February 1, 2023
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How an anti-racism initiative connects Seattle students to career paths at all levels

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LYNNWOOD — Seventeen-year-old Brandon Johnson spent a Wednesday afternoon this spring participating in an unusual school field trip — a visit to a construction site in Lynnwood that would soon be a Sound Transit light-rail station. 

Listening intently over the noisy machinery, the Roosevelt High School junior learned how the elevators were built, saw why the concrete needs to be smoothed, discovered how structural engineers make it all work, and heard about the role architects play in the project. Kevin Johns, the senior superintendent of the project, acted as guide. 

“If you’re interested in the trade, there’s money to be made, and a lot of it,” he told the group of Seattle Public Schools students. ”It’s no different than going to college.”

Johnson was among 40 Black male students to tour the job site and connect with workers and managers in the field. The Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) at Seattle Schools partnered with Skanska, a multinational construction and development company based in Sweden, to make trips like this possible for students. 

The partnership is part of a broader, districtwide initiative to dismantle anti-Black racism and make the education system work for students of color, specifically Black boys. That’s been a focus since 2019, a few years after the disparity in test scores between Black and white students in the district gained national attention. 

Those scores showed that Black kids test one-and-a-half grade levels below the U.S. average. Compared with their white peers in the city, Seattle’s black students lagged by three-and-a-half grade levels.

Cleveland High student Trevon Mitchell said he was excited to know that he could make nearly $30 an hour right out of high school. He hasn’t ruled out college, but said going into a trade is high on his list, whether or not he earns a college degree.

Historically, many schools pushed low-income students and students of color into vocational classes, discouraging them from seeking college degrees. But these trade jobs are different, SPS officials say — they offer high pay, a career track and other perks, with or without a college degree.

“Our goal is to expose our students to all aspects of a career path at all levels of education needed, prepare them for college and life beyond in community,” said Mia Williams, who heads AAMA. “Our partnership and others are in an effort to give our students a well-rounded education which allows them to be critical thinkers and apply learned skills.”

Showing Black students the types of opportunities they can seize in the working world “is directly linked to changing the conditions for our students,” said Adam Haizlip, AAMA manager. “We’re holding this paperwork that says if you take this three-week apprenticeship course, you can start making $29 an hour the next day because, with AAMA, I’ll be your guide to help you get through the right doors.”

After touring the job site, students had the chance to do hands-on work like flying drones and working with steel pipes. Haizlip said it’s important for students to experience what this profession would be like. 

“We’re helping students to build a network so we can link them to their own personal aspirations,” Haizlip said. “These are just children who are looking for opportunities … It’s cultural immersion for them and in addition, it’s linking them to outcomes and real-time opportunities.”

The Kingmakers

Haizlip works with the students who are in Kingmakers of Seattle, an elective program for middle- and high-school Black male students. The students are taught and mentored by Black males and the curriculum is African-centered, which emphasizes increasing literacy, building self-esteem, and teaching Black history.

“It’s been great because I go to a predominantly white school in a predominantly white area and I’m able to be around people who look like me,” said Johnson, the Roosevelt teen. “It’s like a comfort thing and another family.”

Johnson joined Kingmakers in the summer of 2021. Since then, he’s learned about new career paths and possibilities besides college after graduation. 

“I’ve been thinking about what to do after high school for a while,” Johnson said. “I go to a college-focused high school and I’m not sure if I want to go to college or go into a trade like this.”

Now Johnson said he’s leaning more toward going into a trade.

“Since doing Skanska it’s a lot more interesting,” he said. “They showed us there’s a management aspect and that construction is not just a hammer and nail. There’s a lot more to it.”

The Kingmakers program launched in 2017 and is currently featured at six Seattle schools: Aki Kurose, Asa Mercer and Denny International middle schools and Interagency Academy, Franklin, and Cleveland high schools. The goal is to have the program in 25 schools by 2025, Haizlip said. 

Through the program, Black boys are connected to resources and exposed to career pathways and learn about their cultures and Black history. Students also receive support for social and emotional needs and learn how they relate to their identities. 

