Horace Mann issues, solutions, and obstacles

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Horace Mann issues, solutions, and obstacles

There were two issues discussed at the third meeting of the Horace Mann-African American Community Partnerships Task Force. The two issues are not closely linked. The immediate issue is about the Mann building, but that is actually the smaller issue. The Mann building issue was created to bring urgency to the big issue: the failure to educate African-American children in Seattle Public Schools. There isn’t much of a natural connection between these two, so it is easy and appropriate to regard them separately.

Bad Faith on the Mann Building

There are solutions available for the Mann building issue, but they don’t matter because the District refuses to engage on the question. The District refuses to consider any outcome other than the vacation of the building, eleven months of construction, and then NOVA’s return. It doesn’t matter what other solutions are available because the District always did, does, and will refuse to consider them. They are resolute.

A couple members of the community characterized this as “bad faith”. These folks are, of course, right. It is bad faith for the District to invite these people to discuss possible solutions when the District never had any intention of altering their course. There was nothing that anyone could have said or done in these task force meetings that would have changed the District’s decision. Not only is it bad faith, but it is also consistent with the District’s entire history of community engagement. They invite you to speak, but they don’t listen.

What solutions are possible? NOVA could move to the Lowell building instead of the Mann building and the Mann building could be left as is. Lowell is less than half full right now. Any work needed to make Lowell suitable for use as a high school – the addition of science labs and changes to washroom fixtures – could be done while the elementary school there continues. Since Lowell has been continuously occupied, the full scale effort to bring it up to current code would not be necessary. Lowell is, in many ways, a better location for NOVA than Mann. The cost to renovate Lowell for NOVA would be comparable – if not less – than the cost to renovate Mann.

Here’s a bonus to this solution. Calls for a downtown school will always meet with resistance so long as Lowell is sitting so close to South Lake Union with over 300 empty seats. If the Downtown Seattle Association wants any real chance to create an elementary school for Amazon, they will have to close Lowell. The DSA would have an interest in supporting this solution.

Could this work? Could there be other workable solutions? Who knows? It doesn’t matter because the topic is closed. The District refuses to discuss it. They refuse saying “That’s not what we promised the voters when they approved BEX IV.” This rationale is laughable. The District has a long history of changing BEX projects. They have done it in every levy to date, and they will undoubtedly do it in BEX IV as well. Fixing up an old building for NOVA, whether it is Mann or Lowell, is what the voters approved.

Also – and this is the really funny part – the Mann renovation won’t use BEX IV money. The money for the Mann building renovation is coming from other capital fund sources.

The Task Force is pretty big – over twenty people. But not one of them is a veteran District watcher with the detailed knowledge to refute this thin rationale. Melissa and I knew these facts, but none of the community members of the Task Force did.

There was some talk about whether the Peace Center could use the space in the Mann building after NOVA returns, but that’s neither likely nor particularly desirable.

Instead of considering any possibility that would allow the Peace Center to remain in the Mann building, the District has suggested that they lease other District sites instead. The District suggested Van Asselt and Columbia. The community rejected Van Asselt as too far south, but it is likely to accept Columbia. So, pending a lease agreement, Columbia will be the Peace Center’s new home. The Columbia building was, until recently, leased to the Torah Day School of Seattle. I wonder if the lease terms for the Peace Center will be comparable to the terms offered to the Torah Day School. A big difference could spark charges of discrimination and possible litigation.

So that’s the likely conclusion/solution for the first issue. It ran exactly according to script. Of course it did. The District has played out this scene dozens of times and they know the dialog and the business. The District refused to authentically engage or consider any outcome other than the one that they had pre-determined.

Bad Faith on Academic Achievement

The second, larger, issue also went according to the District’s script. The District is even more experienced with this drama. They offered the community the one thing that they always offer: an Advisory Committee.

The District will form an African-American Student Success Advisory Committee. This will enable them to co-opt the dissent by collecting it all together in one approved place for easy, efficient neglect while preserving the illusion of action. It is a public relations response to an academic problem. The District will apply bureaucracy to drain all of the urgency from this crisis and to systematically lower expectations.

The committee will take three months to assemble, then it will meet for six months, then it will produce recommendations, and then those recommendations will be ignored. The recommendations can be ignored for years as the District offers excuse after excuse (our plans for next year are already made, but we can include those changes in our plans for the following year). Finally, the District will say that it will take years for the reforms to result in improvements in student outcomes. That will buy them another three years. This will enable the District to appease the dissenters, create the illusion of engagement, and keep the peace through stalling tactics while they take no action whatsoever on the academic problem. Their stalling tactics are legendary.

They may make some promises and adopt some resolutions at the headquarters, but they will never apply any enforcement or accountability to them in the schools. All of the commitments will be personal, not institutional, so thanks to the turnover in the District leadership they will never have to fulfill any commitments. Look at their history. This is what they have always done.

The academic problem is the failure to educate African-American students. It is the academic achievement gap. It is the opportunity gap. It is the school to prison pipeline. The District has acknowledged this problem for over ten years. At times they have named it as their top priority and number one goal. But you will notice that the District has never developed a plan to address it. What kind of organization sets a goal as their top priority but never makes a plan to achieve it?

The superintendent was asked – directly – if he acknowledged the problem. He spoke passionately about the problem. Then he was asked -directly – if he has made any plan to address the problem. He admitted that, while he had plans to improve academic achievement for all students in all schools, he had no specific plan to address the under-achievement of African-American students.

So this is how and where it will end. The District has offered the Peace Center the opportunity to lease the Columbia building. They may offer them a preferential rental rate, but they do so at their peril. The District will form an Advisory Committee to address the failure to educate African-American students but, as we all know, the Advisory Committee will have no real impact. In short, the District will roll forward as they always have and do what they have always done.

If we are lucky, really lucky, then the efforts to improve academic outcomes for all students – MTSS, academic assurances, CSIPs, etc. – will result in some improvement for African-American students and this will create the illusion that they have made some progress. In truth, this resolution will allow the District to stall any outbreak of real activism and dissent for at least five or six years. The members of the Task Force got played just as every other community mistreated by the District got played. The District used the same tactics and the same script. I see no reason to believe that the results will be any different this time.

Here’s a solution to the academic problem: the Peace Center can apply for and receive a grant from the City through the Families and Education Levy to establish some demonstration projects to show how to educate African-American students effectively with culturally relevant curricula, culturally competent teaching, and culturally appropriate discipline based on the culture’s social norms.

If they show results, then they can continue to receive the grant funds. Then they can apply for and receive more grant funds to expand. Even if they never work inside Seattle Public Schools and even if the District never adopts their strategies, the Peace Center can have reliable funding to do the work they need to do.

Posted by Charlie Mas at 1:00 PM

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