While Scarlett, who is Black, knows there are few quick and easy solutions to making the education system work for everyone, she understands who has answers. The key is to work in partnership with families, community leaders and organizations, and students on the front lines of racial injustice.
Some of the many people Scarlett collaborates with include Hodan Mohamed, a parent and leader in the Seattle Somali community, Christine Tang with Families of Color Seattle, and Emijah Smith with Colorful Communities.
All bring unique experiences, perspectives, skills and relationships. For example, Smith experienced SPS as a K-12 student and then attended UW as an undergraduate, going on to the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance for graduate school with the sole aim of eliminating the achievement gap. A grandparent with a grown daughter and two Black sons in SPS, she says, “There is great leadership in SPS being intentional about moving this work forward, but we have a ways to go. As a parent with influence, advocacy, voice and access, I know our educational system is not giving kids, including mine, what they need for success after high school.”
Equitable Data Collection
During the spring and fall of 2020, SPS sought family input to inform decision-making for reopening. But it soon became apparent that respondents to the electronic survey informing future directions were disproportionately white and from higher-income schools. Largely missing were the perspectives of Black and other families of color.
That’s when Scarlett tapped the Partnering for Racial Equity (PRE) Research Practice Partnership (RPP) funded by the Spencer Foundation, involving the UW College of Education, SPS and the Center for Racial Equity at the Seattle Education Association (SEA), to help find a way to fill in the gaps. UW partners on the project include faculty members Ann Ishimaru, Filiberto Barajas-López, and Min Sun. Faculty member Niral Shah and doctoral student and research assistant Amy Li were also collaborators at the time.
In partnership since 2015, the RPP first supported the district by reviewing the implementation of Racial Equity Teams through surveys and case studies. Having had several roles in the district before her current one, Scarlett was tasked with sustaining the partnership on behalf of the school district. “It wasn’t a hard sell,” she says. “I was already working with Ann Ishimaru, who was my advisor in the UW College of Education Leadership for Learning Program. That made it easy to trust the process and intention even if I wasn’t sure what mutuality looked like.”
In 2018, in response to community advocacy work, SPS launched a strategic plan specifically focused on disrupting legacies of racism in the education system and dramatically improving academic and life outcomes for Students of Color. Meanwhile, the RPP continued to evolve.
“RPPs are different from a conventional model,” says Ishimaru. “It’s not about my research agenda where I need a site, and you give me access and then you take my research and implement it. Instead, it’s about a group of collaborators inquiring together, co-developing measures, sharing back the findings, and evolving the work.” In addition, this RPP’s focus on racial equity made it different from most RPPs in the field.
Over time, Scarlett’s role also evolved in the school district. When she became a cabinet member, it allowed her to put forth the RPP in Spring 2020 as a viable way to address the gap in understanding the experience of Black families during the pandemic. She also reached out to her longstanding community connections, some since high school like Smith, and others including Mohamed and Tang, all local leaders advocating for racial equity in education.
Citing a 2018 article about democratizing evidence in education, Scarlett emphasizes the importance of equitable data collection. “If we go to families and we ask for information, there must be accountability in how we act on it and bring it back to them as a power source to drive changes that they are most impacted by,” she says.