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On being the only black man on the Seattle school board

caption: Stephan Blanford, Seattle School Board member
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Stephan Blanford, Seattle School Board member
KUOW: Megan Farmer

When Stephan Blanford ran for Seattle school board four years ago, he won 89 percent of the vote.

But he often felt stuck as a member of that board and now says he won’t run again.

“I've been on the losing end of way too many votes on issues that affect our achievement and opportunity gaps,” he said. “That's part of the reason that I chose not to run again.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ann Dornfeld, KUOW: What changes have you seen in the opportunity gap in Seattle schools during your four-year tenure?

Blanford: There’s a study that came out last year from Stanford that said that we are the fifth worst large, urban school district in the nation in terms of our achievement and opportunity gaps between our white students and our African-American students.

I believe that in this community that is as wealthy as it is and as committed to public education as it is and as educated as it is, that that's a pretty unconscionable metric.

Dornfeld: You said that parents in Seattle often want their child to attend a school that's diverse but not too diverse. Why do you think that is?

Blanford: I read a study — the author of the study tried to quantify the threshold number of kids of color in a school where white parents will say, ‘That's a good school. I want my child to go there.’

If it goes over that number, then those same parents are less likely to enroll their kids. I think it's less than 10 percent. And if it gets more than that, then there's a perception that the school is not high quality.

I always want to challenge that and say, why do you believe that if your child were in a school that is primarily students of color — why would you automatically believe that can't be a high quality school?

I would love to figure out a way to actually put that in front of parents and have them grapple with that.

Dornfeld: Do you think that white parents in Seattle know that about themselves?

Blanford: I believe that in many ways, that there is a disconnect between what many of our white parents believe in their heart of hearts and how they act.

As a parent myself I know that my first and primary responsibility is to advocate for the best possible situations for my child, and I believe that that is what all parents do all the time.

Dornfeld: Do you see the issues of segregation within school buildings that on paper would appear to be diverse schools?

Blanford: There are a number of schools where the teachers have come to me and said, ‘There is rampant segregation in our building. When we line up all of our kids and we send the highly capable kids in one direction and we send the general education kids in a different direction, you can see the racial segregation play out just by kids lining up.’

Dornfeld: Having sat through my share of school board meetings over the years, there are far more white faces in the audience than in your average classroom in Seattle schools. How do you see the folks who lobby the board as influencing its agenda when it comes to equity?

Blanford: That is a great question. They do. They strongly do influence the board.

The school board meetings are an opportunity for parents to come and articulate their feelings on policy positions that we're going to take.

What you don't see is the emails that we get, the campaigns that are launched by people of goodwill who care very deeply about their individual school, but in their advocacy for their individual school sometimes are working to the detriment of other schools.

In a time where we're under-resourced as a system, it is human nature to then start advocating for what is best for you instead of what's best for the community as a whole.

And in this time, particularly with the economy growing, with Seattle being a go-to city that people want to come to and raise families, I think we have to deal with that issue sooner rather than later. Because if we don't, we'll have the segregation and the disparate outcomes.

And we will have a system that serves many of our population very well and some of our population really poorly.

Dornfeld: I've spoken to a lot of parents and teachers over the years who have said they think that the district talks a good game about closing the opportunity gap and doing right by young black boys, etc. — but doesn't put their money where their mouth is. Do you think that's the case?

Blanford: Yes. In large measure, I do think that that's the case.

I chose to run because I believed I had kind of the right skill set to try to push that issue. The 6 to 1 votes that have occurred over time proved to me that that's not the case. As did the many emails I get saying that we know that folks are not concerned about schools that are not like their own.

There are many people in our community who believe passionately that our school system should be more equitable, should be driving resources to those students who are underperforming for one reason or another. They're not nearly as organized as those who are advocating for their own individual interests.

Dornfeld: When you think back on some of those 6 to 1 votes what are the most painful?

Blanford: One in particular still grates for me.

One of my colleagues has taken a position for a long time that standardized assessments are inherently bad. And so I did a little bit of research on that and I found a letter that was written to Congress by 20-plus national organizations that are advocacy organizations for children — the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group that advocates for special ed kids, and an advocacy group that advocates for kids in foster care and in the correctional system.

And they wrote a letter saying assessments actually are a good thing, particularly for our kids, because they show the system is not serving our kids well. And the disparities in educational outcomes then drive resources to schools that are underperforming.

I read this letter almost in its entirety into the record before we took the vote on this resolution which said, 'We Seattle Public Schools believe that standardized testing is bad.'

That was a 6 to 1 vote.

There are legitimate reasons why we need to interrogate standardized assessments, but the arguments used by my colleagues had to do with the amount of time that is spent in assessments. We are 50 percent under what is the standard recommendation or guideline says that we should. So that's not an acceptable argument in my mind.

Many of the children of the people who are advocating on the other side of that issue will take tests. They'll take tests to get into college. They'll take tests to get into their first job, but the stories that I heard about how detrimental it was for us to mandate tests done on kids actually, I think, does a disservice particularly to our low performing kids.

It was hard to sleep that night after that vote was taken, because I thought it was so very clear that there is a group of students who benefit from this and there are a whole lot of students that will suffer as a result of this resolution.

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