Emerson Elementary School in Seattle.

Parents Protest Suspension of South Seattle Principal, Considered an Advocate of Racial Equity

Dr. Andrea Drake was put on a leave of absence last week with classes in full swing.

When Dr. Andrea Drake was brought in as principal of Emerson Elementary School in Rainier Beach for the 2015-2016 academic year, it was what’s known as a state “priority school” — in other words, Emerson’s state test scores in reading and math were persistently low.

Then, last summer, the school’s designation was flipped to “superintendent intervention school,” meaning that the district wanted an overhaul: Teachers had the option to either stay the course at Emerson or seek employment elsewhere in the district. Many teachers chose to leave, and of the new ones recruited — which include experienced teachers from across Seattle and the country — most opted for Emerson Elementary because of Dr. Drake’s theory of change. “Emerson was our first choice,” says special education teacher Dustin Cross. “We believed in the vision and the school-improvement plan that Dr. Drake had written… her vision for turning this place into a place of achievement.”

While test scores are hardly the only way to measure a school’s success, they can sometimes affect public perception. “Everyone was like, ‘Do not send your kids there,’” says parent Brittany Gaines, whose daughter is a kindergartener at Emerson and whose son attends Lowell Elementary, adding that the main reason she originally sent her daughter to the school, through a Head Start preschool program two years ago, is because “there was no room for her anywhere else.” It has long been district-wide knowledge that Emerson students didn’t do as well on these tests as their peers, and that, like many schools in South Seattle with a large population of low-income students of color, there was constant upheaval, too. Staff turnover was high and professional experience levels were low.

This is something that the district has been focused on, in earnest, this year: Racial equity in schools. Seattle has the fifth-largest achievement gap between white and black students in the nation, and Seattle schools have become increasingly segregated. Principal Drake has been, to some parents and teachers, part of that solution. Gaines certainly saw her that way. “She is a woman of wisdom,” says Gaines. “She was there to make change.”

Drake hosted the school’s first-ever college and career fair, for instance. She set up “systems and structures for accountability,” says Cross. “She’s open to feedback, she’s tracking data, she’s ensuring a positive learning culture… she’s provided training [for teachers] on addressing implicit bias in instruction” and on “how trauma impacts learning. She’s providing training in positive behavioral support, in classroom management.” And all these things, Cross insists, are “the norm in at-risk schools, which weren’t being done before here. And she brought in an amazing staff.”

Not every parent or teacher is wholly pleased with Dr. Drake, though. One blog post written by an Emerson parent refers to a curriculum night that was “far more focused on the importance of attendance and uniforms — essentially showing up and wearing the right clothes — than anything academic” and some commenters on the post had other, more critical views.

Still, Cross, Gaines, and other teachers, parents, and school staff were shocked when, suddenly, last week, they were informed via email that Drake would be taking a leave of absence, effective immediately. It was not, apparently, her choice.

Some parents and teachers see a racial dynamic at play in Drake’s suspension — which occured the same day that Seattle Public Schools launched its “#CloseTheGaps campaign” to address persistent the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Celeste Bolton, whose son is in kindergarten, says a small group of white parents circulated a letter among other parents immediately preceding the suspension of Drake, who is black; Bolton and others suspect a connection. “I have not personally witnessed Dr. Drake doing anything wrong,” she says. “People, I think, like her because she’s firm in her beliefs; she wants to see the school change.” On the other hand, a woman identifying herself to Seattle Weekly as a former Emerson teacher insisted this was not a race issue, claiming Drake was an ineffective manager.

Either way, the Seattle/King County NAACP has gotten involved, raising concern that Drake is not being treated the same way that white district administrators are when parents launch complaints against them. For example, another Seattle elementary administrator has been under investigation for some time for allegations of racism made by 75 parents of color, says Rita Green, education chair of the Seattle/King County NAACP. That person has not been suspended. “You tell me there’s not a problem with that. It’s part of the current and ongoing institutional racism within Seattle Public Schools. If you are parents of color, you are viewed as lesser. That’s why your complaints don’t get as much priority.”

After teachers and parents went to the media with their concerns about Drake’s suspension, Seattle Public Schools announced she would be returning to her post, as soon as next week; however, the district declined to explain why she was suspended in the first place, nor why she’ll be reinstated. Green says that, regardless of the details here, “the damage is done.” She hopes that Drake can have the full support of the district when she goes back to work next week, and that she is not “put back into a hostile environment.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Drake’s supporters plan to rally outside the Seattle School Board meeting to demand not only her reinstatement at Emerson Elementary — which now seems to be happening — but to increase transparency around all such procedures in the future. They want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, to Drake or to any administrator. “What we want is a long-term effect,” says Gaines. “We want to make sure everyone is protected and that they’re afforded due process and the right protocol. I don’t know what that looks like,” she adds, but most of all, if a principal is suddenly booted, “there has to be an explanation given. Not just, ‘I’m snatching you out and that’s it.’”

Editor’s note: A significant number of parents and former teachers disputed the charges made by parents and teachers in this post. Their accounts can be found here.

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