Stephan Blanford

Jul 15, 2013

Candidate for Seattle School District 5: Capitol Hill, Central Area, Leschi, Beacon Hill, Downtown

Occupation: Educational policy consultant

Website: http://blanfordforseattleschools.com

Top priorities:

  • Close the achievement gap.
  • Boost school performance.
  • Improve School Board functionality.

Background:

I currently own a small consulting company called Lighthouse Consulting that specializes in working with school districts and nonprofit organizations in the Puget Sound area.

I earned a doctorate in education leadership and policy studies a couple years ago from the UW Seattle campus. What I was studying primarily was successful school districts throughout the country that have closed achievement gaps and spurred on academic success for all of their students - trying to understand what are the components that are in place to allow those goals to actually be achieved.

Since I've graduated from school, I've been able to consult with three or four school districts locally, and then some nonprofit organizations, to take what I've learned and actually try to apply it in working with principals and teachers and central office administrators.

What districts have you worked with so far?

I have a contract with Tacoma Public Schools. I just completed one with Highline Public Schools. I have a couple small nonprofit contracts, as well, where I do some evaluation work and some professional development with the staff of those nonprofit organizations - very similar work, in many cases. Many of them are organizations that serve the same students that I work with in the school districts.

What districts around the country are good examples of having closed the achievement gap?

Well, there aren't a huge number of them where you can look at district-wide [gap closures]. Frequently there are individual schools that, over time, you’ve seen gap-closure happening. Not a huge number of them in Washington state.

One of the things that spurred on my doctoral work was [that the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction] identified 10 schools in Washington state who, over the course of three years, had significant gap closure for all of their subpopulations - so all of their racial and ethnic subpopulations - and part of that quantitative data informed dissertation research I did.

So, to answer your question, there aren't a huge number [of districts] across the nation [that have closed the achievement gap]. Prince George's County in Maryland is frequently cited as one. Boston is one of your larger school districts cited as one that has seen gap closure over a period of time. San Diego has been cited as doing a lot of education reform that's seen as cutting-edge.

What do you recommend to districts to close the achievement gap?

It needs to start off with a fair amount of intentionality about the actual problem. There are a couple of districts that - I don’t want to mention their names, actually, because I don’t want to put them on the spot - but their leaders will talk about gap closure, and they’ll never say that we’re talking about a racial or ethnic gap. They don’t use the term "achievement gap," and so it’s really difficult for their staff to know what we’re talking about. There’s an analogy that a professor of mine made one time: It’s like being a cancer surgeon and never being able to use the word "cancer" when you’re talking to people.

We have to have some measure of intentionality about the issue that we’re dealing with, and we have to actually begin to investigate teacher belief systems about student learning, about the potential of students to learn. The work that I’ve done in Tacoma, we did a fair amount of research around [that], and a fair amount of polling teachers and talking with teachers about their beliefs. As we began to uncover that teachers and administrators and the community at large sometimes don’t have the same beliefs about students’ ability to learn, we were able to identify some of the barriers.

Without a doubt, early learning is a significant issue, and for some students of color they’re not coming in to school with some of the same advantages that some of their classmates might have. So being able to work on that issue, and tease out some of the data that actually allow you to draw up a theory of action, and say, "if we apply these interventions to these particular children, we expect to see results."

There’s national data that supports the notion that really high-quality teachers who are able to work really well on academic attainment, and also on social-emotional issues, can spur on incredible growth with their students of color in a short period of time, and can actually catch them up in a pretty short period of time. So that’s the type of issue that we like to uncover. Then what I do in my research is to try to bring that to administrators and have deep, serious conversations, and move the ball forward as a result.

Why are you running for School Board?

I was talking to somebody recently and told them that I have skin in the game in that my daughter is a fourth-grader at Beacon Hill International School. There are some incredible things that are happening at the school. But we drive past a couple schools - and when I ride my bike I see a number of schools in District 5 - the district that I’m hoping to represent - that I would not say are really high quality.

If you look at any kind of data, you can see that there are very high-performing schools in Seattle Public Schools, and schools that suffer from a number of issues. Given the fact that I’ve got the background I have, and have done a huge amount of research on this issue, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore. I felt compelled to join the fray, to try to make a difference, and particularly to try to figure out ways to apply some of what I’ve learned around leadership, and around some of these more complex issues, to the school district in the city that I live in.

If elected, what would you like to accomplish over your term?

I’d like to figure out ways to move the needle, particularly on the issue of the achievement gap. It’s a pernicious issue that has outlived several administrations at Seattle Public Schools, and it’s one that we see consistently throughout the country. I’m given the opportunity by Seattle’s voters, I would love the opportunity to actually see that we’ve made progress, that our gaps are beginning to close. That we, as a city, have had a conversation, and we know in a way that we didn’t know before that this is a priority and we’re moving forward on it.

I’d also like to see really strong governance. I feel like the city deserves more than we’re getting currently as far as our School Board is concerned. And I know from my research that the most important factors in student success are going to be a strong teacher in every classroom and a well-organized school. So I’d like to make sure that that’s not happening in just some schools in the district portfolio of 95 schools.  I want to see it happening in every school.

Where do you feel the current School Board and its governance fall short?

Since I began to consider this, I’ve done a fairly deep dive into School Board operations, and I read the report that came out recently that concluded that Seattle Public Schools’ School Board was dysfunctional on a number of different categories. I’ve been an observer of Seattle Public Schools’ School Board for a number of years, and I’ve seen a number of issues leading me to believe that that national report was true, by and large. There are elements of it that I might challenge, but the essential conclusion of the report is that there is some dysfunctioning happening.

Given the fact that we’re one of the most literate cities in the nation, and in the world, and every poll that’s taken says that the support for public schools is as high in Seattle as it is anywhere in the United States – we pass our levies overwhelmingly consistently – I think we deserve more.

I would like to be part of the change that helps us to be really proud of our school system, because I know from my personal experience as a person whose family didn’t have access to high-quality education – my ancestors didn’t have that, and I’ve gotten some measure of that – I know the power of public education to transform individual students. I know the power of education to transform communities and families and lives, and so I want to be a part of that change.

Interview has been edited for clarity.