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Alum Profile - Jennifer Wiley Principal, Franklin High School, Seattle Public Schools

Written by Elizabeth Lowry

Education

Doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy studies, University of Washington

Master’s degree in educational leadership and policy studies, University of Washington

Bachelor’s degree in music education, the Conservatory of Music, University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

Career path

Music and math teacher, Hayward, Calif.
Assistant principal, Shorewood High School, Shoreline, Wash.
Principal, Summit K-12, Seattle
Principal, Franklin High School, Seattle

Research

Her doctoral research examined the unique challenges and opportunities for school leaders and children in township schools in post-apartheid South Africa.

Background

jennifer wiley and studentsBorn in Spokane, Wash., Jennifer attended Catholic schools on a scholarship and was the first in her family to go to college. In high school, she swam and ran track and played softball, basketball and soccer. She began music lessons at age five and studied music and applied/math physics in college. For the last eight years, she has been principal at Franklin High School in Seattle’s South End.

About Franklin High School

  • 96 percent of Franklin’s students are students of color.
  • 69 percent of all students qualify for free and reduced lunches.
  • 88 percent of Franklin’s 2009 senior class reported that they were going to four-year or two-year colleges.
  • The school – which turns 100 next year -- is steeped in history and boasts a roster of famous alumni from Chicago Cub Ron Santo to musician Kenny G to former Gov. Gary Locke to baseball great Fred Hutchinson.

Turning point

Jennifer had been teaching in California for five years when she weighed whether to continue in education or pursue a career in civil rights law as a result of experiencing first-hand the  disparate education opportunities that students in urban centers often experience. She was studying for the LSAT when she interviewed for the UW College of Education’s Danforth Educational Leadership Program, an intensive one-year program that trains principals and administrators. After much consideration, she realized she could make the most direct impact on educational inequities by working directly with young people.

On why she chose the UW for graduate study

“The UW school of education has a clear social justice agenda. Other public institutions I looked at did not have the courage to explicitly address the moral endeavor of public education. UW staff create a sense of urgency about the direct link between a healthy and representative democracy and public education like no other.” As the beneficiary of a private school education, she wanted to replicate the rigor and power of that educational model in a public school to ensure that every child in any school can secure the future of his or her dreams irrespective of race or class or other historical barriers. 

Her story

At the Franklin High School graduation ceremonies in 2009, the principal wore purple.

When she rose to address the 259 graduating seniors, she assured them she was not wearing the purple of Franklin’s rival high school. She was wearing Husky purple because she, too, had graduated that very weekend with her doctorate in education from the University of Washington.

She wanted to show her students that if she could be the first in her family to go to college and ultimately earn her doctorate, so could they.

Like her students, Jennifer Wiley has traveled a long, challenging road to where she is. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what Jennifer, a tall, slender blonde, has in common with her students.

Of Franklin’s 1,301 students, 96 percent are students of color – 53 percent Asian, 34 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American. Only 4 percent of the students – 57, to be exact - are white. The school has the highest number of bilingual students – 14 percent – among Seattle high schools. Of all students, 69 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, the highest number of any high school in Seattle Public Schools.

And yet, 88 percent of the 2009 graduating Franklin class reported they were heading to four and two-year colleges.

“Dr. Wiley is real,” said Scott Griggs, an intervention specialist who works with at-risk youth at Franklin. Griggs has earned three degrees from the UW: his bachelor’s degree in art, his master’s degree in teaching and his master of education degree in intercollegiate sports leadership.

“She delivers it straight to the kids. She delivers it straight to the teachers. You may not always like what she has to say, but she’s honest.”

Scott said the kids respect her for it. They connect with her because they know she’s genuine, and they sense her drive to make a difference. Jennifer recalls the sting of being an outsider as a high school student as she was there on a needs-based scholarship and didn’t come from a family with money. Although she thrived in high school and then in college academically, it was not lost on her that she did not have some of the same privileges, preparation and opportunities as many of her peers.

“She can talk the kids’ language without trying to sound like them,” he said.

Franklin’s culture, Scott said, is one that accepts students for who they are – and Jennifer sets the tone. For example, Franklin’s lion dancers  – who wear lion costumes and perform traditional Chinese dances – include Asian students, and black students.

To further connect with students and continue to hone her teaching skills, Jennifer teaches a steel drum class. An accomplished percussionist, she hand-picked students from several groups and grade levels to participate – with hope that the kids would bond and build community across groups of kids.

“I’m a basketball player, and when I first came in here in my gym suit, nobody else was in a gym suit. Nobody was talking about basketball. The teacher was the principal, and I thought it’s gonna be a long year,” Anddrew Hawkins, a junior, said.

But within a short time, the students quickly express that they have become like family.

“It’s the best example of pure learning you can find,” Scott said, noting that none of the students came to the class with drumming experience and very few could even read music. Within four months, the steel drum class had a playlist of five songs, including “Dynamite,” by Taio Cruz, and “I Got a Feeling,” by The Black Eyed Peas, alongside traditional Trinidadian music.

Jennifer’s educational philosophy comes directly from her own life experience. Growing up in an unstable home in which her parents never even discussed college, Jennifer found refuge at school, where all students were expected to go on to higher education.

“If you don’t have the generational momentum, you really don’t know what is going on in education,” Jennifer said.  “I personally was the beneficiary of private schooling thanks the graciousness and social justice agenda of the Jesuits. I really benefited in so many ways by powerful teachers and a powerful education.”

It’s that positive environment with high expectations that Jennifer – and the faculty and staff - strive to re-create at Franklin.

“A public school can be every bit as powerful and potent as a private school but without the second-class citizenry,” she said. “When students come across the threshold of a schoolhouse, all things are possible. Good education should never be left to chance for our young people. We ought to make it national priority to secure the very best experiences for every child in the U.S.”

Jennifer readily admits that not all of Franklin’s students will go to college, and that it’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone. But, she wants to make sure that every student who graduates has the choice.

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