Betty Patu, an educator who won’t give up
By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
After retiring last June with 32 years of service in the Seattle Public Schools, she returns with her no-holds-barred belief in getting “her kids” to stay in school and having teachers reach all of them.
Betty Patu, 61, is the newly elected Seattle School Board director of District 7, one made up of mostly students of color. She officially began her new job on Dec. 2 and really looks forward to working with all of the city’s teachers, principals, parents, as well as the overall community.
She sees “her kids” — South Pacific Islander students, particularly Samoan — struggle with discrimination and language barriers, problems also faced by many immigrant Asian students. For her determination to help all students of color, both in and out of school, she has been named a 2009 Top Contributor to the Asian community by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation.
She has even provided shelter for some of her students at her Rainier Beach home.
“In our [Samoan] culture, there’s no ‘I’ in our vocabulary,” she said. “It’s always ‘we.’ Everything you do, you do it together as a unit.” She acknowledges that young Samoan immigrants have a hard time learning in school because they must deal with the American custom of individual thought.
Commenting on her own father — who was also an educator — Patu said, “He did not want us to be Americanized because he felt that the values of our culture were very important to who we are as a people.
He felt that for American people … it’s everybody lives for themselves.”
She remembers spending several weeks observing and later helping a 14-year-old Cambodian girl get out of an abusive situation at home.
“I’m one of those people that doesn’t want to give up,” she said. “She always kept to herself. She looked like she cried all the time.”
In 1990, her no-holds-barred philosophy of treating her students just like her own children was put to the test. One student, who had been drinking, brought a gun to school, and pointed it at the temple of another student. After she gave him a scolding, “he just put his head down and handed me the gun, and then I took the gun,” she said. She says the situation might have been “a lot worse” if the police had surrounded him.
One year later, she walked into a recruitment meeting of the Crips gang to talk her students into going back to class.
“Call me crazy, I guess,” she said.
Born in Samoa, “Grandma” or “Auntie” — names she’s called by her students at Rainier Beach High School — arrived in Seattle at the age of 8 with her family. They later moved to the Compton and Watts area of California. In her 20s, she moved back to Seattle.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in educational leadership and her master’s — in 2009 — in education administration from Antioch University.
In 1976, she began her career as an instructional assistant in a bilingual program.
Two years later, she created a drop-out prevention program for South Pacific Islander students as well as others at Cooper Elementary, where she stayed for 11 years.
She developed the South Pacific Drop-Out Prevention Program in 1988, mostly on her own time. Today, she is proud of helping more than 300 South Pacific Islander students graduate from the city’s public schools in any one year.
Patu says what makes her program unique is the recognition that these children are used to a family-style situation where “everybody supports one another.” While they are at school, “it’s almost like home [and] they get that support.”
The New York Times ran a story about her and her drop-out prevention program in July of 1992. Soon afterwards, “I had gotten calls all the way from London, and I also got calls from Fiji. Their community was talking about how they would like to get a program like this,” she said.
She and her husband, Paul, have five children — Virginia, Annie, Paul, Marty, and Saul. All five carry on the family tradition of helping others or teaching at a school.
They also have 17 grandchildren. “They’ve been very much a part of my campaign,” she said with pride. ♦
For more information about Betty Patu, visit to www.bettypatu.com. For more information about Top Contributors to the Asian Community on Dec. 4 or to buy tickets, visit top.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.