Educators in America know all too well that the school-to-prison pipeline is not just a political catchphrase. Those who work with students of color know this pipeline is as real as any other.
“It extends across this country,” says Seattle educator, attorney, and organizer Nikkita Oliver.
This is why from February 5 to 9 Oliver and thousands of educators around the U.S. will wear Black Lives Matter shirts to school and teach lessons about structural racism, intersectional black identities, black history, and anti-racist movements for a nationally organized week of action: Black Lives Matter at School.
“The Black Lives Matter at School movement is about dismantling the school-to-prison-pipeline,” says Oliver, “and creating a school-to-justice-pipeline for our youth.”
Educators in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in between will join this national uprising to affirm the lives of black students, teachers and families. The lessons that week will correspond to the thirteen guiding principles of Black Lives Matter:
Monday: Restorative Justice, Empathy and Loving Engagement
Tuesday: Diversity and Globalism
Wednesday: Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming and Collective Value
Thursday: Intergenerational, Black Families and Black Villages
Friday: Black Women and Unapologetically Black
“The Black Lives Matter at School movement is about dismantling the school-to-prison-pipeline and creating a school-to-justice-pipeline.”
The Black Lives Matter at School movement started in Seattle last year on October 19, when thousands of educators wore shirts to school that said, “Black Lives Matter: We Stand Together.” Hundreds of families and students did too. Many of the shirts also included the message “#SayHerName,” a campaign to raise awareness about the often unrecognized state violence and assault of women in our country.
This action attracted national news attention, helping it spread to Philadelphia. That city’s Caucus of Working Educators’ Racial Justice Committee expanded the action to last an entire week last year with teaching points around the principles of Black Lives Matter. Educators in Rochester, New York also held a Black Lives Matter at School day in 2017.
This year, a national Black Lives Matter at School coalition came together to coordinate a unified week of action with three demands:
1) End “zero tolerance” discipline, and implement restorative justice
2) Hire more black teachers
3) Mandate black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum
The three national demands arose in response to political attacks on and systemic disadvantages experienced by black students and educators around the nation.
A recent study shows that low-income black boys who had at least one black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grade had a 39 percent lower probability of dropping out of high school than their peers who had no black teachers during those years. And yet since 2002, the total number of African American teachers has decreased by 26,000, even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000. In 2015, the Albert Shanker Institute reported a similarly stunning decline in the number of black teachers around the country. For example, in Philadelphia, the number of Black teachers declined by 18.5 percent between 2001 and 2012. In Chicago, that same figure dropped by nearly 40 percent. And in New Orleans, there was a 62 percent drop. As Mother Jones reported:
“In each of the nine cities the Albert Shanker Institute studied, a higher percentage of black teachers were laid off or quit than Latino or white educators. . . . Countless black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses, and counselors have also been displaced—all in the name of raising achievement among black students. While white Americans are slowly waking up to the issue of police harassment and violence in black communities, many are unaware of the quiet but broad damage the loss of African American educators inflicts on the same communities.”
Since 2002, the total number of African American teachers has decreased by 26,000, even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000.
As scholar Terrenda White has detailed, one of the factors in the whitening of the teaching force is corporate education reform programs like Teach for America. “What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by [Teach for America’s] expansion in that region,” White told another of The Progressive’s Public School Shakedown fellows, Jennifer Berkshire, in 2016.
In addition to systemic pushout of black teachers, there is a similar large-scale pushing out of black students from schools. Black students are over three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school. Black girls, in particular, suffer the most disproportionate disciplinary measures: they are seven times more likely to be suspended than white girls, and not because they are even charged with misbehaving more often.
These statistics are why the Black Lives Matter at School movement is demanding an end to so-called zero tolerance discipline practices that are fueling school pushout, and a rapid implantation of restorative practices that help to build community so students can solve conflicts. As education outlet Rethinking Schools editorialized back in 2014:
“There are a number of models of restorative practices, but they always start with building community. Then, when a problem arises, everyone involved is part of the process…. shared values are agreed on. Then questions like these are asked: What is the harm caused and to whom? What are the needs and obligations that have arisen? How can everyone present contribute to addressing the needs, repairing the harm, and restoring relationships? Additional questions can probe the roots of the conflict and make broader connections: What social circumstances promoted the harm? What similarities can we see with other incidents? What structures need to change?”
