August 17, 2020

Seattle’s Widening Education Gap

Executive Director Steve Lewis weighs in on the shortfalls–and opportunities–of remote instruction.

Originally published as an op-ed in the Seattle Times on July 29, 2020.

Our region was among the first in the country to get the coronavirus. But when it came to educating our students through the crisis, we fell behind the pack. This school year presents an opportunity to get it right.

Public schools provided limited and uneven instruction in the spring. Many special-education students stopped receiving the services to which they are legally entitled. And while technology found its way into the hands of students, it came with a new set of challenges for families to navigate. Schools have the summer to prepare teachers better to deliver instruction online and use platforms effectively and with consistency. It’s essential that schools enter the fall more prepared to prevent further learning loss, particularly for young people furthest from educational justice.

At Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that serves youth facing the greatest challenges in King County, our professional mentors typically spend several hours weekly with each child in their caseload, from kindergartners through high schoolers. Today, the mentors stay connected online and by phone, they create academic engagement plans, and regularly drop off enrichment materials and other resources.

This gives us a unique vantage point from which to see what’s working — and what’s not — in remote instruction.

As students received technology in the spring, parents and teachers alike struggled to utilize the tools. My own fourth-grader’s class used Teams, OneNote and Schoology. My first-grader’s class — at the same school — used Zoom and Seesaw. My wife and I are still both working at home, and we had the time and familiarity with technology (and advantage of English as a first language) to figure this out. While this was frustrating, it was not insurmountable. For families without the luxury and privilege to work with children throughout the day to troubleshoot and provide tech support, appropriate school-based supports are required to ensure equity. At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, Seattle Public Schools set up phone lines to get support for district-provided devices, a welcome development. This was a start. It is critical that we start the year with individualized supports to make sure that each child not only receives technology but can use it.

Instruction in our schools varied widely in the spring. Seattle’s elementary teachers were expected to provide four “learning activities” per week but may not have provided direct instruction online. Instead, they might have pointed students to Khan Academy videos or the district’s TV station. Some of the students in our program were essentially asked to teach themselves — while Seattle’s private-school students received many hours of direct instruction on Zoom, with class discussions, and science experiments and art projects.

At Friends of the Children, our mentors fill in the gaps by contacting teachers directly, tutoring on video calls, distributing donated devices and holding virtual book clubs. They print out assignments, remove materials that aren’t appropriate and substitute content based on individual needs.

But our mentors serve only 217 kids. There are tens of thousands more in our city who also come from families on the front lines of work, who face significant challenges and don’t have professional mentors making sure they’re getting what they need.

As local school districts plan for a remote start to the 2020-21 school year, if we are to avoid a crippling educational crisis for our children who face multiple systemic obstacles, districts must streamline the platforms educators use, provide trainings for educators to effectively use platforms and commit to meaningful online instruction.

For all Seattle families, the quarantine and school closings are sad, inconvenient and detrimental to academic progress. But for those already facing barriers in navigating schooling, the situation is disastrous. Let’s write a new lesson plan for the coming school year — one marked by high expectations and a strong web of support.

Steve Lewis is a former middle school math teacher and the executive director of Friends of the Children–Seattle.