(Superintendent José Banda listens as Concord Elementary principal Norma Zavala speaks)
Story and photos by Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
One month into his first school year as Seattle Public Schools superintendent, José Banda came to the city’s southwest sector last night for a “regional meeting.”
It happened at Concord International School in South Park, but it was intended for the West Seattle community too. And they turned out in force, including – as promised in this letter published here last week – Sanislo Elementary, which got some reassurance relating to its kindergarten-class-size concerns during the Q/A period, which also brought questions from Arbor Heights Elementary, K-5 STEM at Boren, and Schmitz Park Elementary parents.
After Superintendent Banda was introduced with a biographical outline, including his 30 years of work in education, he turned the floor over to Concord Principal Norma Zavala, who spoke to the crowd about the school and its programs. she described its highlight as being “a school that is truly truly diverse – linguistically, ethnic, geographical, gender orientation, everything … and that’s the beauty of being an international school – we’re working every single day to apply a global perspective to our problems, to our successes, as adults and as children.”
The superintendent acknowledged parents were wondering “what IS IT we’re focused on?” and “where are we going?”
He said his focus is “pretty simple – focus on our students.”
He recounted his own education, including a small “country school” that ran K-8 … “My passion for education started as a child,” while part of a farm-worker family. “Life was difficult and challenging” with his five brothers and one sister, “but it was about working to contribute to the family, making sure we were able to provide the essentials.” His parents were devoted to making sure he stayed in school and continued on to high school and college.
His own children – a 26-year-old son teaching English in Taiwan (“at a place called Happy Elementary,” he recounted with amusement) and a daughter who is about to graduate from college in California – are the people he credits for the final part of his “education,” Banda said.
Focusing on “instruction and providing a rigorous and challenging curriculum” are important, he noted, as is closing the achievement gap, which can only come through instruction, he said. He said Seattle’s PGE (professional growth/evaluation) system for evaluating teachers is unique, and helps to be sure Seattle is providing highly effective teachers in every classroom.
Talking about rigor of instruction, he discussed the forthcoming Common Core Standards, expected to roll out nationally within a year or so. “We need to work hard to be sure we’re able to implement that across the district.”
Next – equity, access, and opportunity are important, he said. Parts of the district population are not being fully served, he acknowledged – such as Native Americans, two percent of the student population, who he said feel “forsaken” by the district. He mentioned a meeting coming up this week with Native American community members (happening in West Seattle, in fact, at the Duwamish Longhouse). Banda said the district needs to make sure that they have equal access. Overall, in terms of equity, he said, having programs like international schools and STEM and APP, is making sure everyone has access to them, that they are not just in certain areas. “How do you distribute them across the district?”
Stronger school/family partnerships “are another cornerstone,” said Banda. “We’re working hard at that … this is important work, to be able to engage our parents.” He talked about his involvement when his children were in school – including running for and being elected to the school board for the district where his children went to school, as well as on-site volunteering and leadership.
“Expanding the use of data,” he said, is important, too, though he was careful to say that didn’t just mean teaching to the test. “The tests are based on the standards, and if we teach our students the standards … they should be able to (pass the tests).” He said data would help inform decisions and evaluate where things stood, as well as “when students need intervention and support.”
Some of the challenges he listed, faced by the district:
*Enrollment growth. This year’s total growth from last year, he believes, will end up around 1300, putting the district at almost 50,000 students, with 55,000 likely within a few years. He mentioned BEX IV “so we can provide the seats where the students are … that means some schools will grow, and that’s a big culture shift,” from the days of 250-300-350-student-size schools, to possibly as many as 650 students in a school. “Two small schools, you double the cost of operation,” he said. But, he added quickly, it’s not just cost – larger schools have more access to programs. He also said it’s time to “stop pushing Special Ed around.” He said he does NOT see Seattle schools the size of the elementaries in his former district in Southern California, though (1,000-ish).
*Tight budget. He said Seattle is in much better space than the area of California from which he came, but – “the budget is down.” He said SPS is lobbying to try to make sure the legislators have them top-of-mind.
*Leadership openings, such as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. “We need to fill that position and we will fill that position,” with a national search about to begin, Banda said. Also, executive director of special education – which has had “tremendous turnover,” he said with regret, promising that would stop.
*Opportunity gap, as mentioned earlier, seen through a variety of “lenses,” he said.