Beyond being pushed out of school, when black students are in class they are too often subjected to a corporate curriculum that obscures the struggles and contributions by people of color.
The McGraw-Hill textbook company was caught replacing the word “slave” with “worker” and placing the section on the transatlantic slave trade within the chapter on immigration—as if Africans came here looking for a better life. A textbook titled The Connecticut Adventure was removed from a Connecticut school district after a decade of use when it was revealed that it was teaching fourth graders that slave owners, “cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.” These kinds of distortions and whitewashing of curriculum are precisely why the Black Lives Matter at School movement is demanding mandatory black studies and ethnic studies classes for kindergartners on up to high school seniors.
When black students are in class they are too often subjected to a corporate curriculum that obscures the struggles and contributions by people of color.
Black Lives Matter at School has been endorsed by many luminaries in the struggle for social justice, including Opal Tometi (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), Jonathan Kozol, (author of The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America), and Michael Bennett (Pro Bowl defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks).
“I wholeheartedly support and endorse the National Black Lives Matter at School Week,” Kozol tells me. “At a time when all too many weary semi-liberals are willing to knock down the statues of racist figures from the past but not to change the racist systems that crush the souls and amputate the destinies of millions of black children in the savagely unequal public schools of the United States, it’s time to raise the stakes and bring the struggle back into the classrooms.”
Join us in this national uprising for racial justice in education. Because when young people are valued, proud of themselves, and aware of their history, well, then they will be equipped to remove the structures of racism and oppression—from Confederate monuments to rhetorical but very real pipelines—and build a better world.
Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies in Seattle, blogs at www.IAmAnEducator.com, and is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Teaching for Black Lives. You can follow Jesse on Twitter at @JessedHagopian.
The 5,000 members of the Seattle Education Association led a five-day strike that was nothing short of transformative of our education system and our city. Thousands of parents joined in solidarity with the teachers, including the celebrated “Soup for Teachers” group that formed to bring sustenance and solidarity to picket lines at just about every school in the district. The Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves united community organizations and joined Kimya Dawson to host a benefit concert to raise funds for the striking teachers. The Seattle City Council, led by councilmember Kshama Sawant, passed a unanimous resolution in support of the strike. Marching band students used their pep-band anthems to root on striking educators. There can be no doubt that this strike was overwhelming supported by the people in the Seattle area–except, perhaps, for the regions’ wealthiest resident, Bill Gates, who has invested his fortune in schemes to privatize education and reduce our schools to test prep centers.
So many of the union’s social justice demands were advanced in the current strike and negotiations–creating a compelling model for educators around the country who believe in social movement unionism. This is why so many were greatly frustrated that the union ended the strike before a fair workload and pay agreement could be reached between the union and the school district.
Still, the union’s demand for “race and equity” teams was groundbreaking. The Seattle Education Association advocated for every one of the Seattle Public Schools to have such a team to tackle issues of institutional racism. The Seattle school district originally said they would only agree to having these teams in six schools. However, the power of the strike pushed the district to agree to allow 30 schools to have these anti-racist committees in the tentative agreement that was reached between the union and the Seattle Public Schools. Given that the Seattle schools have been found to suspend African American students at four times the rate of white students, it is clear that every school in the city needs to take to organize actively against inequality and racism.
Tomorrow, Seattle educators will vote on the tentative agreement. Many of us will ask the union leadership why they never organized a mass rally of all our members and our parent supporters to give the bargaining team the support they may have needed to get the very best possible contact. Many of us will continue to push the union stand up and advocate for the planning time and pay that Seattle’s educators deserve–something that was not achieved in the current tentative agreement. But all of us will be proud that our union stood up for racial justice as a critical component to education and any contract that truly values students.
Below is a stunning statement issued by many Seattle area Black Lives Matter organizers in support of the striking educators. Our movement has clear lesson: The power of labor, fused with movements for Black liberation, can even defeat the will of the nation’s billionaires.
In Solidarity with the Seattle Teachers’ Strike
Seattle Black Lives Matter Organizers and Activists
Seattle, WA— September 15, 2015 — September 9th, 2015, the first day of School, Seattle Educators went on strike demanding the District provide a contract settlement that guaranteed student recess, professional pay, fair teacher and staff evaluations, reasonable testing, ESA workload relief, office professional workload relief, and student equity around discipline and the opportunity gap.
