The Fight for Ethnic Studies and Educators of Color in Seattle Public Schools

“My name is Tracy Castro-Gill. I am the daughter of Richard Castro and Rita Hust. I am the descendant of the Mexica and Celtic people. I am the 2019 PSESD Teacher of the Year and PhD candidate writing a dissertation on retaining educators of Color through Ethnic Studies pedagogy and curricula. I am Xicana, chingona, and pissed off.”

This is how I started my public testimony at the February 26th Board meeting of Seattle Public Schools. I went to testify in support of my colleagues, educators of Color who are being sidelined by Superintendent Denise Juneau’s agenda to dismantle the Ethnic Studies Program that was conceived and built by this group of educators. Several educators from the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group showed up to testify about their experiences with racism and other forms of abuse they face as educators of Color in Seattle Public Schools. Many students, parents, and other educators came to testify against the district placing me on administrative leave.

Below is the video of all the testimonies and below that are the transcripts of several testimonies, including the rest of mine. This fight isn’t over. These educators and students are not walking away to allow the district to check a box and call it done. They can’t undo the seeds that have been planted!

¡Hasta la victoria siempre!

Transcripts (posted with the authors’ permission):

Jon Greenberg

What a system we have.

You, our elected officials, are our hope to make things better, but you are unpaid with virtually no staff and for information you primarily rely on highly paid executives farthest away from the best part of education: the youth.

When abuse in this system happens, and it extends far beyond those KUOW articles, our only recourse as educators is to come to you because often times our administrators are port of or the source of the problem.

And of course, the boss of these bosses, who you hire, sits up there with you. So for me to tell you in two short minutes the truth of what’s actually happening on the ground I have to risk retaliation.

And retaliation is EXACTLY what’s happening to Tracy Castro-Gill. She is one of the few who embodies the rhetoric of racial justice that you unanimously passed, and the system, which you represent, smacks her down.

What would it cost you to listen to and partner with the educators of Color your strategic plan is supposed to protect? You are violating your own strategic plan.

You can’t stop ethnic studies. The youth have now tasted a better system and they are hungry for more.

Andrea Chorney

Dear Members of the School Board,

Becoming an Ethnic Studies educator doesn’t happen overnight.  It is a journey marked by the willingness to continually learn from the past and the present.  To reflect on our own identities and biases.  To take time to incorporate the lived experiences of students into the curriculum in meaningful ways that leave students with deeper knowledge of their identities, history, and ultimately, a sense of agency as they begin to see themselves as changemakers in their lives and communities.  But I am talking today about my most recent experiences that have illustrated both the transformative power of ethnic studies for students, as well the challenges to this work within systems that, despite well-crafted words to the contrary (strategic plan), continue to uphold racist policies and ideas.  I’m sharing my experiences because I know it is through learning each other’s stories, that we will build understanding.  It is my hope that by taking time to read my letter, you might understand some of the demonstrated successes of Ethnic Studies and some of the barriers to implementation happening right now.

Most of my career has been spent in large comprehensive middle or high schools.  In this environment, I have been acutely aware that despite our best efforts and belief that all students can succeed, we know that while 82% of white students will graduate form high school, the numbers drop to 72% for African American, Latinx, and 62% for Native students.  How can we say we are preparing all students to be college and career ready, when this is clearly not the case?  We know that we work in an institution (public school) that has been greatly affected by a history of racist policies and ideas, that continues today.  Incorporating Ethnic Studies into all subjects is one important way to work to dismantle this legacy of racist ideas.  Unfortunately, the forced leave of Tracy Castro-Gill has dealt a hard blow to the moral of teachers who have volunteered their time and in many cases sacrificed their health, to this work.

This month, I worked with other anti-racist educators at Denny Middle School to coordinate our Black Lives Matter at School Week, which was recently highlighted in a detailed article on the SPS website.  We saw this work as integral to creating a “Pro-Black agenda…and normalization of centering of Black voices in Seattle Public Schools, “as stated in the 2020 Board Goals and Objectives.  We see this as a springboard to continue this work at a school-wide level all year.  It is important to remember that most of the lessons taught were written by members of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group. The history of this week in SPS, which has led to a nation-wide movement, is linked directly to the work of Tracy and Ethnic studies advisory board.  It is telling, that Tracy was put on leave at the beginning of this week.

In addition to BLM at School Week, Denny’s racial equity team has worked hard to incorporate anti-racist professional development.  We were disappointed that the Ethnic Studies, CRT, and Racial Literacy trainings were at capacity and we would not be able to participate in those trainings.  This is clear evidence of the need to hire more Ethnic Studies teachers of Color to support Tracy in bringing this vital work to all schools that want it.  Now, with the Ethnic Studies training on hold, it seems as if any progress or momentum we have for implementation is at best stalled, and at worst, erased.

