To Edmonds School District Superintendent Dr. Rebecca Miner, members of our Board of Directors, administrative leaders and our shared community:
At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, during the Sept. 27 Edmonds School Board meeting, I gave a public comment centered around our Panorama data and our students’ social-emotional health. Panorama is a survey given to students to measure their social-emotional health and experience of school. Panorama is used in 2,000 school districts nationwide, or roughly 15% of districts in America.
During my comment, I implored our district to take immediate, intentional, and innovative steps to address the mental health needs of our students — needs that both our own Panorama data and national trends show to be drastic. The response I received was that our 2021-22 school year data was a baseline. I was told that next fall we would be better able to assess our impact and make meaningful interventions.
During the Oct. 10, 2023 board meeting, our community received an update on our 2022-23 Panorama data. No next steps for students or commitments to meaningful action were made. Instead there was guesswork as to why our scores are both low and stagnant.
This was especially heartbreaking because of our brave student advisors. I apologize that I cannot give specific credit to each of them that spoke, but our Oct 10 video recording neither mentions their names before they speak nor shows their image when they are speaking. These secondary students gave a clear and consistent picture of how their peers feel about the survey — they are skeptical that their input will be heard and acted upon because “nothing changes.” There is a lack of trust, and rightfully so.
Wonderfully, these students also voiced a beautiful action plan for steps our district can take. They called for a more inclusive, comfortable and welcoming experience for secondary students by curating spaces where they:
– Have the opportunity to forge deeper connections within a smaller secondary cohort
– Have the opportunity to pursue learning and activities away from the academic pressure of perfect performance and grades
– Can receive support with academic struggles in a way that empowers them and helps them see themselves as future High School Graduates
– Can have their biological needs met, such as having a later start time to accommodate the greater sleep needs and different sleep schedule that happens in humans during adolescence.
These students were followed by School Board Director Kevin Smith clearly stating that it is our responsibility to show students that we are listening and that when they speak, we will take them seriously. Unfortunately, this was quickly overshadowed by discussions about the validity of the survey and if it has any bearing on academic achievement. The presentation ended with our district stating that it is already exploring other survey options for future school years. It was this statement that spurred me to write this open letter.
Our students need us to take action now. They needed it last year. They needed it before last year. It is in this light of our need for immediate, intentional, innovative action that I propose we look closer at our data and our leaders’ claims of invalidity. Calling Panorama flawed and invalid is a strong claim — and not one that I see data based evidence for. After all, if the survey itself is the problem, why is our district scoring so much lower than other districts? Shouldn’t every school district be experiencing these same problems?
Let’s take, for example, the concerns raised by Director Nancy Katims about the language used in the survey and how our scores are calculated. (1:40:00 mark during the 10/10/23 regular school board meeting). Dr. Katims uses the survey question “How excited are you about this class?” as an example of the structural problems with this survey. According to her, there are two clear flaws. First is the use of the word “excited.” Teenagers, as I understand her claim, do not admit to strong feelings of excitement. Because of this, it is an inappropriate word for the survey to use. Second, the percent favorable score does not include the response for “Somewhat Excited.” As a high schooler, the argument goes, you are much more likely to say “Somewhat” as a response.
Unfortunately, this example question is a strawman because we don’t ask this question to our students. There are three questions we have asked secondary students that contain the word “excited.”
1. How often do your teachers seem excited to be teaching?
2. How many of your teachers would be excited to see you in three years? And the closest to the example
3. How many of your teachers would you be excited to have again?
Response shown below from left to right:
Our actual student responses to these questions indicate that our secondary students understand excitement and are capable of expressing it as well.
Of course, the more general argument can still be made that we should be accepting a wider range of responses as “favorable.” Personally, the idea that we should be satisfied with only providing a “somewhat exciting’”educational experience to our community’s youth (or any other middle-of-the-road response to these survey questions) makes me uncomfortable. Education is a right and I believe our students deserve to have more than a mediocre experience as they live through our systems of instruction.
Another concern raised at the board meeting by Director Deborah Kilgore (1:37:00 at the Oct. 10 meeting) is that there isn’t a clear connection between the Sense of Belonging scores and academic achievement. Underlying this claim is the assumption that because adolescents grow more independent and involved with peer groups as they age, they naturally pull away from adults and institutions. While this may be true to an extent, our score’s location in the 10th percentile shows that our students’ disconnection is above and beyond what could be attributed to biology.
I have taught sixth grade since 2020. Last year, on Sept. 28, I had a mission — immediate, intentional, innovative action. Working with a small team of like-minded teachers, we set out to make an impact:
– We wanted our students to feel connected to their community, so we routinely had them leading academic and joyful activities with younger students.
– We wanted them to feel empowered, so we had them analyze adolescent leaders before engaging in service projects and fundraisers.
– We wanted them to feel ownership, so we involved them in planning and funding every field trip we took.
– We wanted them to leave their mark, so we asked them to design and create art that will live at their school.
– We wanted them to look beyond themselves, so they raised money for the next year’s sixth graders to help them have similar opportunities.
As a result, we consistently outperformed district grade-level averages by double digits. This clearly shows that our scores aren’t stagnant because the survey is flawed. Our scores are stagnant because our response has been stagnant. Empowered and engaged students learn and feel connected.
We can see the connection to academic achievement as well. Sixth graders in our school district consistently score higher than the other secondary grades.
When we returned from remote learning, sixth grade had a large difference in our standardized test scores compared to neighboring school districts. For example, 8.5% more sixth-grade students showed competency in math in Everett compared to Edmonds, 18.1% more in Shoreline, and 14% more in Seattle. By the end of last school year, our school narrowed the gap to 1.7% in Seattle, 2.1% in Shoreline, and outperformed Everett by 1.4%. These other districts have sixth grade in middle school. In sixth grade, belonging is our superpower. Unfortunately, our seventh-grade cohorts have consistently had the greatest drop in Panorama scores every school year.
Like Director Katims, I too hope for a “systematic process to make real belonging happen in our schools.” But we have ample valid evidence that we are not currently meeting that need. After all, one of the questions we have asked secondary students for the last three years is, “Overall, how much do you feel like you belong at school?” I’m not sure how much more clear it can get.
I’m not saying that we aren’t doing anything at a district level — we are! In particular, I would like to highlight our health clinic at Meadowdale High School, the affordable housing we are currently building in Lynnwood for school district families and the free school meals that have been made available at select schools this year. These are all wonderful things we are doing. Surely if we are capable of these feats, we are capable of what our secondary students told us they need. That would be a path towards equity, engagement and excellence for each and every student.
— By Aaron Holder
Aaron Holder teaches sixth grade in the Edmonds School District.