By James Hong
Executive Director, Vietnamese Friendship Association
As a child of refugee parents and the beneficiary of a high-quality public education, I believe in its transformative power.
My parents arrived in the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War. They understood the promise education had for my sister and me. Despite the numerous language, cultural, and economic barriers our family experienced, we had support from wonderful teachers and a community that invested in our success. Over time, I was able to turn the quality education I received into service for newly-arrived refugee and immigrant communities. As a community partner to Seattle Public Schools (SPS), I am concerned by the School Board’s superintendent search process.
The School Board recently invited a handful of community partners to a focus group. The invitation read: “In the next six months, as governed by law, the School Board’s most important job is to hire a new superintendent who can build on the district’s success, sustain our focus on closing opportunity gaps and racial equity, and ignite the entire community’s commitment to public education and our students.”
The search for a new superintendent will impact every student and family in SPS, including the Asian American community. SPS’ 2016-2017 District Scorecard tells us that on-time graduation rates for East African (74 percent), Black (71 percent), and Hispanic/Latino (64 percent) students are lower than those of white students (86 percent). The graduation rate for Asian students is 83 percent, but unfortunately the data is not disaggregated. By the district’s own measure of equity, “White and Asian American students belong to race/ethnic groups that historically have had greater access to the opportunities and support that lead to college, career, and life success.” This which highlights, once again, how our education system continues to minimize, and make invisible, the Asian American community.
During a time when schools are ever more racially segregated, with clear disadvantages for students of color, our Seattle School Board has done little to eliminate these barriers to success, and risk perpetuating systemic racism through their actions, however well-intentioned.
For example, in a recent superintendent search survey the school board “shared” with the community, 68.9 percent of the respondents identified as white, 8.56 percent as Asian American, and 6.65 as Black.
By comparison, the demographics of SPS are 46.7 percent white, 14.6 percent Asian, and 15.4 percent Black. How can the School Board possibly make a well-informed decision when communities of color are not engaged or represented in the process? Given the importance of this decision, I am disappointed, and gravely concerned, about the Seattle School Board’s lack of authentic community engagement.
Good community engagement practices require ongoing and meaningful opportunities to participate and have decision making power; a focus group, town-hall, and survey are not sufficient substitutes.
The current process does not adequately allow for an ongoing engagement with students, parents, and communities. Here’s what the School Board must do in order to meaningfully engage the community, rebuild trust, and affirm its commitment to racial equity.
1. Slow down or postpone the search process to ensure adequate time and ability for community members, families, and stakeholders to give input and have the input used.
2. Commit to transparency and building trust. Basic information needs to be shared with the public to ensure we are informed and know what is happening and how our input is able to shape the search process.
3. Shared decision making. Community members need great authority in the decision making process, beyond simply providing input.
A new superintendent will have a significant impact upon SPS and will require a lot of attention and leadership stability. If the School Board is sincere about its commitment to racial equity, it will center and amplify the communities who have been most impacted by systemic racism and oppression.
Authentic community engagement takes time, humility, and patience. Our School Board needs to slow down and listen to the community.
For information about the Vietnamese Friendship Association, go to vfaseattle.org.