A Native-run nonprofit dedicated to supporting Indigenous students appealed a decision by Seattle Public Schools after the district decided not to renew an agreement that allowed the group to use space rent free for an after-school program for Native youth.
The Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA) has had a home for the Clear Sky Native Youth Council after-school program for years at the Robert Eagle Staff Middle School located in Licton Springs, a site of great importance to the Native American community, said Sarah Sense-Wilson, UNEA’s executive director.
The organization did not want to go down this path, Sense-Wilson said.
“They made disparaging statements about our organization, and that’s not to be taken lightly when we have county funding and we have grant foundation funding and tribal funding,” Sense-Wilson said.
In a statement, Superintendent Denise Juneau — the first Indigenous woman to head up Seattle Public Schools — said that UNEA had been misidentified as an “aligned partnership,” a relationship with the school district that allows partners to use district space for free.
“Aligned partners” must maintain strict reporting requirements and typically fall within three categories, Juneau wrote. These include school-based health clinics, licensed child care providers and community learning centers.
Ending the district’s relationship with UNEA doesn’t mean that the organization or the Clear Sky Native Youth Council has to end its work with students, Juneau wrote.
“This action does not terminate or end UNEA’s programming and services to students — only the agreement and related access to dedicated, rent-free space,” Juneau wrote.
Sense-Wilson doesn’t see it that way.
UNEA’s 2018-2019 budget is roughly $384,000, and the people who make the programs possible live predominately in the north end of Seattle. Paying for a new site would be financially difficult, and the location has to be able to accommodate at least 75 people in the north end.
“Ninety percent of our grants and our funding goes back out into incentives and equipment, materials, supplies, food and instructors,” Sense-Wilson said. “We hire mainly Native instructors in the community. That money is about enriching and economic development in support of our high-poverty community.”
Clear Sky was cofounded by Sense-Wilson’s daughter out of a need for culturally responsive programming for Native youth. Native students have disproportionately high disciplinary rates in traditional schools as well as low graduation rates.
It’s made a big difference in the lives of Native students like Alexander Landwehr, a 16-year-old rising junior. SPS agreed to place Landwehr in an alternative school in Kirkland because his assigned school, Ingraham High School, couldn’t meet his educational needs, said Michelle Landwehr, Alexander’s mother.
The instructors at Clear Sky link everything back to Native heritage and teach things that Euro-centric education in Seattle Public Schools leaves out, Landwehr said.
“There’s something very relevant and healing about being in a space that is Native-oriented and almost completely Native,” Landwehr said. “That’s not an experience you get anywhere else, especially in this city, which is so White.”
Clear Sky was a “bright spot in his life,” said Michelle Landwehr.
“Clear Sky has been an important program for us and other kids failed by the education system here in Seattle,” Michelle Landwehr said.
Losing Clear Sky isn’t just a problem for local Native learners — it has broader implications, said Sharonne Navas, executive director of Equity in Education Coalition of Washington.
While the coalition doesn’t work directly with school districts like Seattle Public Schools, it does monitor the actions of the state’s larger school districts, which act as a bellwether, Navas said.
“When they make a decision like this, it gives permission for smaller school districts to do the same thing,” Navas said.
The goal is to add culturally relevant programs, not take them away, Navas said.
“The implication was that it gives permission for other school districts to make the same rash choice, which is to ignore the history, culture and diversity of our backgrounds and our communities for a more Euro-centric school system,” Navas said.
That the possible loss of Clear Sky would happen under the administration of an Indigenous superintendent saddened Alexander Landwehr, but didn’t shock him.
“I really would like to say that yes, it’s a surprise, but a lot of what I’ve seen and experienced through minorities in public leadership positions like this is that they get sort of whitewashed,” Landwehr said. “Their agendas lie with the people who are in social power as opposed to their own groups, and that’s why they get appointed.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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