In 2011, I began work as an ELL specialist at a small alternative school called Middle College High School in West Seattle.  During my years at this school, I was able to see first hand the transformative power of teaching Ethnic Studies through the lens of critical pedagogy.  As I helped students to edit their personal statements and college essays, they allowed me to learn about their stories. And what I learned changed my view of what education could be forever.  It also created an enhanced sense of urgency that continues to this day in my teaching.

Many students credited the school with literally saving their lives, but it’s important to remember that is wasn’t about “saving” students.  Rather, we were able to expose students to tools they can use to transform the odds set against them. For some, they were able to connect with the curriculum for the first time. They felt that they were learning “the truth” that they hadn’t learned in regular history class.  They studied power and oppression as well as resistance and liberation.  They learned about the importance of their own cultures and identities.  The small setting allowed students to connect with each other and with teachers in vital ways they could not do in a large school.  They brought their lives into the classroom and we met them where they were and worked with them to help them see where they wanted to go.

The first and last time, I testified before the School Board was in solidarity with these students as we protested the sudden and unjust closure of MCHS at High Point.  In addition to the impact the closure had on some of the most vulnerable students, at least 6 teachers of color, all expert Ethnic Studies teachers, were displaced.

For the last 5 years, I have been working at Denny Middle School, where I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with Tracy Castro Gill at Denny and later as one of the members of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group, which consists of 22 teachers of color.  At Denny, none of the progress we are making around incorporating Ethnic Studies, would be possible without the leadership and hard work of Tracy.  She has been able to build a powerful coalition of teachers of color, community groups, University professors, authors, students, activists, etc. We don’t do this work alone.  We work together.  But we are also, for the most part, volunteering our time for what we believe in.  We get pressure from our building administrators to not be out of the building for work sessions or professional development.  We get pressure to teach curriculum “with fidelity” even when we know this does not meet the needs of the students in our classes.  We know that many teachers of color, have had to take medical leave or are on the verge of burnout.  This is not sustainable.

What would be sustainable?  To start with, we need to reinstate Tracy Castro Gill so that she can continue to build on the work she has begun and continue to collaborate with teachers of Color who know about Ethnic Studies.  We need to value our teachers as experts and listen to teachers of Color.  SPS must  create safe spaces to do this anti-racist work. This is mandated in the strategic plan  Strategic Plan, Policy 0030: Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity.   This work will move forward when the district is willing to listen to and hire Ethnic Studies teachers of color who have been doing this work.  Hiring an outside consultant, will be counter productive to the collective work of Ethnic Studies.

SPS can’t claim to be anti-racist, but at the same time, continue to dismiss and demean the work of teachers of color who are leading the way.  I hope you can see that what is happening to Tracy Castro-Gill is symptomatic of the district’s mistreatment of educators of Color, especially those who are doing anti-racist work.  The district is sabotaging ethnic studies, despite the Board’s resolution of support, passed unanimously in July of 2017, and despite the superintendent’s own Student Advisory Board recommendation of mandating ethnic studies.

We can’t build a Culturally Responsive Workforce by mistreating and dismissing powerful teachers of Color, like Tracy Castro-Gill and the Ethnic Studies Task Force.

So here I am again, five years after the closure of MCHS at High Point, advocating for the Superintendent to once again listen to the teachers who have experience with Ethnic Studies.  This is not a new movement.  This is not a top down movement.  Continuing this work will be one step towards SPS’s stated goal of decolonizing our leadership spaces. We know the research supports the implementation of Ethnic Studies in order to reach those students who are indeed furthest from educational justice.

Elisa Yzaguirre

My name is Elisa Yzaguirre and I’m a teacher at Denny International Middle School and a member of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group. I’m here to address the Seattle Teacher Residency Program Contract that sites strategy to recruit and retain educators of color.  The fact that I’ve had the privilege of teaching content through an ES lens for the past few years has directly impacted the learning of students of color and white students in my classes, because for many of them it is the first time their own ideas are reflected in the content they receive in a formal school setting.  It values and validates the lived experiences of my students.  As a bilingual teacher of color, who is skilled and passionate about this work, I still receive pushback for doing it There is pushback for taking time for professional development, there is pushback for not teaching curriculum with fidelity, even when I know it is not the best thing for the students in my room. In the long run, it is not sustainable for me to continue to work in an environment where my expertise is not valued. This is in direct contrast to the Seattle Teacher Residency Contract.  Leadership for ES must come from the educators within our district who are already qualified and willing to lead.  We are all in this struggle together for the agency and liberation of the students in our diverse classrooms  from a historically racist educational system.

Tracy Castro-Gill and the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group have made great progress in bringing Ethnic Studies to Seattle Public Schools.  For example, the Black Lives Matter in School Week can be seen as integral to creating a “Pro-Black agenda…and normalization of centering of Black voices in Seattle Public Schools,” as stated in the 2020 Board Goals and Objectives.  Although this week of action has generated increased interest in Ethnic Studies, it seems that now, with the Ethnic Studies training on hold, any progress or momentum we have for implementation is at best stalled, and at worst, erased.

