Image: Jane Sherman

As we embark on a school year unlike any other, Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus pandemic have once again brought the issue of racial equity to the fore. In early August, we asked three education experts in Seattle to discuss how the city’s schools can work toward creating just learning environments for students of color. The conversation, held over Zoom, has been edited for clarity. 

► Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director, Technology Access Foundation

► María Guzmán, bilingual teacher, Beacon Hill International Elementary School

► Erin Okuno, executive director, Southeast Seattle Education Coalition

What does equity in education mean to each of you?

► TD: To me, it's pretty simple: that every kid gets what they need when they need it, and there's one set of standards that everybody's trying to reach instead of scaffolding the standards based off of what we think a kid can do.

► MG: Yeah, I think Trish put it very well. I think equity is a chance for every child, every student, to reach their full potential at where they're at, whatever that may mean for that individual child and their family and their community. And also, for me a big one is it's not just teaching to standards. Yes, that's great if you can reach a standard, but also to teach the whole child.

► EO: Yes, to everything everyone said. In the work that we do at SESEC, we are very explicit about talking about racial equity. Because right now, if we don't talk about race, and we don't center racial equity, the conversation devolves into other things like gender equity, gender equality. Or, it becomes a class conversation which, when you start to talk about that, you don't talk about race in America. So SESEC is very explicit about saying, 'Right now we have to focus on racial equity.' If you come to our conversations or anything, we make sure we center communities of color first.


When we talk about racial equity in Seattle, where has Seattle Public Schools—and not just Seattle Public Schools, but Seattle schools, generally speaking—where do you all see the system here falling short, and where do you see it working? What are some things that have worked here?

► TD: I'll just say to me, that's a really hard question to answer for any school system. Because it's not just an effort here and effort there and does it work in one school and another school. You know, to me, it's about belief and behavior. It's about making sure that our content is diverse in terms of us representing every culture that's in this state. And I'm not talking about separate cultural training, or separate cultural history training, which is what everybody's advocating for. To me, it's about having all that built in. So, I personally cannot, sorry, point out where racial equity anywhere as a system has worked.

► MG: It's a really big question too. And I think it does fall under: If we're failing as a school system, then I think we're failing as a nation, too. We are a product of what's happening around us. But yeah, I think a big one too is overrepresentation in areas and underrepresentation in some areas as well. What I mean by that is we see…overrepresentation in special education classes of students of color Those are a few really concrete examples I can provide. [Also], just the quality of education: where we're allocating our funds, where we're not allocating our funds, who gets access to these high-quality curriculum materials and who doesn't. So, I think it's super complex. Those are just little examples that I can provide.

► TD: The question you asked, there is no one path. There is no one way to answer that question. There is no one school that any of us can point to to answer in the affirmative in your question. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of your questions are framed. This is not a bit on and a bit off kind of thing. It's way more complex than that.

► EO: Along the lines of what Trish is saying, there are pockets of one or two things that happen that move the needle, but yes, there isn't just one thing. Maria is a bilingual teacher, so she knows when we get dual language instruction, it's a step, but it's not—we don't achieve total racial equity by just saying, “We're going to have a dual language program that's designed first and foremost for English language learners.” And then the other thing that we see happen is sometimes when we do these things, there's either a lot of resistance, or white families and the white system tries to come in and co-opt it. So, in schools like John Stanford [International Elementary School, in Wallingford] that has Japanese and Spanish [dual-language immersion programs] or Beacon Hill [International Elementary School] that has Spanish and Chinese [Mandarin immersion programs], all of a sudden you see gentrification, because families are like, “Hey, cool, I can send my kid to this [school] and get a free Spanish education!” But really it wasn't designed for them. It was designed for English language learners first.


I want to come back to something that Maria brought up about high-quality curriculum materials. Maria, can you explain a little bit more about what you mean by that and what those of us who haven't been in a classroom in a long time might be missing there.

► MG: As a district, specifically in Seattle Public Schools, we each get a curriculum. It's supposed to be, across the board, everyone has the same curriculum. But even within that, you have schools that are like, 'Yeah, we can, we can supplement our curriculum with something better, better materials.' And that's dependent on essentially where you live, right? If your PTA can fund that, and if your school has the resources to fund that, then you can have all this extra stuff. But if you're in another area, in another part of town, you're just kind of given what you have and teachers are kind of scrambling to supplement the curriculum that isn't necessarily culturally appropriate for their students. That's what I mean, with that particular part of the inequities of the city.

► TD: And curriculum is just one piece, right?

► MG: Totally.

► TD: It's the pedagogy that matters. You could have the best content on the face of the earth. But if your pedagogy is wack, and you're not reaching every kid in a way that they can grab on to this amazing material, it doesn't matter how amazing the material is. I think you would agree with me on that. All right, that's one piece. So I think that whatever this, wherever we're leading to here, I think it's real clear that everything is connected to everything else. There's no one—you might talk about curriculum, I might talk about pedagogy. Somebody else might talk about racial equity, but none of those work by themselves. They all have to kind of work together. And that's where I think systemically all of our systems fall apart.


When you talk about pedagogy being wack, Trish, what do you mean by that?