But he said there are “a lot of successes” to be proud of, though they know they can do better than their current areas of growth.
He said that the math situation needs to be fixed, too, hoping that the Common Core Standards will help backfill until they are ready to do a “huge rollout” with some kind of curriculum change.
He also talked about the Skill Centers rolled out at the high-school level (including the Medical Skills center based at West Seattle High School – we’re working on a story about that).
And then he had words for “the dedicated teachers” and “the families.”
“I’m really really pleased to be part of the Seattle Public Schools system and part of the Seattle community – I do live in the community and have had opportunities to get out to all parts of (the city),” he noted. He promised to “get to know the school communities very well.”
His opportunity to get well-acquainted with some of those communities’ issues came next, as the open Q/A section of the meeting began.
*First one was about the new equity/race policy. Banda offered no specifics, but said, “It’s about what I talked about – reaching out to all segments of our community, making sure we engage everyone, actively bring our parents into the schools, breaking down barriers, providing access, providing opportunities – for the parents and for the children.” Bernardo Ruiz, family engagement director, picked up and said there were seven areas in which they seek to break down barriers: Curriculum, professional development, access/opportunity, policies, hiring/staffing so that staffers “look like” (students). Right now, they’re designing ways to the measure how effective those are.
*One woman wanted to know more about the Skill Centers. Phil Brockman, executive director of school operations, took that question. “Career/technical education” is how these used to be known, he explained. They’re for 11th/12th grade students, primarily, with preparation work at 10th-grade level to be ready to get in. The model is to distribute the parts of the program around the district rather than have them all concentrated in one place.
*A K-5 STEM parent then asked about the program-balancing component, calling attention to the fact that 300 families pulled their kids out of other schools and are alarmed now to hear it referred to as a program rather than a school – suggesting it might be dispersed among campuses rather than given a permanent home – and they want the district to acknowledge it’s a school, not just a program.
Banda made no commitments. He said “We have to evaluate that very closely. It may end up being a school, but we have to look at that … to see what that need is, but I understand what you are saying, wanting to keep them there … We will make a decision sometime this year, regarding what that looks like, and about some of the (other) programs out there.” He said “We’ll try to do do that as soon as we can.”
Assistant superintendent Pegi McEvoy came to the front of the room then at Banda’s request when he asked her from the front of the room, “Don’t we have a plan for that?” She said at one point Fairmount Park was under consideration but then the program grew faster than they had expected. This Friday, she said, there will be a conversation with instructional staff to talk about where things stand.
*Another parent sought reassurance that SPS was trying to get out in front of the enrollment-growth curve rather than always playing catch-up. Banda promised “we’re not just going to kick the ball” – he said a lot of thinking is going into BEX IV, and that he came from a place with much enrollment growth that he had to work with. He noted that enrollment projections are not an exact science. “We’re also looking at building capacity into the schools that we’re touching, with BEX IV,” and he said, if they have to redraw boundaries, that’s another way to reach a goal, as difficult as it is. “Students don’t come in perfect little 21(-student) bundles. … We will build as much capacity as we can in terms of what we forecast, but boundaries are another thing we may have to do in order to keep students in their neighborhoods as much as possible .. It’s very complicated, but we’re looking at many variables in terms of staying ahead of the curve.” He said the thinking is also going into how many teachers they have, how many textbooks.
*The next question was about students being free from bullying, particularly special-education kids, and wondering about Banda’s background there. He replied saying that students need support – they don’t know how to deal with disappointment, anger, etc. – and some schools choose to have behavioral-intervention staff. He added that he expects principals to be active in establishing a safe environment. He said there also are leadership programs that can “build positive behavior in our students” – and mentioned Link Crew (which is being used right now at both West Seattle High School and Chief Sealth International High School).
*Next, came the Sanislo Elementary question.
Kindergarten teacher Teresa Goethe had written an open letter, published here last week, about the crowded classes. The other kindergarten teacher, Kristen Spada, stood up and told Superintendent Banda that it’s been proposed that the entire school be put into split grades – combined-grade classes – because of their oversized kindergarten classes (among other grades). “It would disrupt about eight classrooms in the school,” she explained. “You should see the line for the boys bathroom,” said another Sanislo teacher, who added, “The way you are going to have quality teachers there for quality students, we have to be there – this is where it begins.” Spada interjected, “To close the achievement gap, a Title 1 school needs more of me. I’m not somebody who looks at the budget or somebody who can cut things – I’m a very intelligent person. Things can be cut to have lower class sizes. When I was in college a long time ago, the first thing we learned is that lower class sizes” make a difference.
