My Equity Journey: Learning to Grow Capacity

My Equity Journey … Using Leadership Voice to Grow Capacity

“You can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed.
When you teach, you never know how many lives you will influence … are teaching for eternity” – Karen Jensen

My story:

My mother was the youngest of three children born into a Swedish immigrant home.  Her father made sure her brothers got first rate university degrees and prominent positions in the community.  Not my mother. And she long regretted the college education she didn’t get.  Only AFTER she made sure that my sister and I completed college, was she able to go to college.  She loved teaching but died after teaching but a few short years.  Obviously I benefitted from white privilege and that innate sense that college was expected.  As a result of that privilege and a good college education, I became a career educator and retired as superintendent of Seattle Schools.


Growing up I had a strong sense of fairness and justice but no experience with racial equity. Then my high school of nearly 3000 students was integrated – with one Black student – during my high school years.  Since then, most of my professional assignments have been quite diverse.  Pasco became majority Hispanic during my time there. Highline is one of the most diverse districts in the US.  Marysville served the Tulalip Tribes.  And Seattle included a richly diverse urban population.  My early focus on “success for all” including our Hispanic majority raised community concerns and resulted in the end of my tenure in Pasco.

Next steps:

In Highline we met with families of color, listened to student voice, and worked on classroom engagement.  Students told me how they were marginalized, suspended, fell behind, and realized they weren’t really welcome.  In Marysville we partnered with WEA to promote literacy for all by creating school “respect” committees.  I made a point of attending Tribal events and eventually earned enough trust to be told, “Leave the jacket and tie behind when you come see us.”  We developed a strong partnership and lasting friendships.  Graduation rates improved by 20%.

Leadership voice: 

As we worked diligently on school improvement in Marysville, I finally heard – one too many times – that “next year” we needed to make some improvements.  But it was only November!  I declared an “emergency” – saying our kids couldn’t wait – and asked every teacher to identify five students that they would work with to close gaps.  We learned to focus on core standards, do pre-tests, and plan lessons to meet needs, all of which resulted in amazing gains on unit post-tests.  Systems followed with the development of Response to Intervention.

Action steps:

As Seattle superintendent, I announced from the outset the racial equity was THE issue of our time.  Principals agreed to 15 PD days per year with half of that time devoted to equity.  Schools were expected to set goals specifically to close gaps. We identified outlier schools and learned from them. The school board declared a moratorium on elementary suspensions.  We agreed in negotiations to building-based racial equity teams and a “partnership committee” to help steer our equity work.

Sustained inquiry:

Dozens of district leaders stepped up to lead projects focused on setting goals, picking strategies, and using outcomes to get better.  Year after year we got better.  Graduation gaps were cut in half.  Suspensions were reduced by 40%.  Seattle was listed as #3 in the U.S. for student growth in math and reading (grades 3-8).

One example.

The moratorium on suspensions drove us to find a better way.  We adopted SEL curriculum and supported schools with implementation.  Our assessment department discovered that schools where students of color said, “We have an adult at school who cares about us,” far outperformed peers.  We partnered with SEA on district wide efforts to create positive student-teacher relationships.  There was a ground swell in teachers participating in equity PD focused on positive relationships.  The board continued to invest in racial equity.

Stronger and stronger:

Since then, the district adopted a strategic plan that specifically calls out racial equity as a district commitment.  The district realized that students needed a sense of belonging, positive relationships were not enough.  Students needed to be recognized for their strengths more than their gaps.  And most important, student voices needed to be heard.  The district now focuses on improving student belonging at three levels: intra-personal, institutional, and structural.

Lessons learned from my equity journey:

  • Start now. You will never be “ready.” Take the first step.
  • Fail forward. You will mess up. Admit it. Learn to do better.
  • Stay the course. Use data to keep getting better.
  • Advocate. Use your leadership voice for the greater good.
  • Listen deeply. Learning from the most marginalized.
  • AND … When you know better, summon the courage to do better.

To adapt the Karen Jensen quote above:

When you use your leadership voice to grow capacity for racial equity,
you never know how many lives you will influence.


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Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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