An evolving collaboration between the UW College of Education, Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association seeks to center communities and families in driving systemic change

“There was never a time when we needed caretakers more than during the pandemic — we still need them,” says Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Chief Academic Officer Keisha Scarlett. “Families have skills and expertise as our first teachers. As we return to school in the fall, how do we remember how we were stretched? How do we build on that and not default back like a rubber band?”

While Scarlett, who is Black, knows there are few quick and easy solutions to making the education system work for everyone, she understands who has answers. The key is to work in partnership with families, community leaders and organizations, and students on the front lines of racial injustice.

Some of the many people Scarlett collaborates with include Hodan Mohamed, a parent and leader in the Seattle Somali community, Christine Tang with Families of Color Seattle, and Emijah Smith with Colorful Communities.

All bring unique experiences, perspectives, skills and relationships. For example, Smith experienced SPS as a K-12 student and then attended UW as an undergraduate, going on to the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance for graduate school with the sole aim of eliminating the achievement gap. A grandparent with a grown daughter and two Black sons in SPS, she says, “There is great leadership in SPS being intentional about moving this work forward, but we have a ways to go. As a parent with influence, advocacy, voice and access, I know our educational system is not giving kids, including mine, what they need for success after high school.”

Equitable Data Collection

During the spring and fall of 2020, SPS sought family input to inform decision-making for reopening. But it soon became apparent that respondents to the electronic survey informing future directions were disproportionately white and from higher-income schools. Largely missing were the perspectives of Black and other families of color.

That’s when Scarlett tapped the Partnering for Racial Equity (PRE) Research Practice Partnership (RPP) funded by the Spencer Foundation, involving the UW College of Education, SPS and the Center for Racial Equity at the Seattle Education Association (SEA), to help find a way to fill in the gaps. UW partners on the project include faculty members Ann Ishimaru, Filiberto Barajas-López, and Min Sun. Faculty member Niral Shah and doctoral student and research assistant Amy Li were also collaborators at the time.

In partnership since 2015, the RPP first supported the district by reviewing the implementation of Racial Equity Teams through surveys and case studies. Having had several roles in the district before her current one, Scarlett was tasked with sustaining the partnership on behalf of the school district. “It wasn’t a hard sell,” she says. “I was already working with Ann Ishimaru, who was my advisor in the UW College of Education Leadership for Learning Program. That made it easy to trust the process and intention even if I wasn’t sure what mutuality looked like.”

In 2018, in response to community advocacy work, SPS launched a strategic plan specifically focused on disrupting legacies of racism in the education system and dramatically improving academic and life outcomes for Students of Color. Meanwhile, the RPP continued to evolve.

“RPPs are different from a conventional model,” says Ishimaru. “It’s not about my research agenda where I need a site, and you give me access and then you take my research and implement it. Instead, it’s about a group of collaborators inquiring together, co-developing measures, sharing back the findings, and evolving the work.” In addition, this RPP’s focus on racial equity made it different from most RPPs in the field.

Over time, Scarlett’s role also evolved in the school district. When she became a cabinet member, it allowed her to put forth the RPP in Spring 2020 as a viable way to address the gap in understanding the experience of Black families during the pandemic. She also reached out to her longstanding community connections, some since high school like Smith, and others including Mohamed and Tang, all local leaders advocating for racial equity in education.

Citing a 2018 article about democratizing evidence in education, Scarlett emphasizes the importance of equitable data collection. “If we go to families and we ask for information, there must be accountability in how we act on it and bring it back to them as a power source to drive changes that they are most impacted by,” she says.

Amplifying Voices and Understanding Experiences

Through community-driven gatherings and focus groups organized by Tang, Smith and Mohamed, the RPP recorded perspectives from Black families, including multigenerational African American descendants of enslaved Africans with sons in SPS; Somali refugee and immigrant families; and Black SPS youth, families and community leaders. The collaborative also surveyed SPS Culturally Responsive Leadership Cadre educators in the district about their practices and priorities in providing culturally responsive instruction. They supplemented these findings with data from the annual Professional Growth and Evaluation Supports (PGES) survey for all certificated teachers, the focus of a “sister” RPP.

To amplify these perspectives back to the district, the RPP released the report, Centering Black Families and Justice-Focused Educators During Pandemic Remote Schooling (Spring - Fall 2020) in February 2021.

The survey released by SPS found that by the fall of 2020, most white students and families who responded felt better about remote learning than they had in the spring. From the perspective of many African American families, however, their experiences had not improved. Longstanding racialized tensions with schools intensified during the pandemic. Parents and caregivers described the frustration of advocating for a child’s needs and then, instead of addressing those specific issues, being met by racially-based assumptions and low expectations. At the same time, Somali families reported kids who felt safer and laughed and smiled more as they found a reprieve at home from the stress of racism at school. And despite the challenges, many Black families fostered home learning driven by their children’s interests, strengths, and communities.

The learning loss narrative makes the learning that did happen invisible, as if the only learning that counts happens at schools, shaped by educators and professionals.

When many policymakers are focusing on the learning that kids “lost” during the pandemic, these experiences offer another critical narrative. “The learning loss narrative makes the learning that did happen invisible, as if the only learning that counts happens at schools, shaped by educators and professionals,” says Ishimaru. “It’s not to say that being out of school was good, but that learning in families and communities can inform how we do schooling. We can build from their experiences to cultivate Black children’s brilliance and ensure that schools are no longer places where children experience harm.”

Rethinking and Increasing Funding

Meanwhile, there are few funding streams or mechanisms for money to reach community organizations, leaders and family advocates spearheading culturally competent and community-driven change. “With sweat equity and volunteerism, the community is meeting the needs and filling the gaps where the district is falling short,” says Smith. “This work must be led by the communities that are impacted and they must be compensated for their work.”

As the RPP continues to evolve, Scarlett sees it bringing in more partners, working alongside community organizations, and supporting an increase in the flow of resources they receive. Soon, she will be working with more partners within the school district, such as the new Associate Superintendent, the new Chief of Equity, Partnerships, and Engagement and Interim Superintendent Brent Jones, to continue to make progress on the SPS strategic plan.

She’s also excited about the potential for student-driven solutions. “Our Associate Superintendent led listening tours with families of color, including Black families of students served by Special Education. Our Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) also led listening tours with our African American male students and their families. These findings were then brought back to the community to determine their values, interest, and priorities,” says Scarlett. “That’s been a powerful addition to partner with both those divisions. What’s missing that came from the office of AAMA is student voice.”

For example, in one of the forums with students in the Kingmakers program, one King spoke about the fact that there were zero discipline incidents when kids were not attending school. He worried for a future when he might have a mask slip from his nose and then get sent home.

Smith speaks to the context of such actions. “What are the situations that have set up families to be in the situation they are in now?” she asks. “Trafficked, kidnapped, enslaved Africans. If they had the audacity to educate themselves, they would be killed. That continues today. If you send a child into the hallway, a security guard is there. That’s the prison pipeline.” She adds that Black children feel the need and speak up for their rights to an education as young as kindergarten.

Scarlett looks to youth from the African American Male Student Leadership Council for inspiration. They have made it clear that they are poised for action. “Their mantra is ‘nothing about us without us’,” says Scarlett. “We default to adults, but young people are actually experiencing all of our brilliant ideas of what should happen with education. Their insights remain largely untapped.”

Both Smith and Scarlett emphasize how equity work helps everyone, versus fearing that if one child gets something, another child will lose something. “My drive,” says Scarlett, “is to center the experience of what’s happening for Black children, and those furthest from educational justice, so that it helps to drive improved outcomes for all children.”



Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communications,