Schooling the District

Can a Microsoft millionaire cut through Seattle Schools' poisonous racial politics?

Trish Millines Dziko stood in front of a crowded meeting at the John Stanford Center as the room went tensely quiet. It was Nov. 1 last year, and she had just helped present recommendations from a citizens' committee for solving the financial problems of the Seattle Public Schools. The crowd appeared energized by an upbeat presentation. And then Don Alexander, a septuagenarian African-American activist who attends most every School Board meeting, rancorous complaints at the ready, raised his hand.

"I don't see a whole lot of people who look like me," he said sardonically, looking around the room for effect. It was a typical moment for any public meeting regarding Seattle Public Schools, where accusations of racism are voiced loudly and often.

Dziko, who is African American, blinked and stayed silent for what seemed like a long time. "I want to answer that," she eventually said. "I work very hard every day to make sure that people like me get to stand up here and be out there." The committee had done a ton of outreach to encourage people of all races to come to the meeting, she said. "I don't know how else to get us to come."

"Wrong neighborhood," Alexander quipped quietly, seemingly referring to the meeting's SoDo location.

"Doesn't matter," Dziko shot back. "I'm not going to bow down and kiss anybody's feet who's not willing to work for themselves." If Alexander wanted more people in the room who looked like him, she said, she wanted him to work with her to make it happen.

The crowd burst into applause.

"I was impressed," says Andrew Kwatinetz, a white committee member who was in the room that night. "She met that challenge head-on." It marked a change, he notes, from most School Board meetings, where "people say things, and no one stands up to them."

Watching Dziko at that moment made one wonder: Could this woman move the district beyond the poisonous racial politics that so often seem to bog it down?

A year after that meeting, racial politics in the district have, if anything, gotten more heated as debate has raged over whether outgoing Superintendent Raj Manhas' plan to close schools disproportionately affects minorities.

Dziko, a former Microsoft manager who heads the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a nonprofit that teaches computer skills to minority kids, has stepped up her visibility in recent months. She wants to expand her foundation's current after-school programs into five full-blown public high schools in minority neighborhoods around the state, focusing on math, technology, and science. They will receive regular state funds, but Dziko is also seeking additional private money—as much as $2.2 million a year for the first school she wants to start at Rainier Beach High School in 2008.

Her proposal is for an autonomous school within a school, or an academy, at Rainier Beach. Already given seed money by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the project, TAF would choose the principal and have input for teacher hiring and enrollment. Dziko's main criteria for students is that they live within a one- to three-mile radius, which she hopes will ensure a "majority minority" population so that high-achieving students of color "are not the only brown spots in a sea of white."

Her proposal is not exactly a novel idea. The Gates Foundation has poured private money into public schools nationwide and encouraged them to break into small, specialized academies—with mixed results. And millionaire philanthropist Stuart Sloan has partnered with the Seattle district to add resources to predominantly minority elementary schools, namely T.T. Minor and the New School. Sloan, who is white, has faced considerable distrust.

Dziko, however, is the first African American, at least locally, to offer a transformative plan backed up by millions of dollars. As such, she has the potential to be not only a philanthropist but a role model, one who might serve as a bridge between the African-American community and the district.

So far, she hasn't had much luck. Rainier Beach High has long struggled with poor, if rising, test scores and shrinking enrollment. Many parents, students, and staff maintain firm loyalty to it, however, and they regard Dziko's plan with suspicion.

"Why does this feel like a hostile takeover?" asks Makela Steward, an English and drama teacher at the school. At a community meeting earlier this month, Dziko faced Don Alexander again—and numerous others who were equally antagonistic, according to several people who were present. This time, not only didn't she win applause, but the Rainier Beach PTSA president led a walkout.

In front of that crowd, her race wasn't adding much to her credibility. "Just because she's black, or nonwhite, does not make her my peer," Alexander says, who refers to her as a "multimillionaire."

Dziko takes issue with the "multi" but says she is indeed a millionaire by virtue of her six years at Microsoft. She used her own money to start her foundation, now a $2 million-a-year operation that receives funding from a variety of sources.

"I haven't heard people say, 'Well, she's a sister,'" observes Sakara Remmu, an African-American parent who leads a group opposed to school closures and who attended the meeting at Rainier Beach. "A lot of people know she has money. But they're not really sure where she comes from or who she is."

Dziko explains her outlook on racial politics in education this way: "We can't stay victims forever," she says. "I'm totally interested in talking to people if we're going to sit down and strategize about how to make things different. I have no interest in sitting around jawing about how the Man doesn't give us this, the Man doesn't give us that."

In TAF's Columbia City headquarters, a mazelike space adjacent to several labs the foundation maintains to teach students, the 49-year-old Dziko sits backs in her cluttered, smallish office and folds her arms. Laid back and frank, with short hair just beginning to gray, she is wearing a red jersey, jeans, and glasses. On her desk are pictures of the four children, ages 3 to 6, she raises with her partner, Jill Hull Dziko, a social worker. (Dziko is the name they chose for their family.) Everywhere on the walls are signs of her success: a picture of her with Jimmy Carter taken at a dinner held by RealNetworks; a card bearing the stamp of the Oprah Winfrey Show, on which she appeared; a much-prized publicity shot of the Sesame Street character Zoe, which she got while she was at Microsoft working on a kids' mouse whose rollout was being packaged with Sesame Street software.

