By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
On the way to her office, she must pass under the ranked row of photographs — former superintendents.
They seem to glower across the lobby of the Seattle School District’s main office, as if unhappy and cognizant of the short tenure each served. Her predecessor served for four years. Many served less. Some only served for one year.
The newest superintendent is aware of the brevity of their tenures.
“I knowww,” said Denise Juneau. “My plan is to stay — that’s my goal.
On the surface, Juneau’s breezy, engaging style seems to belie the complexities of the challenges facing the Seattle School District right now.
Or maybe it is just what it needs.
Since taking up her office in July of last year, she has visited 78 out of Seattle’s 102 public schools and engaged in a series of listen-and-learn sessions, meeting 2,500 people and asking communities from different parts of Seattle to share their concerns — she has built a student council of advisers — and she has just launched a new strategic plan aimed at closing the achievement gap for marginalized students through innovative techniques, building on nationally recognized (and hard-fought) successes she achieved while she was the superintendent of the Montana School District.
Perhaps most importantly, she seems to inspire everyone around her.
Last week, at her first state of the district address, just the anticipation of hearing Juneau speak was felt throughout the audience of a packed auditorium in Seattle Central Community College. The first American Indian to be chosen superintendent of the state’s largest school district — and one who has made a priority of “listening” to everyone in her district, from students to teachers to principals to community members and “learning” from them — has sent ripples or even shock waves throughout the community.
In a hallway leading to the stage, a half hour before Juneau was to make her appearance, a Muslim woman wearing a shiny dress and a hijab was bending over a mat, saying a prayer.
“We are very proud of her,” said Farhiya Omer, who arrived from Somalia in 1993 and took an English Language Learners (ELL) class at Seattle Central in 1998. She has been working in the ELL department of the Seattle School District since, the last 21 years.
“She has really listened to people of different communities,” she said. “She’s listening, and she’s learning.”
When Juneau took the stage, and during her speech, the thunderous applause was like a solid force moving out from the audience, filling the arena. Hoots of joy and celebration erupted as she mentioned initiatives or praised individuals or groups.
She showed videos, one of which is of the head custodian inspector and specialist for the district, Bounma Thongdymanyvong, originally from Laos. He talked about his joy in finding home again in the District.
At the same time, Juneau mentioned the challenges of the District. They are formidable.
Media reports have suggested that her predecessor Larry Nyland’s failure to solve them, particularly closing the achievement gap for marginalized students, led to his departure.
She mentioned that only 36 percent of Black children at the third grade level were proficient in reading.
“That means 64 percent are not,” she said. “And we have similar statistics for other students of color and students living in poverty.
Yet she has faced major challenges before.
“It might seem paradoxical, but people have tremendous resilience and creativity,” said K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor at Arizona State University School of Social Transformation and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “People can find or create (at least partial) spaces of refuge under the most horrific conditions.”
Juneau’s great grandparents had to travel hundreds of miles just to attend school.
It was her grandmother, a school cook, who inspired Juneau’s prevailing vision. From her, Juneau learned about the need for adults in schools to develop deep relationships with kids through listening.
Her grandmother arrived at school at four in the morning to bake meals from scratch for students. As the kids went through the cafeteria line, she would use her close relationships with them to make sure they had a successful day.
“When she would see a student walk through the lunch line who was having a really difficult morning, she would be able to go to the principal and advocate for that student and say, ‘Hey, this guy’s having a hard time today, so you know if he gets in trouble, just be aware that something’s going on,’ ” said Juneau.
As a child, Juneau spent a lot of time after school with her brother and cousin at her grandmother’s house.
Her grandfather had died soon after she was born.
“She would feed us our after-school snack, and we would just visit about a lot of things,” she said.
“Even when I was back to being a teacher in my hometown, I often sat with her a lot and just talked about daily life. She had left being a cook, but she realized how school systems worked. And it was good to talk to her about my brand new experiences being in the school and for her to give advice about building relationships with students.”