The District is comprised of over 53,000 students. In 2013 black students represented just over 20% of the 12,500 high schools students in the Seattle district and 18% of the 8,000 middle school students, but accounted for over 40% of all suspensions and expulsions in those schools. This is not new information. In fact, the school district has been under federal investigation by the Department of Justice for disproportional and disparate school exclusion practices.
Seattle Black Lives Matter Organizers and Activists stand in solidarity with Seattle Educators because our fight for Black Liberation is intertwined with the Educator’s fight for equitable education and opportunity for all students. We are in full support of the demands made by the Seattle Education Association. In particular, we highlight those demands which most impact student equity and the opportunity gap.
SEA has requested the School District put “Racial Equity Teams” in all 100 Seattle Public Schools to ensure that our black and brown children no longer fall victim to the “School to Prison Pipeline” and the opportunity gap. The District initially agreed to only provide six teams to six schools; which represents only 6% of a district under federal investigation for racially biased school exclusion practices.
Furthermore, the SEA has requested that any standardized test above the federal mandate be discussed with SEA prior to implementation. Presently, students between K to 12th grade could be subjected to upwards of 65 standardized tests. Children as young as Kindergarten are required to take standardized tests to determine their eligibility for Spectrum and Advanced Placement Programs. These tests are becoming increasingly computerized. Therein, those children with access to computers are more likely to do better on computerized standardized tests than those students who do not have access to similar technology. Furthermore, those tests which determine a student’s eligibility for graduation prevents many students from graduating. The students negatively impacted by these tests are increasingly black or brown and/or socio-economically disadvantaged. Those students who can financially afford additional tutoring and access to resources are more likely to pass standardized tests. Also, there are inequities in network serving capacity and the availability of computers from school to school. Generally schools attended by students of color have slower networks and less access to computers taking away time from teaching and learning. Therein, standardized testing and inequitable access to technology in the Seattle Public Schools District contributes to school segregation, the widening opportunity gap, the “School to Prison Pipeline,” institutional racism, and maintains the myth of white supremacy.
Bobby Seale said, “You do not fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity.” We, Seattle Black Lives Matter Organizers and Activists, stand in solidarity with the Seattle Teachers’ Strike. We know that there are many institutions in the United States and all of them are have been birthed from the same system—a system, which since the inception of this country, has valued black lives as little more than property. We recognize that education is an institution of socialization in the United States. It is essential for Black Liberation that the institution of Education be challenged and rebuilt in a manner that is decolonized, equitable, and believes that Black Lives Matter. Therein, we stand in solidarity with Seattle Teachers who not only seek equitable pay and fair treatment of their time in the classroom, but who have also taken a stand against racism and anti-blackness in Seattle Public Schools.
Seattle Black Lives Matter Organizers, Activists, and Organizations
- Seattle King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- Seattle Black Book Club
- The United Hood Movement
- The Hip-Hop Congress (Sea-Tac Chapter)
- Various Members of Outside Agitators 206
- Aretha Basu, Women of Color for Systemic Change
- Harmony Wright, Women of Color for Systemic Change
- Jesse Hagopian, Seattle Public Schools Teacher (Garfield High School)
- Dustin Washington, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex
- Dan Bash, Local Organizer/Activist
- Sarra Tekola, Local Organizer/Activist
- Michael Moynihan, Local Organizer/Activist and Undergraduate Student at the University of Washington
- Nikkita Oliver, Local Organizer, Activist, Artist and Mentor Artist with Creative Justice
- Monica Thomas, Local Organizer/Activist
- Nikki Etienne, Local Artist
- Ela Barton, Local Artist
- Imani Sims, Poet and Educator
- Aaron Counts, Local Artist, Program Coordinator Creative Justice, Writers in the Schools
- Garfield Hilson, Local Artist and Seattle Poetry Slam Slam Master
- Obadiah Terry, Local Activist and Filmmaker
- Mariama Suwaneh, Local Activist/Organizer and Undergraduate Student at the University of Washington
- Afam Akiya, Real Change, EPIC, and Black Out Washington
- Shontina Vernon, Local Artist and Creative Justice Mentor Artist
- Gabriel Teodros, Musician, Writer, and Teaching Artist
- Om Johari, Local Artist and Activist
- Rashad Barber, Local Activist and Organizer
- Evana Enabulele, Local Activist and Organizer
- Na’Quel Walker, Local Activist and Organizer
- Mohawk, Local Activist and Organizer
If you are black organizer, activist or organization who would like to sign-on in solidarity, please email:
We will republish the statement as new signees join.
