Inequality in Seattle Public Schools

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

A full text transcript of the show is available below.

2020 has changed education forever - and has exacerbated inequalities already present in our education system. In this re-broadcast of an interview with Seattle Times education reporter Dahlia Bazzaz, Crystal and Dahlia delve into how inequality in Seattle Public Schools impacts students, and provide context for our current education landscape.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Dahlia Bazzaz, at @dahliabazzaz. More info is available at

Articles referenced:

Reactions to Seattle schools chief Denise Juneau’s resignation are mixed by Dahlia Bazzaz, Hannah Furfaro, and Joy Resmovits

Schools confront ‘off the rails’ numbers of failing grades by Carolyn Thompson

Seattle’s wealth boom and disparity, as told through its public schools by Dahlia Bazzaz

Find more work by today’s guest, Dahlia Bazzaz, at

Full Transcript:

Lisl Stadler, Producer: [00:00:00] Inequality in Seattle Public Schools has been a hot topic for some time, but never more so than now. Just this week, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Denise Juneau, announced her departure amid calls for her resignation from community activists claiming she has contributed to worsening inequality in Seattle Public Schools.

This happens amid the district's ongoing struggle to manage the emergency that is education during COVID-19. In this episode of Hacks and Wonks, Crystal speaks with Seattle Times education reporter, Dahlia Bazzaz, and discusses the effects of income inequality on education. When this was recorded in late 2019, prior to the pandemic, student inequality was already a problem. Now, schools face record numbers of failing grades as students struggle with distance learning, particularly low-income students, English language learners, and disabled students. Seattle Public Schools struggle with inequality is not going away. For up-to-date and more in-depth information about the Seattle education landscape from today's guest, follow her on Twitter at, @dahliabazzaz. That's @dahliabazzaz, or find her work in the Seattle Times.

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:28] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we don't just talk politics and policy, but also how they affect our lives and shape our communities. As we dive into the backstories behind what we read in the news, we bring voices to the table that we don't hear from often enough.

Before Hacks and Wonks, I hosted the show, The Fifth Estate, which dealt with similar themes and stories. This episode was initially recorded for The Fifth Estate at KVRU 105.7 FM in the Rainier Valley in Seattle.

Public schools are involved in every issue we face as a society. If you spend a few minutes just Googling Seattle education news, you see reporters, commentators and community members struggling with issues from substance abuse to hate crimes to safely dealing with anti-vaxxers. Our education system has to deal with it all.

Some facts about Seattle Public Schools. They teach 53,627 students and it includes 104 schools with over 5,800 educators and 8,961 full-time staff. One out of every 5 SPS students come from non-English speaking backgrounds and 1 out of every 10 are English language learners. Almost 1 out of every 20 students is experiencing homelessness. That's about one per class. There are 154 countries of origin among students, speaking 155 languages and dialects.

Today, we talk to Seattle Times reporter Dahlia Bazzaz, who has written articles on almost every education issue in our area. In this conversation, we focus on the changing demographics within Seattle. Just as our city has been gentrifying, so has our school system. Where does that leave students whose families are struggling with the rising cost of living in Seattle? How do schools meet the needs of students - sometimes in the same schools whose family situations range from affluence to homelessness. This is one of many conversations we'll have about education on Hacks and Wonks as it's of such vital importance to our society.

Thank you for joining us.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:03:37] Thank you for having me again.

Crystal Fincher: [00:03:38] Just starting out with the composition of the district now - it has changed. Gentrification is certainly an issue. The district isn't separate from that - looking at the amount of students who are in poverty - has declined in the district. And a lot of people might just look at that and go, Hey, things are great, things are wonderful. There are fewer students in poverty. But that's not the whole story, is it?

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:04:03] It's actually not, yeah. So I wrote a story a few days ago that charted time since 2009 and it looked at the declining poverty rate over that past decade. And over even in the last six years, the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch declined by 16%, which is pretty significant. And I got a lot of feedback when I wrote that story, about, What if it is just economic mobility? What if a bunch of students did actually rise out of poverty, because the time period does span recovery from the great recession. But when I looked at the racial demographics that have changed at the district in that timeframe, it became very clear to me that it is a result of gentrification. So that decline in the poverty rate coincides with a decline in the number of students of color in the district. And students of color make up 88% of students in poverty at Seattle Public Schools. At the same time, you also have a surge of white students, a surge of 25% in the last decade.

And so it was pretty clear to me, and it was pretty clear to some folks at the district who were talking to me when I had seen that chart - I was floored by it, although I shouldn't have been. And so, a lot of families are getting pushed out and it has to do with the rising cost of raising kids here and the rising cost of living here. So economic mobility might be some of it, but it's certainly not all of it. I would say most of it is gentrification.

