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Seattle gets glimpse of 3 finalists for school superintendent

Garfield High School in Seattle.
Flickr Photo/Joe Wolf (CC BY ND 2.0)/
File photo: Garfield High School in Seattle.

All three finalists for Seattle Public Schools' next superintendent agree on three things:

Charter schools — no.

Arming teachers — no.

Supporting student walkouts — yes.

Denise Juneau, Andre Spencer and Jeanice Kerr Swift also all said they welcome the challenge to improve outcomes for Seattle students across racial and economic lines. 

The Seattle School Board is expected to announce its preferred candidate and begin negotiations next week.

The union representing Seattle Public School teachers as well as the association representing principals have both criticized the district’s timeline as rushed and lacking enough community input. They have both praised the current superintendent Larry Nyland and advocated keeping him in his role.

Below are interviews with the three candidates.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Denise Juneau", "style": "wide"}]]Juneau was elected to two terms as superintendent of public instruction for the state of Montana. She said two of her proudest achievements were increasing graduation rates to 86 percent through data and school-specific solutions and putting a special focus on students in high-poverty schools on Native American reservations.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Denise Juneau is the former Montana superintendent of public instruction. She also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2016.", "fid": "143607", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201803/IMG_2743.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil"}]]She said she “was able to build a national model for working with high-poverty communities and schools that really struggled academically.”

It included mental health services, increased expectations of staff for students of color and visits to students’ homes.

Juneau said those visits by teachers and staff weren’t just to tell families “‘Johnny didn’t show up today,’ or ‘he has an F in math,’ but ‘what are your hopes and dreams for your child?’”

Juneau said the issues were difficult and the program didn’t solve everything, but it had true success stories.

“I think it was a mixed bag, but where it worked, it really, really worked,” she said.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Andre Spencer", "style": "wide"}]]Spencer heads Harrison School District Two in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He said he has tried to respect parent choice in picking neighborhood schools while raising the quality across the district.

“We currently have a 72 percent free-and-reduced-lunch population,” he said. “We currently allow every single student in our district to take an Advanced Placement course of their choosing. No one decides but the student.”

He said the charter schools in his district predate his arrival, but they’ve remained in operation because parents support them.

He said they have provided more opportunities, like International Baccalaureate and the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree along with a high school diploma.

“Are those options bringing students back to our district? Yes,” he said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Andre Spencer heads a school district in Colorado Springs. He has been a teacher and administrator in Baltimore and Houston.", "fid": "143608", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201803/IMG_2747.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil"}]]Spencer said that to keep students from falling into the criminal justice system, schools must be able to monitor their grades and attendance to detect within days or at most a few weeks that they are falling behind.

And he said schools have to use discipline that doesn’t exacerbate the academic problems.  

“What are we doing [is] addressing behavioral outcomes without it being a means of exclusion from the classroom as the first strategy that we engage,” he asked.

“So do we have very specific strategies in place like restorative justice practices, like positive behavior intervention systems.”

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Jeanice Kerr Swift", "style": "wide"}]]Swift is superintendent of schools in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She said the latest data show a 47 percent reduction in high school suspensions over a five-year period there.

“That being said, we do still have a disparity there,” she said, with African-Americans, Latinos, boys and students with low incomes or special needs being more at risk of suspensions.

“But I would put our progress in Ann Arbor on out-school suspensions up against any district’s. I’m very proud of that progress,” Swift said.

She said the concentration of students by income level in neighborhood schools is a concern around the country.

“It’s a challenging situation and it’s happening in communities across the country, not just Seattle,” she said. “I see it being exacerbated as income disparities increase.”

She said she's excited to hear about Seattle's programs to expand free community college tuition and ORCA passes for SPS students. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jeanice Kerr Swift is superintendent in Ann Arbor, Michigan. ", "fid": "143610", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201803/IMG_2739.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil"}]]Swift said she’s worked to draw students across neighborhood boundaries. “We’ve done things like put high-interest programming into some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods and that has served to cross-pollinate a more heterogeneous socio-economic mix,” she said.

Swift and the other candidates said she’s been supportive of student walkouts to protest gun violence and school shootings.

“I’ve apologized to our students for our inability to solve this problem,” she said.

Year started with KUOW: 2005