The first day of the strike by Seattle’s teachers and educational support staff was incredible. The solidarity from the community was truly inspirational, and the spirits of the educators are high. Teachers at the picket line at Garfield High School were especially proud to have played a roll in launching the rebellion against high-stakes testing that the union is taking up so strongly in the current contract negotiations.
Every school across Seattle had an enormous turnout of teachers walking the picket line to demand a school system worthy of the students we educate. I stepped away from the picket line at Garfield during my lunch break to give this interview, along with the great Wayne Au, about the strike and the recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court that charter schools are unconstitutional:
Today, I went to the Strike Captain meeting of the Seattle Education Association (SEA, the union that represents Seattle’s teachers and educational support staff) and I can tell you that our educators are fired up and prepared to strike, if necessary, to win a contract that helps us achieve the education system that Seattle deserves.
The SEA has been bargaining with the Seattle School District over a new contract all summer. We are now in the final days before school starts and the union and the school district are very far away from reaching an agreement. Thousands of educators will be gathering for general membership meeting on Thursday, September 3rd to either vote to ratify an agreement or to go on strike—but given the disorganized and disrespectful manner in which the Seattle school district conducted itself, I don’t expect that there will be an agreement by the time of our meeting.
It didn’t have to come to this, but the district waited until the last days of summer to respond to any of the proposals put forward by educators or put forward any serious proposals of their own. The proposals from the District, as you will read below, will do almost nothing to support Seattle’s educators or students, and in some cases would do great harm.
In contrast, the bargaining team for the educators has never in my time as a teacher put forward such a visionary set of proposals to advocate for the type of reforms that would dramatically improve our schools.
The union is advocating for a decrease in the use of high-stakes testing. This would include forming a joint committee with the union and the district to accept or reject any standardized testing beyond the federally mandated tests and getting rid of the “Student Growth Rating” that ties tested subject teacher’s evaluations to standardized tests scores. The Seattle School District has inundated our school with dozens of tests that students have to take in their lives as K-12 students, and it’s past time that we reclaim our classrooms for teaching rather than test prep.
The union is also fighting for equitable and ample recess across the school district. Many schools in Seattle—predominantly the schools that serve low-income and students of color—have only 15 min of recess, and the union is insisting that every school have a minimum of 45 minutes. This union demand was an outgrowth of the coalition of parents from around Seattle that formed last school year called “Lunch and Recess Matter” who have been fighting for student’s right to have enough time to play and eat.
Moreover, our union wants to implement “race and equity teams” at each work site that could identify structural inequities and institutional racism and make recommendations about how to address those issues. The Seattle Public Schools have been shown to suspend African American students some 4 times higher than their white peers. The School Seattle district should be impressed by the leadership from educators in addressing these injustices in the schools, but instead they have rejected this proposal.
In addition, our union is asking for case load caps for our schools counselors and psychologists so that they can provide the individual attention that all students deserve. At many schools, including Garfield High School where I teach, counselors have hundreds of students on their caseloads and can’t possibly provide them all the social and emotional supports they need. At my son’s elementary school this year, the principal had to stop all spending on school supplies like paper and pencils in order to use those funds to save our counselor position. These issues are especially connecting with parents around Seattle and are sure to generate a lot of community support if we do end up striking.
As of today educators are asking for a 6 percent raise each year for the life of the three year contract—a minimal increase given the fact that we have not had a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in 6 years, while the district has received some $40 million in new monies from the state this year and has approximately $50 million in its reserves. The cost of living has skyrocketed in Seattle and it is becoming increasingly impossible for Seattle’s educators to afford to live in the city where they work. Several other school districts around Washington state pay educators more than they do in Seattle, even though the Seattle’s cost of living is by far the most expensive. This is unacceptable and the Seattle School district needs to compensate educators fairly.
Our bargaining team has done the important work of putting forward proposals that actually meet the needs of Seattle’s families, teachers, and educational support staff. Our members are energized and willing to go on strike, as their participation in the one-day strike action against the State Legislatures’ failure to adequately fund education demonstrated. The SEA leadership has indicated that they are willing to go on strike in a way they never have before in my time as a Seattle teacher.
