On Tuesday afternoon Erin Dury, who has served as district director on the Seattle School Board for just over a month, announced her campaign to retain her current position.
Dury took over as interim director for District 4, which oversees Central and Northwest Seattle, at the height of one of Seattle Public Schools' most dramatic periods. Citing "a dysfunctional culture" on the board and "systemic failings" due to "chronic underfunding" that couldn't be fixed with new board members or a new superintendent, former District 4 Director Eden Mack resigned from her post in January, a year shy of her term ending. Oof.
Mack's resignation letter punctuated a tumultuous time for the Seattle School Board. The 2020 remote learning school year in general exposed and exacerbated pre-existing equity gaps. In December, Superintendent Denise Juneau tendered her resignation after KUOW exposed a long history of teacher misconduct that amounted to child abuse. This spring's return to hybrid learning hasn't been a breeze, either.
Earlier this year, a group of parents filed a petition to recall the entire Seattle School Board for myriad issues such as failing to plan for reopening schools during the pandemic and not protecting student data and privacy in online learning. While the Washington state Supreme Court didn't approve the recall, it's hard to imagine that the simmering discontent from SPS parents has dissipated as students finish out the 2020-2021 school year in a patchwork of in-person and remote classes.
Since she's literally had her job for a month, Dury wasn't on the board when the recall happened or when any of the other shit hit the fan. Still, she remains undaunted by the job she hopes lies ahead of her.
"We have a really unique opportunity right now to rethink education," Dury said over the phone. "It was very clear that this work needs much more focus than an interim role."
Dury's been an active parent in SPS since her 10-year-old son started kindergarten, but the board position is her first school-focused role.
Dury comes from the nonprofit world. She served as the executive director for the Oregon Court Appointed Special Advocates Network, which focuses on child welfare. She also led the West Seattle Helpline, which works to address root causes of homelessness. Most recently, Dury founded Ampersand Community, which transforms nonprofits through "anti-racist diligence."
"I think there’s been a lot of trust lost in the district," Dury said. "And I think a lot of that comes down to involvement and communication."
Dury's vision for the board is to increase communication and collaboration with parents, teachers, school staff, and students. Recently, the board announced it will add four student members to the board. That's the kind of collaboration Dury wants to see more of.
Another way community collaboration can help schools is when it comes to mental health, Dury said. Mental health resources for schools are underfunded at the state level. Dury believes that the board can "engage" with community organizations to help support struggling teachers and students.
"We can try to provide supports in those ways so that the answer isn’t always 'We need more funding,'" Dury said. She still hopes that the pandemic has changed the conversation about mental health enough to inspire the Legislature to fund more mental health services in schools.
Dury is also excited about overseeing SPS in this pressure cooker of a moment so she can "center Black youth and Black students," she said. Racial inequity reared its head at SPS in a variety of ways in the past, such as when SPS was flamed for mishandling civil rights complaints and creating gifted programs that were disproportionately white.
Dury said she believes that "creating a curriculum" that focuses on "ethnic studies throughout the year," and not just, say, in February, is an important step to addressing racism in the district.
"We need to create a culture where being a Black or brown teacher or leader or staff is expected, frankly," Dury said, highlighting the need for more "classroom representation."
Dury didn't have a ton of specifics for how else she would "rethink" education since she's still learning the ins and outs of SPS.
One example she gave was how special education students struggled with isolation during the pandemic. Going forward, Dury wants to focus on "meeting all students where they’re at." For special education students, that could mean not automatically placing them in separate classes away from their peers.
As for what will happen in the fall, acknowledging that her answer was going to be "unsatisfactory," Dury said, "we’re going to have to be open and flexible to different options and also the fact that things may change beyond our control again."
But the thing that will make the biggest difference if that happens?
"Community engagement and communication," Dury said. "I do truly believe that those are the most impactful things we can do right now."