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:48] Absolutely. And this has been part of a larger conversation we've been having in the cityand we've seen it ourselves. We've seen the Central District, which started out as a Black area because Blacks weren't allowed to go anywhere else, but had been known as that. And it has changed - largely because of the same types of factors that you saw in the work that you just did - where it's really an issue of displacement. We've all seen it with our own eyes. We've all seen people of color, oftentimes, being displaced further south. And a lot of areas that were traditionally, predominantly areas of color now are no longer. The district actually has ways that they can influence or manage or work within that. How have they been doing that?

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:06:40] So there are a variety of ways that the district influences the larger gentrification of the city. And one of them is through their drawing of school boundaries. And so for the most part, these school boundaries have reinforced the divide between the North and South of the city, which is caused by these racist housing covenants. And so, one of the things that the district has tried to do - they had a five-year plan that they just approved recently, and it focuses on students farthest away from educational justice, and with a specific focus on African-American male students , 40% of whom attend schools in Southeast Seattle. So they've selected a group of about a dozen schools and they want to focus on literacy for the first year and want to pull more resources, do more community partnerships, have more culturally responsive teaching at those schools, hire more teachers of color, to focus in on the population of students of color who have, who are remaining in the city for the time being.

So I talked to a school board member, Brandon Hersey, who represents South Seattle and he works in Federal Way. He's a teacher down there and he said the issues that Seattle are dealing with are kind of interesting because Federal Way has gotten a lot of the families that Seattle has pushed out. And he said, in Federal Way, we're dealing with a lot of these issues because we have a high poverty, lots of students of color in our district. And in Seattle, the challenge there is trying to maintain that diversity in the district, and keep those students of color around and thriving. And so there's an inherent power imbalance when you have more affluence coming into the district. Because then those measures to try and maintain the diversity, and this is what district officials are telling me, are harder to defend, or they're harder to convey. And so they're trying to find ways to communicate - this focus is beneficial for the whole system.

Crystal Fincher: [00:08:56] So I mean to put it pretty bluntly, affluent white people are resistant to diversity in their schools. Because there's an association in a lot of their minds between lower quality schools and a lower quality education and the presence of people of color. It's been an issue, much like the issue of zoning overall, and more affluent, single family neighborhoods are resistant to more density and more different people being in their community. The same resistance is there in the schools that they attend and they're very vocal about that. And so there's been a large amount of affluent white people moving in who don't have diversity as a priority for their kids and their families. And it just makes addressing the issue even harder.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:09:55] It does. And it also, it stratifies the needs that they have to meet. One district official told me that, at the same time that we're getting a lot of affluence coming into the district, we're also seeing poor students become poorer. So there was a recent surge in homeless students being served at the district. And I wouldn't say this is a sight you would see very often because of the way that the city is stratified by race and income. But in some schools, for example, I think the example given was, it was a school in the Central Area that sort of border, I believe it's an elementary school. It has a homeless shelter nearby, and then it's also sort of in the gentrified Central District. And so you have some students, this is a school board member telling me this image, you have some students getting dropped off in front of this school in taxis and they're either homeless or they're foster kids. And then in the back parking lot, you see a Tesla. And so the spectrum of needs that the district has had to serve and concentrate on is really divided. So that makes for some interesting political divides for which schools and which areas of the district are going to get money and resources for their schools.

Crystal Fincher: [00:11:21] Right. And we've seen for a long time, this has been a long-standing discussion about the disparity in resources that schools in the South End versus schools in the North End have typically received. It's been predominantly skewed towards kids on the North End for decades. And so the district has an initiative to potentially try and do something about that and make it more equitable.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:11:51] Yeah, they've experimented in recent years with a sort of equity - they call it an equity lens or an equity scoring or tier. There are a lot of different, there's a lot of different terminology, but essentially what it breaks down to is that they have a list of these projects that they want to get done in the schools and it can range from maintenance to major reconstruction. Rainier Beach, for example, is due for a major renovation or new school. And so what they've started to do is look at the demographics of the schools that are on the project lists and trying to move them up. And so that's what they've tried to do recently, but there's also been criticism in the most recent round of when they were trying to decide how to spend some construction tax money. There was some criticism of their methodology for deciding that. But they're trying to address it. But there are some other issues that you can't really address with a construction levy like the disparity in teacher experience across the district.

So North End schools or schools with more affluent student bodies tend to have teachers with more experience. And that's pretty true across the country. The turnover at Title I schools, or schools with a high number of low-income students, tend to have higher turnover. Research suggests it's because it's a lack of administrative support sometimes. And so that directly affects the quality of education.

