By Chris B. Bennett
The Seattle Medium
Seattle admittedly has a problem with the academic achievement of African Americans, especially when it comes to African American males. According to a recent study, The White-Black achievement gap in Seattle is 3.7 grade levels in 3rd grade, with the typical White student scoring roughly 2.2 years above grade level and typical African American student scoring roughly 1.5 years below grade level. On this measure, according to the study, “White students in Seattle have the 9th highest grade level in 3rd grade among the 200 largest districts in the nation, while African American students in Seattle rank 149th nationwide.”
In response to this, Seattle Public Schools (SPS), under the leadership of Superintendent Denise Juneau, is implementing a strategic plan that focuses on Black males. To that end, the District recently created the Department of African American Male Achievement for Seattle Public Schools, which focuses on the advancement of African American males and elimination of disparities in educational and social outcomes for students from pre-school through 12th grade. It was also announced that Dr. Mia Williams, a Black woman who most recently served as principal of Aki Kurose Middle School, was appointed by Juneau as the executive director of the department.
While I would like to congratulate Dr. Williams on her appointment and Seattle Public Schools on making such a monumental move, I like many other observers have to question why the position was not filled by a Black male? No disrespect to Dr. Williams, her accomplishments or ability to make significant progress in the area of Black male achievement within the district, because I believe that, given the right level of support and resources, she can create a much better narrative as it relates to Black male achievement in the District. However, when I look at the optics presented to the community by SPS prior to this announcement I cannot sit back and ignore the hypocrisy associated with this appointment, which I don’t think is fair to Dr. Williams or to the African American community.
We as a community know the importance and the need for more Black male teachers/role models, especially when it comes to our young men. We also know the influence that the optics of a Black man in a prominent position, especially one that directly impacts young Black males, can have on the overall plight of our community. It seems strange to me that out of all of the qualified Black men from across the country, including some in our own backyard, that may have applied for this job that none of them were considered good enough by the Superintendent to lead this new department of African American Male Achievement in the only county in the country named after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in a city that claims to embrace and support diversity and diverse cultures.
According to multiple sources, at least one informal conversation/inquiry regarding the position with a person(s) who some believe was/were qualified for the position took place before members of the African American advisory council pushed for a competitive and open process. However, the Superintendent chose to appoint Dr. Williams, who DID NOT APPLY for the position, rather than select a candidate from the open process. And despite having several highly qualified African American male principals in the district, some of whom represent rich, family legacies of exceptional leadership in the field of education, no current Black male principal within the district was offered the job.
Ironically, according to mynorthwest.com, in a December 2018 interview on KIRO radio, Juneau emphasized the importance of a diverse faculty serving a diverse student body. “Research shows when there are young students, and they see a teacher who looks like them in the classroom, they’re going to be more successful,” she said during the interview. However, it does not appear that Juneau places as much emphasis on the implementation of this position when it comes to appointment of district officials.
When you look further at the optics presented by SPS under the leadership of Supt. Juneau, one cannot help but raise an eyebrow or two at the continued disappearance of Black males in leadership positions within the district. When she took the reigns just over a year ago, Juneau inherited three African American males in senior leadership positions — including the highly coveted and well-regarded Dr. Brent Jones, who was, at the time, the Chief of Equity, Partnerships and Engagement. Fast-forward to today and there is not one African American male in a senior leadership role within the district. And if you take it a step further, one could argue that African American males in any type of leadership capacity within the district are nearing extinction.
In the case of Jones, according to multiple sources within the District, the way he was treated was difficult to watch, as you had a “talented man” allegedly “forced to do busy work that was well below his skillset, title and pay grade.” One source even went as far as to say that “it was like watching a critically acclaimed chef being reluctantly invited to his stepmother’s house for Christmas, and having him sit outside in the cold peeling 20 lbs of potatoes while his uncle Louie and aunt FiFi were inside over-cooking the turkey and burning the mac and cheese, only to find out later that potatoes were nowhere on the menu.”
While I’m sure the District can provide a good narrative as to why each of these men have left the district, the fact remains that none of them were replaced by an African American male, and it is unclear if an African American male was even considered to fill any of their vacated posts.
In order to help bring this into the proper perspective, let’s looks at SPS’ tale of the tape as it relates to African American males in prominent position in under Juneau:
Michael Tolley – Tolley was transitioned from Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning to Chief Academic Officer prior to leaving the district – Gone! Replaced by a White woman.
Dr. Lester “Flip” Herndon – Herndon was transitioned from Associate Superintendent of Facilities and Operations to Chief Operations Officer prior to leaving the district – Gone! Replaced by a White male.
Dr. Brent Jones, Chief of Equity, Partnerships and Engagement – Gone! Replaced by a Black woman.
Eric McCurdy, Seattle Public Schools Athletic Director – Bon Voyage! Replaced by a Black woman on an interim basis, and eventually replaced by a White male.
Stephen Jones, Manager of Transportation – Gone! Gone! And Gone!
In addition, there are reports of other African Americans in the district, including some high and mid-level staffers, who are actively seeking other opportunities because of the “atmosphere that is currently brewing within the district.”
Right now, it appears that Black women in the district are making moves and in line for very “high-profile” positions. However, many insiders caution that these positions can be short-lived because many of the positions that are being offered to them are at-will positions that can be eliminated at any time.
While many of us are focused on the gentrification of Seattle and the Central Area, we might need to pay close attention to the gentrification that appears to be taking place in Seattle Public Schools. Because it appears that the district’s “strategic plan” of succession is not inclusive of African American males.
Through the eyes of an ink barrel, may peace be unto you!