Finding solace through deep, nurturing relationships in a schooling system that was once used to erase and replace an entire culture seems to be a strategy that worked for Juneau.
The Montana experience
As state superintendent of public schools in Montana, she helped transform its educational system.
Even earlier, Juneau was part of a movement lasting decades to introduce education about American Indians to all students and faculty as well as provide cultural modeling for American Indian students.
The program, which eventually involved a lawsuit forcing the state to redefine its educational system, covered all areas of the curriculum.
Students learned about American Indian culture in math class by looking at how tipis were built. Or in science class, they learned how to understand the medicine behind the plants used by tribes, said Juneau. In PE, they played traditional Native games. And in social studies, they confronted “an accurate and truthful history of the beginnings of this country and what actually happened.”
“We were having hard conversations with students and having them come to a conclusion about what history actually was,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, was similar to Washington state’s challenge – most of the teachers were white, had gone through the established K-12 educational system as well as teacher training, and hence, were unequipped to teach through the lens of a changing historical narrative.
“We created a bunch of resources, we had almost 300 lesson plans across all curricular areas, but that was almost putting the cart before the horse,” she said. “We had to back up and do a lot of professional development to help them unlearn what they had learned and replace it with accurate information.”
With this and other initiatives, graduation rates rose to the highest levels ever. Juneau was recognized with numerous awards, including during her time at Harvard, where she earned a Master of Arts in education.
She also has a law degree and completed advanced graduate coursework in education and sociocultural studies.
Applying her Montana experience to the Seattle School District — where, despite some stellar successes in recent years, the problems of marginalized students and high poverty schools still remain as they were during her predecessors’ tenures — may be the answer. It may also help explain the fervor of expectations surrounding her public appearance.
“I see the same thing happening with ethnic studies here and across Washington state,” said Juneau.
“Students are loud and clear about wanting to learn about history, to learn about why we are in the state we are in in this country and across their lived experience.”
“We can create a lot of lessons,” she added, “but until, similarly to what we did [in Montana], teachers have the unlearning and the relearning — there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
She said teaching not only about the history of marginalized students but also about their culture will instill a sense of belonging that will be part of the pathway leading to student success.
Undoing totalitarian schooling
Such a strategy — of dissolving past educational practices and replacing them with accurate and empowering pedagogy — seems almost a reversal of what was done to American Indians.
“Schooling has been systematically used to try to erase and replace American Indian sovereignty and identity,” said Lomawaima.
“That included family, language, economy, religion, and educational systems that had existed for millennia and were often targeted for elimination by the federal school systems,” said Lomawaima.
Juneau, during her state of the district address, presented herself as one example of such decimation.
“Oki. Niksukuwask. Neetonakoo, Ootskwi Siksikiaki. In the Blackfeet language, that means, hello, my friends and relatives — my name is Blue Cloud Woman,” she said.
“Seattle Public Schools has students and families that speak over 100 heritage languages. That is something to be celebrated. However, you just heard the extent of Blackfeet language that I know. I did not have the opportunity to learn it from my family because they didn’t know it either.”
“They didn’t know it because the history of education for Native Americans is one of trauma and oppression. When this country was being populated because of the eastern invasion, Native Americans were seen as a burden to be overcome — not included.”
Looking back to move forward
Juneau’s mother, Carol Juneau, opened their community’s first alternative school, creating its first tribal college. Juneau’s mother also serves in Montana’s state legislature.
“As you take every step, you learn a little bit more about your family history, about what that was like,” Juneau said.
Juneau also gave the example of a success story from her past:
In Montana, a young American Indian student from a reservation felt out of place among his classmates in Missoula.
The teacher invited a tribal member in to talk about drumming and culture.
“The student felt so empowered that he felt seen for the first time,” she said. “He felt there was more of a sense of belonging and he started really engaging.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.