The stereotype is Black students don’t raise their hands in classrooms, Williams said. But in Kingmakers — where students have Black male teachers and peers — “I guarantee you see all the Black males … fighting to answer questions.”

The goal is for every educator and staff member to model practices that make students feel safe in an anti-racist space where their identities and cultures are accepted and represented, Williams said. “In the end, we’re going to build a system that’s designed by the students who are experiencing it,” she said. That will “help make it the best.”

“We want the numbers on the state tests to go up”

In December, Seattle Schools released a 29-page report that shifted the way the district measures student success and outcomes. Officials are going beyond measuring test scores — they’re also evaluating student experiences. 

Sometimes young people enter a classroom already carrying trauma and pain, and may also be dealing with obstacles at home, Williams said. School can make everything worse. Students do well when teachers provide structure, routines, and a sense of community in a classroom. 

Students have to feel safe and supported in school settings in order to thrive, she said. Once that happens, test scores and grades begin to improve naturally. Williams, formerly the principal of Aki Kurose Middle School, said she has seen this happen before. “Many people say: ‘We want the numbers on the state tests to go up,’” Williams said. But that won’t happen “if the joy” isn’t there. 

As a principal, she said she watched her students grow on a social-emotional level, and test improvements followed. 

But the tricky part is replicating this districtwide, Williams said. She and her team are working on branching out to schools to inform staff about the work AAMA is doing and how they can make it happen elsewhere.

“In time, as these things are really foundational in our system, all those test scores are going to rise,” Williams said. “But us as adults have to do better. We don’t have broken shoulders, we have broken systems. That’s our measurement system.”

And student input is a priority. 

Students are on hiring committees and the Race and Equity Team, Williams said. “They know so much more. They stand on our shoulders as we stand on other people’s shoulders and they have further vision than we do. It’s allowing youth to have that space, and they’re demanding what they deserve.”

Since the report came out, Seattle Schools has started to embed student needs and asks into its education system. 

Haizlip said he interviewed more than 500 students to find out what they wanted. Over and over, he kept hearing the same thing: a desire to learn about financial literacy — how to file taxes, invest in real estate, start a business. “It’s really most vocally coming from the engagement we’re doing with our African American families and students.”

To help bring those lessons to school, AAMA has had Black real estate officers speak to students and families, Williams said; visits from doctors, lawyers and architects are next. The district is also working on embedding financial literacy in math and Career and Technological Education (CTE) courses or after-school opportunities. 

And district leaders are also adding STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into the Kingmakers work, Perkins said. The field trip to the Lynnwood station with Skanska was an example. This summer some students will be interning at Skanska and Amazon.

The district is also working to provide advanced Black and ethnic studies classes for the 2023-24 school year so all high-school students can take them and receive college credit, Perkins said. 

How does the district measure whether it is making progress on its goals without using test scores? With “climate surveys,” administered to students in the fall and spring, Williams said. Officials will break down survey responses by demographics and compare how student experiences changed over the school year.

Next month district officials will compile survey responses and feedback from students to analyze how their approach has landed and if it’s been successful, Williams said.

“For so long the system has been doing a lot of talk but not delivering on what families and Kings [the students in Kingmakers] have been asking for,” Williams said. “We’re building a system that is actually what the students say that’s going to help them be their best selves.”

Often district officials ask families about racial harm and traumatic experiences but families never see results, Williams said. “Our hope is that when we are asking for surveys, we’ll be able to show you back in the system: Here is how we heard you, here is what we are trying to do.”

“They need to be powerful experiences, not just checking a box. It’s not a one-time deal.” 

The hope: that next school year, a diverse group of teachers, principals and central office leaders will come together to build a guide to go with the report’s recommendations, Williams said. “We have to stay the course and dig deeper and make sure we’re measuring that it matters in impact, and not just keep hopping from thing to thing.”

The goal is for all this to become part of the institution, Williams said. “Whether I’m here — or anybody else is here — that these things are going to be there for our babies.”

During the field trip at the Skanska job site, Mitchell, the Cleveland High teen, said he was encouraged by the camaraderie between the workers and students. He said he appreciated the life advice and enjoyed making connections.

Johns, the Skanska project lead, told students interested in this career path to take his number. “I’ll help you out.”

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