard (it's like a report card) as well as individual scorecards for every school.  There's good news and continuing challenges, especially around the academic achievement gap.

Key highlights include:

  • The overall average on-time graduation rate rose to 73% in the 2010-2011 academic year.
  • Enrollment has risen to 48,528, continuing a multi-year rise in the number of students.
  • Students in Third to Eighth grades outperform their statewide peers. However, the district has not yet released the disaggregated data to show performance of particular student groups, for example African American students, English Language Learning students, etc. That detail is coming soon.
  • Several south Seattle schools showed huge improvements: West Seattle Elementary improved from Level 1 (the lowest ranking out of 5 total levels) to Level 3; Mercer Middle School went from Level 3 to Level 5; Dearborn Park Elementary jumped from Level 1 to Level 3.

After the jump you can read the remarks I shared at the announcement...

A week ago last night, Election Night, Mayor McGinn, Mayor Rice and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder and thanked the voters of Seattle for approving the Families & Education Levy. 

As of yesterday afternoon’s count, we’re up to a 63% approval rate.

Passage of the Levy is tangible evidence of how our city wraps its arms around our schoolchildren.  Once again, our voters have said “we believe all of our kids can learn; we believe all of them can graduate from high school prepared for college, career and life.

But the Levy is not the only good news we’re celebrating today.

In a few minutes, Superintendent Enfield will unveil this year’s District-wide Scorecard.  Susan’s report will confirm for us that Seattle Public Schools are headed in the right direction, are focused on what really matters—our kids, and are making measurable improvements in the quality of public education in Seattle.

In my few minutes this morning, I want to share three observations with you.

  1. The importance of strategic alignment between City government and the District.
  2. The urgent need to reaffirm and honor our teachers.
  3. The necessity of continuing reform.

The Importance of Strategic Alignment

When Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was here a couple of years ago he was asked “what’s the most important action you can take to help your public schools?”  His answer, “Align city government resources with those of the school district.”

Mayor Johnson was right and that’s exactly what Seattle has done since Mayor Rice first proposed the Families & Education Levy. 

The Levy is one of the strongest outcome-focused, innovation-driven education support measures in the entire United States.  When I describe the Levy for local officials from other parts of the country, they are consistently amazed.  Many of them ask me, “how do you do that?” 

The City Council and the School Board have built a very strong, collaborative relationship over the past four years. 

We worked together to craft the Levy. 

We encourage each other to try new things, to embrace innovation.  The approval of the Levy is affirmation that our relationship is rock solid.

Our relationship also confirms that we want the same outcomes for our kids, that we acknowledge the need for high standards of academic achievement and the highest standards for accountability and ethical practices.

Yes, we are separate entities of government, but we are united in common purpose for the sake of our children.  

The Urgent Need to Reaffirm and Honor Our Teachers

Second, we need to reaffirm and honor our teachers.

Over the past few years, there has been a very good national conversation about public education reform, a conversation that was long overdue.  But, unfortunately, within that conversation there has been a tendency by some to lay the blame for the failures of public education at the feet of our teachers. 

Many of us have very legitimate concerns about the quality of public education in our country. But it’s not correct to blame teachers or to diminish their important work.

I remember my two favorite teachers . . . the two who made a life-long impression on me.

Jack McDonald was my sophomore English teacher at Lincoln High School.  He was really big on vocabulary.  I remember the very first word on my first vocabulary list—incarceration.  I guess that’s why I eventually became a police officer. 

Jack McDonald wore a suit and tie to class every day.  He was a distinguished gentleman and we knew he loved us.

Lucille Chapin was my senior year journalism teacher.  She was a stickler for detail and we would get our little stories back with red marks and scribbles galore.  She pushed us hard. 

In the spring of 1967 Ms. Chapin gave us a weekend assignment to go out and cover a story of our choice.  I told her I would cover the opening of boating season the first Saturday of May.  Without missing a beat she told me to take a tape recorder to record the sound of all the boat horns when the parade of boats would begin and then to call KJR radio and offer them the tape and my report.  That’s exactly what I did. 

The following Monday, Ms. Chapin told me she had heard my report on the radio that Saturday afternoon.  That wise little nudge from my journalism teacher landed me a beat reporter job at KJR for the next four years while I attended college.  (And, by the way, that’s when I first met Norm Rice who was a reporter at KIXI Radio.)

Jack McDonald and Lucille Chapin showed me through their words and actions that they believed in me, wanted me to succeed, and pushed me forward.  They lived the highest ideals of the teaching profession. I’m the beneficiary of their love and caring wisdom. 

I’m sure each of you can think back and remember a teacher who made a lasting contribution to your life journey.

We need to reaffirm and honor our teachers. 

The Necessity of Continuing Reform

And, finally, the necessity of continuing reform.

We’ve achieved significant reform right here in Seattle over the past two years.

Take the District’s labor contract with our teachers.  The union and District agreed to a new evaluation system that for the first time links teacher performance evaluations with student performance. That’s a good reform aimed at what really matters, our kids.

Another example is the District’s decision to set higher standards for graduation, to align them with minimum college entrance requirements, and to adopt a core mission that every student will graduate from high school prepared for college, career and life.  We should never underestimate the power of high expectations.  These higher standards recognize that our world has changed and we can’t live with business as usual.  There’s too much at stake.  And that means we must continue to evolve and adapt so we are certain that public education is indeed preparing our children for today’s world.  

And I would cite the new Families & Education Levy as being fundamentally about reform.  It’s designed to help our most academically at-risk students through proven interventions from pre-kindergarten through high school.  The new competitive application process for Levy funding will reward schools that embrace innovation and are willing to break with the status quo for the sake of our students.  It allows principals and building leadership teams to determine how to best use Levy funds.  It recognizes the importance of neighborhood schools and feeder patterns.  It has extra dollars set aside for innovation schools. 

The Levy is all about doing those things that the professional educators—that’s principals and teachers—determine will work best for our children, and that’s how it should be.

So, today, as we learn from the Superintendent about current successes and remaining challenges, let’s remember that we will be even more successful when City government and the District align our work and resources in common purpose, when we value the truly inspirational and effective work done every day by our teachers, and when we continue to push for meaningful reform that focuses on what’s best for our students. 

If we can do these three things correctly, we will have the kind of public schools we all want; certainly the kind of schools our children deserve.