I met Andre when former Broad trained Seattle Public School Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson began her short-lived tenure in Seattle. One of her first edicts was to close schools, disrupt successful programs and rif teachers.
Along with many other parents, teachers and students, Andre advocated to keep schools open and then continued his advocacy, remaining active in public education in Seattle.
Because of his ongoing involvement with public school education and knowing the kind of person he is, we fully support Andre Helmstetter’s candidacy for School Board Director.
To follow is his op-ed written for Seattle Education.
A voice for all in a changing city: Why I’m running for School Board
Why would someone run for school board?
It’s a question I hear fairly often, especially now that I am running. The short answer is: I’m committed to public service, have 10 years of experience with Seattle Public Schools, a personal story of success supported by great educators, and a professional background and skill set that will bring value to the School Board, families and the broader community.
Here’s the longer answer:
I grew up in a very diverse set of circumstances. I was born right after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, in Watts to a white mother and a black father. I dropped out of high school in my sophomore year to work to help support my family. Luckily, teachers were looking out for me. Teachers helped me graduate with my class by staying in touch with me and making sure I had the extra courses I needed when I returned. I owe a great deal to them. I personally understand the challenges that our less advantaged students face. I understand the power of education to help a person rise through those challenges. I was fortunate enough to stay on track, get a good education, graduate from college and develop a professional career. I would like to ensure that all students in Seattle’s public schools also have such positive opportunities.
I’m a firm believer in public service. I joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school. I served as a mentor at the King County Youth Detention Center, where I spent time with really great kids — and learned some very sad stories. I believe mentors are especially important for youth of color who may feel they have fewer positive options. I volunteered on my local community council (Squire Park) and as a precinct committee officer (PCO) for my legislative district (37th). I have coached chess for kindergartners at Leschi Elementary in South Seattle. I would like to extend my service to the families of Seattle Public Schools. As a biracial parent of three multiracial children, I understand the importance of racial equity and of providing an engaging education for all students. I also know firsthand the manner in which School District policy impacts schools and families, for better — or for worse.
In 2009 the Seattle School Board voted to close my daughter’s neighborhood school, T.T. Minor Elementary. In the fall of 2008, I had helped organize a citywide effort to stop the misguided school closures that targeted not only my daughter’s school, but those of hundreds of other students districtwide. We rallied, we marched, we petitioned, we tried to reason with them.
Though our group was not successful, our predictions were proven correct when the District realized enrollment was in fact going up. It had to reopen the schools the following years, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. There were other costs too: the closures caused huge disruptions to students and families who were moved to other buildings and saw their communities broken apart.’
I have witnessed poor decision making by the district, most negatively impacting our least advantaged students and students of color. I want to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
My family has also benefited from the strengths of the district, such as the Montessori program and great teachers. This fall, my wife and I are excited to enroll our youngest in Bailey Gatzert Elementary, where he will join one of the most diverse communities of learners in the district. Though it has challenges, it is a school with great supports and a great learning environment. According to OSPI, 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and about 96 percent are students of color.
The district report said Gatzert was a failing school, according to its test scores. But that is in contrast with the great educational environment I found when I visited. A lot of children who enroll at Bailey Gatzert are already 18-24 months behind academically. To try to evaluate these children based on test scores is really a misuse of data. Instead, we need to see where they are starting off, what their environments look like outside of school, and then tailor learning experiences to them – just as Bailey Gatzert looks to be doing.
I believe the best way we can help kids is to create great learning environments in school where they feel included, responsible for their learning, and engaged. I’ve seen over-discipline, especially applied to low-income and minority students, that makes children feel like they are not part of the school community. Anything we can do to engage them and make them feel like they’re a part of, instead of a problem, in the community, will make a difference.
To that end, as a School Board Director, I will address disproportionate discipline of students of color and those with special needs. The moratorium on K-5 suspensions passed by the board in 2015 was a good start – but we need to do more. When I was in kindergarten I needed extra help with reading, but by fourth grade I was placed in the gifted program. Students of color are too often overrepresented in special education services and underrepresented in advanced learning.
I am interested in meaningful strategies for closing opportunity gaps. The district needs to attract and retain a more diverse teaching corps to reflect and understand our diverse students (127 nationalities are represented, 143 languages spoken, 34 percent of students face food and housing insecurity). We need robust cultural competency training so we can eliminate disproportionate representation of students of color and low income students in discipline, special education and advanced learning.
Capacity also continues to be a challenge. Just as we saw in 2008, the district is growing and needs more building capacity. The Seattle School District is expected to have 54,000 students enrolled in 2017-18. I have witnessed poor decision-making by the district, most negatively impacting our least advantaged students and students of color. I want to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
I would also like to ensure adequate lunch and recess times, adding more arts, music and civics to the school day, and reducing the time spent on testing. I’m particularly committed to ensuring all families have a voice in Seattle Public Schools.
As a lean consultant by profession, I understand the challenges large, public organizations face. I have worked with government officials and administrators to streamline organizations for greater efficiency using current resources. This approach is crucial for Seattle Public schools at this time when state funding for public education is still insufficient (despite recent efforts by the state legislature to address McCleary) and when ours is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. We need to do more with less. We need to be smart about our resources. We owe it to our families, our teachers and taxpayers. And that is what I am trained to help organizations do.
I would apply my professional management and operations skills to help direct the $1 billion budget to greater efficiencies and accountability. In 2018, the current Strategic Plan expires and the Board will have the opportunity to select a new superintendent. I would like to help shape the vision and direction of the district that will attract inspired new candidates.
We live in a beautiful city full of smart people and with a strong economy. I believe our school district can do a better for our students and their families by working to be a national example for the true promise and value of public education.
But our city is also changing have seen my own neighborhood transform dramatically in the 18 years I have lived here. As a former owner of a coffee shop and restaurant in the heart of the CD, I watched my neighborhood change both demographically and economically. Disparities are becoming more pronounced. It is becoming more difficult for all families to thrive in an increasingly gentrified and costly city. It’s more important than ever that all the voices of all our communities are represented and heard. Now more than ever, public education matters.
I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t believe that the School Board has an important role to play in shaping our school district to provide a better, more inclusive, learning environment to prepare our current students to be the future leaders, innovators and civically engaged citizens of our great city. I would be honored to serve the communities of Seattle Public Schools and help other students like myself who struggled at times and faced challenges. I understand their story, and I have the skills and the will to support policy and practices that will better serve them. I am committed to making our district a place where every child is valued and supported on their own path to success. Just as I was.