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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

April 11, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Skin in the game: Talking race, culture and multi-colored lockers

JulieGrayscale

Julie Breidenbach

New schools don’t crop up every day. So watching the formation of Fairmount Elementary, scheduled to open this September in West Seattle, has been instructive.

Parents may assume the most difficult tasks would be selecting a curriculum, and hiring the right teachers. Not so, says Julie Breidenbach, a Seattle School District veteran and current principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, selected for this weighty job.

Actually, it’s the little things: Making sure that student lockers are in different colors, so that kids who can’t yet count can still find theirs; ensuring a child-friendly system for communication with parents.

What follows — a free-wheeling conversation with Fairmount’s new principal — is the third installment of “Skin in the Game,” an occasional series tracking the birth of Seattle’s newest school.

Q: You’ve collected a pretty active group of parents already. How do you juggle their concerns as community members with your own ideas for what Fairmount needs?

A: It’s a big emotional investment, where your child goes to school, so that doesn’t surprise me. There are some certain things that educators do, and certain things parents do and sometimes these things overlap — a bit. But I’ve learned over the years to set some very clear boundaries. Time is finite and there are things I’m not going to waste a lot of time discussing, like uniforms. ‘No’ means no.

Q: You’re considered a strong supporter of education for gifted students. But a lot of people around here feel that Seattle’s Accelerated Progress Program, with its vast majority of white children, is little more than racial segregation.

A: I hear that, and it’s true in some schools. All I can tell you is at Thurgood Marshall, people would be very surprised at our diversity. No matter what kind of kid, if teachers see a glimmer of something different, we will test for it. We had a first grader who’d moved into the district from Africa and didn’t test all that well at first — she’d had no English at home. But we knew that pretty quickly she would be off the charts. She had something. So our teachers filled out the testing paperwork themselves, and sure enough, she went from the 10th to the 90th percentile in a few months.

I throw that racism card back onto the district. At Thurgood Marshall, we’re pushing kids forward and getting them qualified for APP. How many other schools are pushing to get more kids into gifted programs? There are some schools that don’t even tell parents about the testing process. Is this a racism issue? I would say it’s more of an access issue.

Q: What about the opposite problem — parents advocating to get their kids into APP when those children may not be ready? How do you handle that?

A: Gifted students are Special Education kids too, you know. If you have an off-the-charts kid reading or doing math by themselves, they’re missing a huge point of education. They need to have a peer group. They need to have conversations. They need to learn to play in the sandbox. Because that’s life in the real world. And for a lot of children who are wired a little different, perfectionism can be so paralyzing they never want to try anything new.

Q: Are you on schedule for an on-time opening? How’s the hiring process going?

A: Renovations to the physical building are on schedule for the district to take ownership in July. And slowly, we’re getting everyone hired. I’ll admit that the architects might not love me –sometimes designers don’t see with the lens of an educator, and I’ve made the district remove a wall they’d built between the library and computer lab, replacing it with windows to create one space where a single teacher can see everyone. Right now, our count is about 270 students. But I’m betting the final number will be 370. There’s a bit of a buzz going on.

Q: So far, what’s the best thing about this process for you?

A: We have no past history or culture to deal with. No one saying, “oh, we’ll never be able to change that.” It’s a clean slate — which is very exciting — really, career Nirvana for educators. To actually be able to create something that we know is going to be great for kids — it’s powerful.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Fairmount Elementary, Seattle Public Schools

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