Dahlia Bazzaz et al., Seattle Times, December 8, 2020
When she first landed the post as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Denise Juneau knew it was a revolving door.
In a listening tour with various community groups around the city in the fall of 2018, she kicked off conversations by saying she knew she was their seventh superintendent since 2000. She moved forward with a five-year plan and a promise to “unapologetically” improve outcomes for Black boys and other students “furthest away from educational justice.”
But her relationship with the School Board became strained during the pandemic, and community activists, including the NAACP, called for her departure, saying she had “exacerbated racism” in the district. On Tuesday, she announced she would step down in June after just three years with the district, a day after the School Board president told her she likely wouldn’t have support for a contract renewal.
The news prompted a mixture of reactions from around the city. Some of the same advocates who celebrated her arrival as the city’s first Native American in the position called for her removal, saying she had little to show for the big promises she made and described her as a disconnected and opaque leader. Others say she barely had the time to move the needle. And several voiced concern that it would be hard to search for a new superintendent in the middle of a pandemic.
Initially, Juneau, who had just finished an unsuccessful run for Congress and served as Montana’s state superintendent, had a warm reception from some community leaders and School Board members.
But when the pandemic hit, her working relationship with the Seattle School Board — responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent — began to strain.
Four new board members arrived late last year eager to push equity initiatives forward. But as they and Juneau described it, the pandemic didn’t allow them much time to work on their relationships.
Tension between the district and a group of teachers and students pushing for a districtwide ethnic studies requirement and direct action on racism had been brewing for some time, too. Their demands were elevated by the NAACP, which called for Juneau’s contract to be terminated in October. They claim Juneau sidelined efforts to get ethnic studies implemented and failed to surround herself with diverse leadership.
Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a 17-year-old student at Cleveland High School, has watched Juneau’s tenure from the beginning. She and several other students on Juneau’s student advisory board quit over the past year, saying they felt the district’s moves regarding equity felt like checking boxes with no tangible effect on the racism students are facing.
To her, Juneau’s resignation was welcome news.
“How much more time do you need to be hearing people say they want [you to leave your] job?” said Walker Burr, also a member of the NAACP’s Youth Council, which called for the termination of her contract. “There were youth across SPS starting petitions on Snapchat to get her removed.”
For some families of students with disabilities, Juneau’s tenure was disappointing, said Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education Parent Teacher and Student Association.
White said that she and other advocates from different communities asked for the strategic plan to focus on the intersection of race and disability. That didn’t happen. “As a result, we’ve seen very little real progress in the way students and families experience their education,” White said.
It’s hard for Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, to pinpoint what Juneau got wrong. Instead, she described what she felt Juneau didn’t do right. “I don’t think she ever articulated a compelling idea for how to close the achievement gap; how the discussions about race are really going to result in better opportunity,” she said.
Juneau’s legacy extends outside the walls of Seattle schools, said Shouan Pan, chancellor of Seattle Colleges. The recent enrollment increase in the community college system’s tuition-free Seattle Promise program is largely to Juneau’s credit, Pan said. Juneau was also instrumental in crafting a data-sharing agreement, he said, that allows the system to send information to graduating seniors about its application deadlines and programs.
It will be difficult to attract candidates with a similar “courageous vision,” he said.
People know about the district’s history of turnover, Pan said. “Who are we going to attract? I don’t know. I’m concerned.”