Our South End schools are offering really great programs. I don't want that to come across as those schools are of poor quality in any way, but it does create instability when you have teacher turnover at a higher rate. And then coupled with that, South End schools tend to have lower enrollment than schools in the North End, or at least that's according to what the district says. And so every year we see some sort of adjustment where, for example, a school like Rainier Beach will lose one or two instructors.

Crystal Fincher: [00:13:59] Right. And we've seen protests about that - about South End schools bearing the brunt of staff changes and that instability, because of those enrollment differences. Those enrollment differences aren't happening in a vacuum. Those are people who've been displaced, effectively, and who are no longer in the city. It's not like they just disappeared, but they can no longer afford to live there, because we've all seen what's happened with housing prices.

So when you have an area that's been disproportionately hit by increases that are unsustainable for people who live there - I mean, we're talking doubling of rents and a number of situations. And salaries and wages certainly have not doubled. And the cost of living is increasing and more than just housing costs. So they're losing students and a lot of times the more affluent people replacing them are not participating in the public school system. And so we're seeing enrollment decrease there. And all of the challenges that come with that, in terms of more instability, more inexperienced teachers, fewer resources available, fewer parents there for PTAs and fundraisers, if they're even available to do that in the first place. So a lot of the advantages that we see in some other areas of the city just don't exist there. And there really is no - there hasn't traditionally been an effort to account for that and to make that disparity lessen and look at a more equitable share of resources, but it sounds like they're actually looking at doing that now.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:15:52] I think as a result of focusing on African-American male students, you have to focus on South End schools. And we don't know what the result of this focus is going to be. All I have is what they're trying to do, some of the programs they have, but this is the first year of their five-year plan. So there's not really much I can report back about how successful these measures are.

Crystal Fincher: [00:16:18] You're listening to Hacks and Wonks with your host Crystal Fincher on KVRU 105.7 FM.

We're joined today by Dahlia from the Seattle Times who has done an excellent job of reporting on education here in the city and state from a variety of different angles. I encourage you to read more of her work to get a better idea of just what's going on. So we were just talking about some things that are happening in the district that they're trying to address. What else do they have going on in the district?

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:16:56] I mean that strategic plan is essentially most of what they talk about now. I mean, that's the lens through which they're making all of their policy decisions. They say, how is this going to affect students, and this is their phrase - farthest away from educational justice. And so those initiatives cover a broad cross-section of things. And things that are identified as really important to keeping students of color engaged in the school system, things that they've failed to do thus far - getting students of color reading by third grade, having a teachers' staff that reflects the diversity of their students.

Crystal Fincher: [00:17:36] Which actually increases the academic performance of students. When they have a teacher that looks like them, they do better.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:17:45] Yeah. I mean, teacher expectations factor into a lot of how successful students are in the long run. Because if you have, if you have a teacher, and this is shown to be somewhat correlated with race, if you have a teacher that is, that shares your racial background, their likelihood of being referred to college or enjoying a wide variety of academic opportunities is much higher. And students of color are facing a teacher force that is largely white women.

Crystal Fincher: [00:18:18] I am the mother of a son who is now in his twenties, but certainly, what you were just talking about resonated with me and so many other parents of color in districts where, if we came upon a challenge - I mean, there's one situation I remember where my son was having a challenge in one particular subject. And so we wanted to be proactive and, Hey, it looks like he's starting to have a challenge. What can we do to - is there extra time, extra support, extra tutoring, what programming, what resources are there? And being met with almost shock that I was interested in intervening and an expectation almost that he would struggle.

I will never forget that they said, "Well, at least he's not failing." And so if it - there's a reason why I remember that clearly. And so it's - if the expectation for some kids is just not failing while other kids are being talked to about college and beyond and other opportunities, which you see filter through to programs like Running Start or advanced placement classes or the gifted programs. I know there's an impression that parents and kids get from teachers and school administration - that they're more invested in some kids, some types of kids, than they are with others.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:19:49] That community disenfranchisement that Seattle has dealt with is something that they want to address, that's something that they've, that's sort of their cultural responsiveness part of their strategic plan. And again, we're in the first year, I don't know how successful that is, but that's something that the district has been aware of for decades .

Crystal Fincher: [00:20:13] Well, and I will say it absolutely has been a problem for decades and major problem for decades. And it is heartening to see them attempt to tackle it, because we've certainly heard talk about the problem for a long time and ideas. But now that something is actually in place and in process, and we'll see where it leads and some parts of it may work well and other parts may not, but at least we're trying something and can retool as we go and learn lessons and make things better. But I think it is time for action in all facets of education for all kids, especially kids who need it most, whether they're immigrants, or non-English speakers, or kids of color, or foster kids, or kids from low-income households, that they are viewed as kids just the same as everyone else - full of the same kind of potential that everyone else has. And so I am happy to hear that that's happening from the district and I'm looking forward to reading your coverage on how that proceeds.