Banda started to say that he wasn’t aware of the issue and would check (today) with HR. The Sanislo contingent then pointed out that at one point earlier this year, they did have “an extra kindergarten teacher allotted,” but then something changed: “For a Title 1 school, this is a direct race and equity issue = 28 students in a kindergarten class is just not acceptable, and to penalize the entire school. We need another teacher like yesterday.”
Executive director of schools Carmela Dellino (above) then stood up. She declared that there is no intent to create split-grade classes at Sanislo – “I can tell you that right now. We are looking at staffing adjustments right now. There will be a meeting Thursday at 3 pm (and) we will be looking at all possible staffing adjustments.”
*Schmitz Park Elementary and its crowding issues – currently handled by a large number of portables – came up next, in a question addressed by assistant superintendent McEvoy. She talked about Schmitz Park and how its capacity has been increased “by adding portable after portable after portable” but realizing htat means there may not be enough “core facilities” – bathrooms, lunchrooms, etc. That’s why BEX is lookinga t building up core facilities as well as classrooms, she said. “At Schmitz Park, for example, we were asked to add bathrooms, sinks, so we do those things to maintain for a little while … but really, we need to rebuild the school, and that’s the long-term plan (via BEX IV).”
*Is there enough time for lunch at lunchtime? A man said he is disappointed by the lack of nutrition and lack of time to eat that means children don’t have the ability to focus in the classroom – they’ve pushed for a change in Concord and that has made a difference. “School is about more than academics,” he said.
Banda said, “I agree with you totally on all that – there is a change in the nutrition program to be sure we provide more nutritious food, portion control, and at some point (overeating) has to stop.” There’s also a “focus on the exercise piece” now, he said, noting that there was a big issue with student weight where he came from in California “and that’s just not acceptable.”
*An Arbor Heights parent stood up with what she said was a request. She wanted to see the district bring the north-end and south-end parent communities in WS together so that schools aren’t pitted against each other but rather brought together “so their voices are as one and heard.” She garnered applause.
Dellino said that is important because WS is a “powerful” region. She said the WS-area principals are talking about creating better partnerships with schools so that for example the services that are avialable at one school – she used her former school, Roxhill Elementary, as an example – but maybe not at another might be made available – like the bilingual instructional assistants, which all schools need,but not all schools have access to. She said developing better alliances would be important.
*A student from Schmitz Park (above) then came forward and brought up the bathroom shortage again. She was promised that more were on the way.
*The next parent asked about transportation. Concord, for example, is getting more students from West Setatle, but they were told there would be no transportation next year.
“Transportation’s been a big problem for Seattle Public Schools,” Banda acknowledged. “We’re continuing to look at how we can pare back on the cost,” he said, but he didn’t know about taking away transportation for the upcoming school year. McEvoy came forward and said what’s been discussed is that with the most recent Student Assignment Plan, they had offered grandfathered transportation – and this year is the end of that transportation, unless the board changes its mind or changes the transportation standards. If they do change their mind, “thre is a cost for that,” she said. “It will be part of our conversation in October and November,” so that families will at least know the transportation situation “before they select their next school.”
The last question was on behalf of Arbor Heights Elementary; an attendee stood up to talk about the condition of the school and said, “You have to know about the concerns regarding the health and safety of our students and our staff.” She mentioned having been at the BEX meeting in West Seattle last week, also noting she is happy that AH has been chosen as a BEX project, but “when it’s project number 20 out of 21 projects on that levy,” so she is not sure how to reconcile the school being deprioritized while it has such challenges.
“We are still working on the BEX IV,” said Banda, “and I know we were looking at how we could move Arbor Heights up on the list … We have a lot of really old facilities, a very aged aging infrastructure …” He mentioned visiting Arbor Heights and affirming “it needs to be rebuilt.” But he says discussions are still under way regarding how things can be moved up. McEvoy stood up and reiterated what she had said at previous meetings – about managing the levy’s cash flow and needs for capacity.
“We are trying to move it up as much as we can … we’re not done yet.”
The next version of BEX IV is likely to be out next week, as the board has a work session on October 10th, one week before the final staff proposal is scheduled to be formally introduced at the October 17th board meeting.