It appears that the Seattle School district has a clear choice: accept our proposals for a just contract that improves eduction for Seattle’s students, or reject our proposal and trigger a strike.
Here then is the flyer that the Social Equality Educators (SEE) handed out to hundreds of teachers at the General Membership meeting last week, outlining what we should be prepared to strike for:
We Will Not Be Disrespected:
We Are Ready to Strike for the Schools Seattle’s Students Deserves!
As a union we need to take a stand for what we believe will not only benefit our members, but also address the opportunity gap and make all public schools better for our students. If needed, going on strike is a necessary step to take ensure that the school district listens to educators on what strategies work best in that endeavor instead of an obsession with over-testing. The real threat of strike action can force the district to negotiate and present reasonable proposals and gives us time to organize for a strike and prepare our community for this action.
What should we strike for? The SEA has brought very reasonable and thoughtful demands to the table. While no proposals can be cost neutral, the SEA proposals are cost effective. The Social Equality Educators think the following are 8 lines in the sand that we, Seattle educators, should stand for to get children the schools they deserve and begin to address the achievement/opportunity gap in those schools.
The schools our children deserve and addressing the opportunity gap include, among many other things:
1. Hard caseload caps for Education Staff Associate (ESAs, School psychologists, school counselors, etc.)
The district has proposed hiring 7 new ESAs for the entire district… A drop in the bucket.
- After the last negotiations SPS was supposed to work with SEA to develop firm caps for ESA’s caseloads. That never happened. Students of color are disproportionately impacted when our support staff cannot fully address their needs.
- Fully funded and supported Race and Equity teams at each building to begin to deal with the problems of disproportionate discipline actions and institutionalized racism.
- The district has proposed piloting the teams in only six schools…phased in over three years. A plan that is already in place. This is not a program, but a structure for every school to begin to systematically think about how race and equity can be addressed in a real way that works for each site. There is no need to pilot committee work
- Hire more office professionals (SAEOPS, the Seattle Association of Educational Office Professionals who are the classified/clerical employees of Seattle Public Schools) so that their workload is manageable.
- Another quote from Geoff Miller here, “If we were to pay the SAEOPS all the overtime they work, it would bankrupt the district.”
- Our school secretaries have been saddled with more work as admin struggle to manage the labyrinth of over-testing and evaluations. The only real answer is to their workload issue is to hire more staff to accommodate the increased demand.
- Scrap the Student Growth Rating! Uncouple test scores from teacher evaluations and develop a fair and equitable evaluation procedure that has integrated reliability (works the same no matter who is evaluating you).
- Coupling test scores and evaluations is based on junk science in the first place and is completely inequitable given not all teachers teach tested subjects.
- This kind of “accountability” only serves to drive the best teachers away from schools facing social and economic disadvantages.
- Mandatory 45 minutes per day of recess for children.
- Exhaustive studies have shown that more academic instruction commonly referred to as “seat time” does not equal better test results, let alone a better education.
- Social and emotional development is of extreme importance in childhood development. The unstructured environment of recess is crucial to this process.
- An increase in compensation that reflects the fact that there has not been a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in 6 years and that the district has received quite a bit of new discretionary funds from the state.
The Seattle School District administration offered a 2% raise the first year, 3.2% the second year, and a 3% raise the third year. In contrast, SEA has proposed increases of 7 percent a year for three years, which is much more in line with what is needed to continue attracting and keeping educators in Seattle. There are several other school districts around Washington State where the teachers make more money, yet Seattle has by far the highest cost of living.
- No lengthening of the school day. Especially if the district is not willing to pay for it.
- As mentioned earlier, there is no evidence that more instruction time alone will produce results. The district is once again telling students and teachers to do more with less.
The money is there. The district has received an extra $32-40 million from the state and levy funding. That is to say nothing of the reserves, which are more than double their legal requirement. We say that money ought to be spent to begin to give our children the schools they deserve.
We are a rank-and-file organization within the Seattle Education Association that is dedicated to strengthening progressive values inside SEA, promoting quality and culturally relevant pedagogy to provide the best possible education for Seattle’s students, and building a strong SEA that can fight for the rights of our membership. http://socialequalityeducators.org/