She recalls her childhood in the small beach town of Belmar, N.J. She was the only child of a single mother who cleaned houses for a living. Most of the adult members of her large extended family, who hailed from Georgia, didn't get past elementary school. "It was just a different time," Dziko says. Opportunities were opening up for African Americans, and her unschooled family made sure she knew that education was her future. "They put a lot of hopes on us," she says.

She went to New Jersey's Monmouth College on a basketball scholarship, changing her focus from electrical engineering to computer science because the engineering classes interfered with basketball practice. After a couple of jobs in New Jersey and in Arizona testing military technology, she sought a change by moving to San Francisco. Unable to find a job, she lived in her car for six months, an experience she says was "pretty tough" but allowed her to meet people who knew a lot about making do with nothing. Finally, she landed another testing job at an IT consulting firm.

Her specialty was writing and using software to test both hardware and software. It was in that capacity that in 1988, after moving to Seattle, Dziko started working for Microsoft, first as a contractor and then as a permanent employee. At Microsoft, too, she bounced around. She left testing to help design an interface between Office programs and the first iteration of Windows, then forayed into hardware to design the kids' mouse called "Easyball," then jumped to the diversity team at Microsoft's human resources department.

"I got pushed at Microsoft more than I did at any job," she says, an experience she liked. She also says she got this attitude there: "I don't need your approval. Look, I'm just going to go do it."

It was an attitude she took with her when she decided to enter the realm of education.

Dziko's foundation has been offering programs targeting minority kids since 1996. This year, 40 high-schoolers attend six hours of after-school classes a week, learning programming and Web design, among other topics. As many as 220 students in kindergarten through eighth grade log three to four hours a week, concentrating on math and writing in order to prepare for technology. Few absences are allowed.

"You had to shape up or get out," recalls Willette Harris, 23, one of TAF's first students. "Most kids decided to shape up."

Harris was already an honors student at Roosevelt High School. But she says TAF inspired a new passion for technology, taught her about time management, and gave her skills that enabled her to skip the entry-level computer class at Xavier University in New Orleans. She now works on the Web development team at Wells Fargo in the San Francisco area.

Dziko says that 100 percent of the kids who have stuck with the program have gone on to college.

Last year, Manhas tapped Dziko for a citizens' advisory committee that was supposed to find ways of addressing the district's academic and financial shortcomings. But the resulting blueprint for action was not the panacea that committee members, at times, seemed to indicate it was. For one thing, it relied upon the dubious prospect of the state increasing its funding by $20 million. When the district failed to follow the committee's recommendations quickly or comprehensively enough, Dziko wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed that she was "sorely disappointed" in the School Board and said her committee "basically did the job they [School Board members] should have been doing for the past umpteen years."

As she returns with her new, ambitious plan for TAF Academies, some people have been put off by her demeanor. "There is a feeling of 'look, I know what I'm doing, it's for the kids, so sit down, shut up, and get with the program,'" wrote Melissa Westbrook in a local education blog (www.saveseattleschools.blogspot.com), commenting on the Rainier Beach community meeting.

"She was extremely rattled," says Remmu, the leader of Stop Closures, which is supporting the Rainier Beach community in its opposition to the academy. "She was stressed by the things she was hearing, and she didn't seem to have a whole lot of patience for that."

Maybe that's because many of the things didn't have anything to do with her. "You happen to be the face of the district right now," Steward, the Rainier Beach teacher, says she told Dziko. And the Rainier Beach community, like other minority communities, has long felt underfunded and overlooked by the district. In addition, there were a lot of wild accusations in the air, one being that Dziko had served on the committee that recommended specific schools for closure so that she could snap them up for her academies. (In fact, the committee recommended closing schools only in principle; another committee later drew up a list of names, exclusively elementary schools.)

That's not to say there aren't some valid concerns about the proposed academy at Rainier Beach. Dziko says she had originally hoped that her school would replace the existing program there. But when the district's new chief academic officer, Carla Santorno, brought the idea to the school staffers last spring, she got a resounding no. "They were offended," Santorno says. "Trish came back and said, 'What about co-location?'"

That would seem to set the stage for a disaster—the same kind of disaster that occurred when millionaire philanthropist Sloan funneled money into certain grade levels at T.T. Minor while his foundation was ramping up a new program there with curriculum it oversaw. Meanwhile, he gave nothing to grade levels in the existing program that the district was phasing out. Dziko knows firsthand about the sense of inequity that resulted because she has long been on the board of Sloan's New School Foundation and sends three of her kids to T.T. Minor. "You had the pre-K and the K getting all the resources and the first through fifth getting the same old, same old," she says.

She says a letter of intent TAF has signed with the district avoids that trap by committing the district to a "simultaneous review and refinement of the current Rainier Beach program." She envisions a second, equally strong academy there, one that would receive commensurate funding from other foundations. But while Santorno says she intends to explore that idea, she does not yet have any proposals or funders lined up. "Right now, I'll be candid: The Rainier Beach community isn't interested in talking to me about a new program there," she says.

Santorno says her next step is to sit down with Dziko and review the details of her proposal in an attempt to answer concerns, and then to present a plan for broader community engagement at this week's board meeting.

Dziko is not ready to back down. Upon emerging from the Rainier Beach meeting, she says she felt "beat up but OK. I still have a lot more fight left in me."

She also may have more credibility than it appeared at that bruising meeting. A few days later, she went for coffee with Remmu. While by no means won over, Remmu says she respects Dziko for everything she has accomplished as an African-American woman and everything she is trying to do for kids of color. "Trish brings a perspective to the district that is sorely lacking—a belief in the ability of all kids to be successful," says Remmu. "She doesn't pay lip service to it. She believes it wholeheartedly."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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