By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
In three days, West Seattle will have a new representative on the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors.
As she campaigned, Marty McLaren insisted the board needed someone who’s been a teacher, and voters apparently agreed. Though the vote won’t be certified till Tuesday, with McLaren scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday, she is 12,999 votes (eight percentage points) ahead of incumbent Steve Sundquist, who ascended to the board presidency last year. (Her official Facebook page already incorporates her almost-official new title.)
With no chance the results would change, we sat down this week with McLaren, to find out more about the person now charged with representing the peninsula’s interests as the district continues through a time of change on so many fronts – deciding how to deal with brimming schools and dwindling state funding, among other challenges. (The former, aka “capacity management,” is the subject of another community meeting in West Seattle tomorrow night.)
We talked at the Puget Ridge home where McLaren has lived for 17 years. She is not a Seattle native – born in Brooklyn, New York, in fact – but has spent her entire adult life in the Puget Sound area, after her dad’s Navy career moved her family many places, finally landing them at Bangor in Kitsap County. She finished high school in the Highline district just south of Seattle in the early ’60s.
Her introduction to Seattle Public Schools came before her teaching career:
In the late ’70s, the oldest of her three children entered the system. She got active enough with the PTA that she became president after her daughter entered Washington Middle School in the Central District, and found herself working on outreach, then on a “climate survey” (no, that does NOT involve weather).
Then her school involvement became a career. She obtained a teaching credential and taught preschool for nine years, until the mid-’90s. Advocacy for homeless children followed, and substitute teaching ensued at the end of the millennium. Though she had majored in science back in college, “I decided I wanted to be a math teacher,” McLaren explained. As she worked at schools including Madison and Denny middle schools here in West Seattle, she said, her eyes were opened further to the failings of the curriculum-selection process, and the math curriculum itself, though she acknowledges she “believed in it” for a long time, before becoming “an advocate for the explicit math curriculum.” Her advocacy included leading a fight against high-school math textbooks approved by the school board in 2009 – what was eventually (thus far) a losing fight.
Now, though, she’s known citywide as a winner. In the District 6 race, she was the top vote-getter among three challengers in the August primary, after winning a pre-primary endorsement from the 34th District Democrats, despite Sundquist’s active involvement in that group.
For the general election, she and the three other School Board challengers basically ran, and campaigned, as a slate, trying to capitalize on voter unhappiness with district trouble including the financial scandal that led to ex-Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson‘s ouster nine months ago. But on Election Night November 8th, the first vote count had McLaren as the only non-incumbent who was winning.
What was that like, to see those first results? Disbelief, said McLaren, but also sadness that the other three were behind, after so much solidarity during the campaign. Then suddenly, one week after Election Day, another challenger edged ahead of an incumbent, and now Sharon Peaslee will join McLaren on the board, after overtaking Peter Maier, who, like Sundquist, was finishing his first (and now only) term. McLaren calls that “comforting,” and says she is also glad to have the support of the two other challengers who ran, Kate Martin and Michelle Buetow.
After so much time as an advocate facing the board, she will now be on the other side of the room, hoping to keep the perspective she has, bringing “something unique” – the perspective of a former longtime classroom teacher (she stopped teaching three years ago, but still works in education, with a part-time job in student assessment services at nearby South Seattle Community College).
“I have the passion for the whole topic, students and education, and community is a huge value of mine,” she muses, looking toward a living-room window facing into the greenspace in which neighboring townhomes are nestled. “This seems a very natural place for me to end up, though I (never could have imagined it) a year ago.”
She joins the board with two “huge issues” front and center. One will be aired again in West Seattle tomorrow (Monday) night, during a community meeting at 6 pm at Denny International Middle School – capacity management, as in, what to do both about already-overcrowded schools (elementaries in particular), and in how to plan for the future while avoiding the miscalculations that led to the current challenges – reopening schools just two years after closing some.
McLaren wouldn’t say, in our conversation, whether she was leaning in any particular direction: “My main thought is a concern with bringing the community into the conversation. I’m pleased that we have a community committee working on this, that’s encouraging.” She said she’ll be at the meeting tomorrow night, “doing everything I can to listen and to promote community, authentic community dialogue. It’s my belief that if we all have a chance to talk together, that we can come to some kind of agreement – where is the least disruption? what are the answers that are least-disruptive for (communities and schools)?” as well as what’s cost-effective with both short- and long-term benefit. She said she is also “very interested in hearing the reasons for people’s strong opinions, to gather the logic behind the passionate beliefs.”
She is also not ready to discuss where she stands, or at least leans, on the other major issue – whether the district should conduct a national superintendent search, or just offer interim Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield the permanent job.
Till that question is settled, McLaren acknowledges, some other problems can’t be solved. High on her list is special education, which she says needs attention as well as a “coherent look and design” – but it needs a director of special education before that can happen, and that, she allows, would require a decision on the top leadership spot. She’s also concerned about “strengthening the schools in economically challenged areas.”
And she’s concerned about staying grounded as she moves into a new role, realizing that until she actually takes office, “Everything’s ‘possible’ … (but) it’s important to be realistic.” She hopes that constituents will be realistic in their expectations for, and evaluation of, her, too, and realize, for example, that if she talks about one issue – like the “achievement gap” – it’s not her intent to neglect others. Again, she says, “community involvement” can help solve many problems “in a collaborative way. … It needs to happen a school at a time, a classroom at a time.”
After working at a variety of schools, she is also acutely aware that community involvement may come in a variety of forms. Many schools don’t have strong PTA/PTSAs, for example, with busy/harried parents who may never even have the chance to set foot inside their children’s school – but she envisions the school community could be brought together if a local business donated dinner for an event, and if child care could be provided … “then you start to get that interaction, but you’d have to follow up, can’t be a one-time thing.”
She also has admiration for the Powerful Schools model, “the ideal of a community school designed with a lot of collaboration with district and community,” a place where classes might be offered for parents as well as their children. This concept was top-of-mind for her, as she had just attended a school-board directors’ conference down in Vancouver (Washington), whose district made a presentation about Fruit Valley – an elementary school that, as you can see on its website, doesn’t even call itself a “school,” but rather a “community learning center.”
The concept has been expanded there, she says, to seven buildings, where, as a result of the services and philosophy, “students come to school ready to learn, not hungry, not in trauma, there’s some sense of connection with their family, at school.”
Connections are what she hopes to make, “quickly,” with West Seattle schools – “staff, parents, students, everybody.” She intends to start visiting the campuses to make that happen. “The challenging part will be to figure out how to get input but not get buried,” she observes, saying she is “working with a couple people on ideas for channeling ideas and information, in a way that I can manage and glean the most out of it.” She says she will continue her predecessor’s tradition of “regular community meetings,” as well as finding different venues for meeting with people “on their own turf.”
She is open to suggestions, she promises. (Her e-mail address, until an official district account is up and running, is firstname.lastname@example.org; her FB page is here.)
And what about the fight over math, that brought her into the thick of district politics in the first place? She says she’s not sure of the timing for the next official curriculum adoption, but sees “some philosophical movement,” along with “other board members acknowledging serious issues.” She also hopes more schools, if interested, would be freer to get instructional waivers like the one at Schmitz Park Elementary, where students are taught the more-traditional Singapore Math. A strong curriculum can be a key to closing the long-problematic “achievement gap,” she believes.
What will the next four years bring? She – and we – will start finding out at her first School Board meeting, December 7th.