And so one thing that I just mentioned that you've written about recently is talking about how the gifted program is administered. And I guess I probably have a personal opinion on this too, as a kid who went through a gifted program. It just never actually seemed to me that it was that the kids were extraordinary.

Speaking in just my experience, I can't speak for Seattle, but they just taught in a much more relevant way and made connections that they weren't making in other ones. And I'm not saying that your kids are not gifted. There are tons of wonderfully talented kids, but I think it is interesting to consider that maybe if they looked at expanding that type of opportunity to more kids, to different types of kids, that they might potentially see the same kind of achievement by expanding, by looking beyond what they typically view as being gifted or talented or being full of potential. That that is typically looked a very specific way and has typically not looked other specific ways. And I think that's misguided and I'm happy to see that they're at least considering changing that, but it also looks like they're in the middle of that consideration and we don't know what's going to happen with that.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:22:47] Yeah. I mean, it's very much in flux right now. To give some folks some background, Seattle Public Schools has had a gifted program since about the 1960s. And that came with a wave of national recognition that there are some students that need to be grown and invested in and nurtured in a different way than other students. It really comes out of the space race. And so it all starts with intelligence testing. And districts like Seattle start piloting these programs where they administer IQ tests to students. And they then use a cutoff - they say 98 percentile and above get to be in this particular program. And they experiment with how to accelerate these students maybe one year or two years of instruction. And over time, and this is sort of a unique thing for Seattle, although a few other districts had tried it - in the 1970s and 80s, as the district was trying to racially integrate schools with bussing, they used gifted programs to try and attract white families to predominantly Black and Brown schools in the district because they had identified that these gifted programs were really popular with white families.

And so there's part of the history that Seattle is dealing with - it includes that sort of racial integration part of their gifted program, or the sort of roots there. And so as a result, there's the current model that Seattle Public Schools uses to deliver gifted instruction - is a cohort where students attend schools in separate classrooms. Students who are designated as gifted - in separate classes as the rest of the general school population.

So you have schools like in Washington Middle School, or Garfield High School, or Thurgood Marshall Elementary School - I'm talking about Central District and South End schools because that's where the divide becomes more obvious, but you'll have classrooms of predominantly Black and Brown students who are in the gen ed population - that's how they're referred to. And then you'll have the HCC, the highly capable cohort students who are predominantly white and Asian in these schools. And the reason I gave that history bit is that a lot of the same schools that were targeted to have gifted programs are the same schools that have these cohorts today. And they have separate classes just like that historical bussing initiative worked. And so the district has said, Okay, we're going to try to do away with these cohorts. We still have to deliver services for gifted students under state law - that's a requirement - but we want to have these gifted services delivered in a way where they're integrated with the rest of the general education population at the school.

And that's caused quite a bit of uproar. There's a lot of debate about whether the cohort, these self-contained is what they call them, self-contained cohorts where all the gifted students are in one place, whether they're necessary to ensure that student's needs are met. And so a lot of the pushback has been around well, Can you still offer the same level of academic service if you get rid of this? And so that's - I think that the district believes that it's part of their plan to address students farthest away from educational justice - to remove this cohort model because it sort of steeped in that larger bussing problem.

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:41] 'Cause that's where it originated and it still looks just like that.

Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:26:44] This structure, for sure, yeah. And so that's been one of the largest debates for the district, I would say, in the last decade or so. And it's really bubbling up now and they just had a task force bring together a bunch of recommendations for how the district could reform its practices and the district is expected to issue a proposal for how to reform in the spring of next year.

Crystal Fincher: [00:27:13] Well, we will definitely be keeping our eye on that one too. And I'm sure there will be a lot of heated and colorful conversation from parents and other stakeholders involved in that. But I'm glad they're having the conversation - very happy you gave us that history, because that's important to know similar to the redlining conversation.

So many conversations that we're having in Seattle about where things originate and how they still look the same, but it's easy for a lot of people to forget how they came to be that way. So again, sincerely appreciate your work and you joining us today.

Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Thank you to KVRU 105.7 FM in Seattle, where we record this show. Our chief audio engineer is Maurice Jones Jr and our Producer is Lisl Stadler. If you want more Hacks and Wonks content, go to, subscribe to Hacks and Wonks on your favorite podcatcher, or follow me on Twitter @finchfrii. Catch you on the other side.

All opinions on Hacks and Wonks represent only the opinion holder and in no way represent the opinions and beliefs of KVRU as a whole.

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