► TD: Well, I mean, a lot of teaching is stand and deliver. I stand in front of the classroom. I go through the curriculum, the book. I go through the content, and then I give you a test on it, and then I move on. I don't let you have a voice or a choice. I don't let you have discourse over some of the material. It's how I give it to you. And there are way too many teachers that teach that way. And they don't listen. They don't let kids actually learn while they're in the classroom. First of all, we have too many periods in the day. There's no reason why you should have six periods in a day. Because by the time you get kids in the class and settled in, it's time for them to pack up and leave. And that whole notion that you only teach what's in the book and you follow the scope and sequence and all that without having student voice is what makes things a little challenging because you're not—as a student in a class like that, I'm not learning. What I'm doing is receiving information. I'm not getting a chance to share what I know. I'm not getting a chance to learn from my peers, because I haven't heard what they know. You know what I mean? So, that really matters. When I look at our work, we don't even touch the curriculum. The curriculum is what you learn. What we talk about is how you learn. How we learn, how we deliver it.


What's something that bothers you, that you feel like is fairly achievable, that isn't happening right now, whether it's in technological access or language barriers [or something else]?

► MG: I can start because I do teach Spanish immersion to mostly—not mostly, it used to be mostly—Spanish speaking students. So, I'm really passionate about bilingual education and just the power of honoring student languages in the instruction, in the classroom, and in the pedagogy. So, for me, if I could have a perfect world, I would have bilingual education available to every student. Not everyone wants it, and not everyone should have it, but available to everyone—and not make it a place of where you live and where you can no longer live. It's really important to revitalize language and have the opportunity to learn in your own language or in another language. It doesn't have to be your own per se, but I see firsthand just the power of having students, specifically Latino students or Spanish-speaking students, [English language learners], who learn in their own language. Just how powerful that is for them, and how just by even getting the instruction in your own language honors a part of your identity. So, that would be my, I guess, overnight fix. If I could have a switch and fix stuff, I would say yeah, honoring and valuing student language in the classroom and giving everyone the opportunity to have quality instruction in your heritage language or in your home language.

► EO: If we were not in Covid times, this would not be my answer. But because we are in such a remote and distanced way of learning, we need to fix the internet and tech divide right now and that needs to be done now because we have students…who still don't have home internet. And if we're going to be remote learning, that's not [acceptable]: for half of a class to be able to have high-speed internet, access lessons, have access to educators and the information that they need to stay healthy and safe, and the other half of the class not. [One teacher] was saying literally half her class doesn't have internet, and we know which half doesn't. It's the students that—their families qualify for free and reduced lunch, are immigrants, or don't speak English. So, now they have to spend more of their household income to afford internet when they're also still struggling to pay rent, find food, look for new jobs, because their job that they were secure in a couple months ago is no longer there. And that's something that I think is fixable if there's enough political will. [Seattle Public Schools instituted a free internet program for the next six months; here’s more information about who’s eligible.]

► TD: Yeah, I would agree.... And I think what makes it easier for me to pick one thing is Covid to Erin's point, right. So, I would go for professional development for teachers, not only to use the technology tools that are needed to facilitate online learning, but to also help create community. Like we just finished [a summer academy] because we're going to be co-managing Washington Middle School. And the number one thing, and the only thing that we really focused on, was building community among the kids and the teachers so that they can rely on each other and lean on each other when we have tough times like this. And they can support each other. Instead of us, we need to teach teachers how to do that. We have teachers that haven't even used half of the tools that the districts are asking them to use. Many of them are just sitting, waiting for professional development instead of picking up the tool, which is available to them now, and learning it on their own. Don't even get me started. I mean, it really is insane to me. And then you got groups of teachers who are busting their butts to try to make this work and aren't getting any support.

► EO: Trish touched upon something that I want to reiterate. For me, the heart of racial equity work is always about relationships, and doing and creating relationships with people to support each other. So, if you don't have secure relationships in place, and it has to be a two-way, relational thing, not a transactional thing, then no matter what we do to try to close achievement or opportunity gaps, we're going to continue to spin our wheels, or focus on the wrong things. So, I love hearing your answer about creating community. Mine was a very technical answer. But that's the real answer.

► TD: Yeah, but you need that technical answer right now, right? Because there is not going to be any learning. And I agree with you. Like, I don't understand. I'm working with three different groups of people who have come together to figure out how we can pay for internet access for kids because the districts have managed to get at least the computers, but they're no good if there's no access. And it just is beyond me that our state—forget the district level—our state isn't providing this for the kids. [While SPS offers a free internet program, other Washington communities struggle to provide connectivity.] I don't get it. And it is easy. It's the one thing that can happen like, by the end of this week, that could happen.  We have people who want to give providers incentives to do stuff. It's like why: They all put up Black Lives Matter statements. Why don't they go ahead and actually back it up? You know, we got people who want to give to Covid this, Covid that. Give for connectivity. That's number one. We got plenty of organizations that I think we can all wrestle up food and stuff for families. We're real good at that, but we're not good at getting technology in the hands of families. And they need it.

► MG: Both these points are right on it. And, and you know, Trish talked about it in the sense of Covid, but even whenever we're past this Covid, everything that Trish and Erin talked about still has to be true post-Covid: the sense that I'm getting here is community and fighting for our students, essentially. To me that's racial equity—and this includes building community within your classroom, and then building community within the staff, and then building community within the district, and then within the city [so that] students and teachers feel that sense of community [and] know that there's somebody there fighting for them. Right now, whether it's in Covid, someone fighting to get them internet. And then in the classroom, someone fighting to make sure that their learning happens…. I think that the big thing here is just relationship and community. For so long, it has been teacher-student-classroom: I teach, you learn, and we just go home at the end of the day. And it's just more complex than that. It requires a lot of love.

► TD: Love is it, and we have a saying: If I judge you, I can't teach you. And we have a lot of judgmental adults around kids. A lot. You come from a poor household, I've already judged what you can and can't do. You didn't do well on the state test? The whole system has decided the path for you starting in third grade.

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