The following are remarks delivered by University of Washington-Bothell associate professor Wayne Au at the Schools-to-Prisons Pipeline: Educate, Not Criminalize Our Youth community forum, sponsored by King County Councilmember Larry Gossett at New Holly Gathering Hall, Seattle, WA on July 29, 2015:
Good evening. Now before even starting my remarks, I want to say upfront that I am a full supporter of public education in this country. The people who want to privatize our schools are at our doorstep—actually, if I’m being honest, they are actually already in our house. And so even though tonight I am going to be critiquing our schools, I want to be clear that I’m doing this out of a love for public schools and out of a recognition that, as one of the last truly democratic institutions in this country, public education needs to serve all of our children equitably.
And so we’re here tonight specifically because our Seattle Public Schools is not living up to its promise, particularly when we look at race equity. Let’s talk about graduation rates and discipline rates as examples. The most recent data from 2014 shows a 62% graduation rate for Black students, almost a 61% graduation rate for Latino students, about a 57% graduation rate for students classified as English Language Learners, and a 51% graduation rate for our Native American students. By comparison, White students in Seattle Schools graduate at a rate of almost 84%.
We find similar racial disparities if we look at the 2014 data on suspensions and expulsions as well. African American students are suspended or expelled at a rate of 8%. Latino students at a rate of 4.5%. Pacific Islanders at a rate of 5.6%. Native American students are suspended or expelled at a rate of over 9%. [Low income—6%, affluent 1.6%; SPED 8%]. White students, on the other hand, have a suspension or expulsion rate of only 2%.
Now, there are a lot of reasons for these kinds of disparities. First and foremost, race and economic class inequality outside of schools and in our communities is getting worse. Our kids’ families don’t have equitable access to healthcare, affordable housing, and livable wages. Anyone who is honest about what the research says about educational inequality will tell you that the biggest factors in school achievement are the kinds of resources and supports our children have access to outside of schools.
This is why I am so upset with our state government. If they are not willing to find monies to bolster social services, guarantee access to high quality healthcare, make sure that there is affordable housing for everyone, and establish a minimum wage that is high enough so that the workers of Washington can live and eat here, then the one thing they could do to support racial equity in education would be to fulfill their legal obligation to fully fund public education and follow the wisdom of the voters who clearly mandated that we significantly reduce class sizes.
But everything is not beyond our control, and there is still a lot that our schools can and should be doing better to meet the needs of low income students of color. For instance, we have far too few teachers and administrators of color, and we need our school staff to be more strongly connected to students’ communities. Community and cultural engagement are critical to student success.
We also need to turn away from punitive models of discipline, and instead turn toward models of restorative justice. Restorative justice in schools, when taken seriously, can make huge strides in making sure Black and Brown kids are not disproportionately expelled or suspended, improving graduation rates in the process.
Also if I had my choice, we also need to do away with high-stakes standardized testing. Pressures from these tests are killing the curriculum for children of color in many schools. Art, recess, lunch, music, and other important subjects are being squeezed out of the curriculum and our schools as more and more classrooms focus increasingly on tested subjects instead.
Even worse, research has shown that high school graduation tests not only disproportionately cause Black and Latino students to drop out of school, they also contribute directly to the schools-to-prison pipeline. For instance, in a study completed in 2013 researchers found that the presence of high school exit exams created a 12.5% increase in incarceration rates. The testing has become purely punitive. So in the same way we need to move to restorative justice, we also need to move to restorative assessment.
We also need to fix our curriculum. We need a school curriculum that engages the diversity of our students and builds positive and empowered social and cultural identities in our kids. This is one of the benefits of multicultural and social justice curriculum. When we teach for social justice, when we teach anti-racism, when our curriculum challenges colonization, homophobia, police brutality, and the schools-to-prisons pipeline, when we actively include the cultures and histories of communities of color in our learning, when we teach that Black Lives Matter, we are not only inviting our dispossessed Black and Brown children back into our classrooms, we are also increasing their capacities to be community activists and agents of social change in the world.
And if you need an empirical reason for multicultural, social justice curriculum, I’ve got one for you: Research on ethnic studies programs in high schools has shown us that culturally relevant curriculum and teaching significantly increases graduation rates and college entrance rates for kids of color specifically. If for no other reason, this is why we need ethnic studies in our schools.
Everything I have talked about so far speaks to why I am so upset with Seattle Schools for abruptly closing Middle College High School at High Point and for continually threatening the Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice at the University of Washington.
You see, both Middle College and Ida B. Wells are close to my heart, and I know just how important they are to our kids and our community. Let me explain. I am a homeboy here. I graduated from Garfield. I went to The Evergreen State College and became a public school teacher. As part of that process I did my student teaching at the original Middle College at Seattle Central College. Then, along with Alonzo Ybarra, I became a founding faculty for Middle College at South Seattle College, which in turn became Middle College at High Point. My friends and colleagues, like Rogelio Rigor, also went on to found the Ida B. Wells school at UW. And even though I’m a college professor now, I keep close touch with my friends who teach at both places.
Suffice it to say, I know MCHS at High Point Center and the Ida B. Wells School very well, I know the kinds of students they serve equally well, and because of my experiences as a Middle College teacher, I know the importance of these schools intimately.
When I taught at MCHS I saw what it meant to be a student who didn’t fit within the large, comprehensive high school system in Seattle Schools, and what it meant to be a kid who struggled daily with a myriad of issues that could stand in the way of educational success: homelessness, lack of healthcare, poverty, being on the edge of gangs or street life, alienation and disengagement from schooling or the curriculum, probation, violence, emotional abuse, working multiple jobs to help parents pay bills, taking care of siblings, court cases, anxiety, pregnancy, drug use, depression, absent parents. These are the realities that our dropouts, our pushouts, our dispossessed kids deal with on the daily.
And within that space at Middle College, within the work that we did then and that my Middle College friends and colleagues still do today, amazing things happened. Many students flourished within a small school environment that actively and openly worked with them on the problems they faced in the world, because we were a small school that encouraged students to become agents of change of their own lives. Students at Middle College also always responded to our curriculum of social justice and anti-racism, and this became a cornerstone of how and why we were able to engage the formerly disengaged and draw in those students who embraced their struggles on the way to high school graduation. We taught a curriculum that helped our students understand structures of power, and that understanding helped them make sense of and overcome the injustices they faced.
The statistics are clear. We know what happens when kids drop out of high school and don’t return. We know how dropping out contributes directly to the schools-to-prisons pipeline. We know the risks our kids run when they turn to street life to survive. Because of this, I can’t put it any more bluntly than to say, with all seriousness: Schools like Middle College and Ida B. Wells save lives.
So, when the Seattle School District closes down Middle College High School at High Point, and when it forcibly transfers a beloved and committed teacher from the Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice, it causes me to question what is really going on.
From where I stand, I see two small schools that teach a social justice curriculum, that build strong relationships with their students, and that work with the kids that the district either isn’t able or isn’t willing to serve.
So to me, the closing of Middle College at High Point and the forced transfer of Rogelio Rigor looks like an attack on alternative education, an attack on social justice teaching, and an attack on racial equity in the district. By closing alternative schools and attacking social justice teaching, the district is, in effect, contributing directly to the schools-to-prisons pipeline.