Tracy Castro-Gill

My name is Tracy Castro-Gill. I am the daughter of Richard Castro and Rita Hust. I am the descendant of the Mexica and Celtic people. I am the 2019 PSESD Teacher of the Year and PhD candidate writing a dissertation on retaining educators of Color through Ethnic Studies pedagogy and curricula. I am Xicana, chingona, and pissed off.

In the summer of 2017 I led an effort to recruit educators, mainly womxn of Color, to the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group, then called the Ethnic Studies Work Group. Each of the members of the ESAG have since become leaders in their own right. These leaders go into their schools, union, community, and sometimes beyond the city and state borders – unpaid or on their own dime – to learn and teach about critical praxis and Ethnic Studies, NOT culturally responsive teaching. You know why? Because their skills and knowledge far surpass CRT practices, which should be the floor, not the ceiling. These leaders are well versed in critical and culturally sustaining pedagogies because they are leaders of Color; they live and embody these practices.

In my role as the Ethnic Studies Program Manager I am their friend, colleague, and biggest fan. Words cannot express how proud I am of their accomplishments and the growth they’ve experienced in the three years we’ve been together. Our work is garnering national attention and being used in classrooms around the world. Though I am their peer and equal, I hold a place of privilege with the title “manager” which makes me ultimately responsible for their well-being.

Your actions are speaking so loud we can’t hear your words. The word is “unapologetic”; the action says “know your place”. The words are “diversity of staff”; the actions say “vendidos”; The word is “anti-racist” but for educators of Color the actions are unfettered harm, trauma, and abuse. When it comes to the well-being of my friends and colleagues and anti-racism I do not come to play. We drew a line in the sand and district leadership is choosing to cross it.

Savanna Jamerson

During our struggle to retain the programming aligned with principals of Ethnic Studies at Middle College High School, the Seattle School Administration showed its true lack of support for both teachers and students of color.

Initially, Middle College was meant to be an alternative, college preparatory high school dedicated to underserved students of color and other marginalized students. Teachers of color taught Humanities courses modeled on Integrated Studies at Seattle Central College, based on a critical pedagogy that analyzes systems of oppression.

Years leading up to our being pushed out in 2015, we objected to :

  • Eurocentric, online computer instruction that merely tests proficiency in Googling answers, and to Bill Gates’ Big History tokenism.
  • Military recruiters holding whole-school recruitment presentations.
  • SPS privileging the needs and wants of Middle College host institutions, over those of our students.

Instead, we insisted on training students with the habits of mind for success in college and providing inspirational, transformative, and relevant instruction.

School Administration aligned itself with primarily white staff who criticized us as inflexible and arrogant about our curriculum and pedagogy, and accused us of “teaching the students to be communists.” Had I time travelled back to the McCarthy era of the 1950’s??

Strategic moves were taken to get rid of all of us.

After directing the staff NOT to accept any new students the West Seattle Middle College closed based on “low enrollment”.

Two educators of color were placed on administrative leave and escorted out to the school by security as if they were criminals.

Some educators were “reassigned” to predominantly white schools, where they would be scrutinized and made to feel uncomfortable.

Our letters and public testimonies, were met with the unspoken, dismissive, message, “This too will pass.”

I liken this experience to your current treatment of the manager of Ethnic Studies. Anyone publicly critical of deeply rooted systemic racism and oppressions, will be met with retaliation and pushed out.

Bruce Jackson

Now is the time. Under the leadership of Tracy Castro-Gill, We have been building a road forward for ethnic studies for 5 years now, a road forward that leads our students out of the humiliating conclusions of the master narrative and into the sense of hope that lies in that road we have built. We have much more work to do, but the road has been laid. Now is the time. Under the leadership of Tracy Castro-Gill. We have fought back against racism in public schools by creating a curriculum and framework that demands to be heard, a curriculum and framework that speaks to the student population of Seattle Public Schools, a curriculum and framework that expands our understanding of identity. Our relationship with power and that lends strength to educators, parents and students alike. Now is the time. Under the leadership of Tracy Castro-Gill, we have built connections that touch our entire nation. Through WEA,NEA, the State and local government, We have knocked down closed doors and demanded a seat at tables denied to people of color since the founding of this nation. We have opened closed eyes and pointed them in the direction of Seattle. The nation is watching us. Now is the time. Under the leadership of Tracy Castro-Gill, we are flying in spaces designed to make us crawl. We are teaching in spaces designed to keep us ignorant. We are creating in an environment of redundancy and denial. We are becoming more than that environment allows. Under the leadership of Tracy Castro-Gill, We are leading this district in a direction of hope. Open your eyes, you can see the road we have built. Walk it with us.