Wednesday, October 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Election 2005

Chow, Thompson-Black split on way to improve area's poor-quality schools

Seattle Times staff reporter

Cheryl Chow, 59

Residence: Rainier Valley

Occupation: Program director, Girl Scouts — Totem Council

Personal: Single

Background: 25 years experience in K-12 education at school, district and state levels; Seattle City Council member, 1990-97

Top three endorsements: Seattle Education Association, King County Women's Political Caucus, Gov. Christine Gregoire

Campaign Web site:

Linda Thompson-Black, 51

Residence: Mount Baker

Occupation: National dropout-prevention program specialist

Personal: Married, two children

Background: Franklin High School graduate, former aide to then-Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, former South Shore PTSA president

Top three endorsements: Strong Seattle Schools, Seattle Education Association, King County Labor Council

Campaign Web site:

The two candidates for the Seattle School Board seat representing South Seattle don't agree on a key issue facing parents who live there: how to address poor-quality schools.

Nearly all schools in the region that both candidates hope to represent, District 7, enroll low-income children at rates above the districtwide average. Most schools are successful in helping students in fourth and seventh grades gain more than a year's worth of math and reading skills. But more than half of the area's 10th-grade students may not graduate because they're not passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning's reading, writing and math sections.

Educator Cheryl Chow supports the district's expensive open-enrollment plan to provide parents with choice, while dropout-prevention specialist Linda Thompson-Black favors assigning students to neighborhood schools with limited choices and making all schools excellent. Chow supports closing schools to save money and creating more K-8s, while Thompson-Black says she'd consider closures only after the community articulated the tradeoffs it would accept.

Whoever wins in the citywide election Nov. 8 will have a volatile constituency to represent: On one hand, the school district is focusing more resources on South Seattle schools because they are home to the district's largest concentration of low-income, minority and bilingual students. On the other hand, the area's neighborhoods are growing more gentrified, and some middle-class parents demand access to schools outside the region with rigorous course offerings, leadership stability and high academic achievement.

Cheryl Chow

A former high-school principal, Chow relies on a theme of her four decades of work in the schools and the community with her campaign motto: "Opening Doors for our Kids."

During her eight-year tenure on the City Council, Chow was responsible for the city opening five community centers, supporting late-night recreational sports for South Seattle teens, and leading a plan to fund and distribute good-parenting videos to all Seattle schools and libraries.

Martin O'Callaghan, principal of the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, which enrolls primarily South Seattle students, is a Chow fan.

"She's smart. She's grass-roots. And she speaks the language of the person on the streets, because that's where she lives," O'Callaghan said. "She's not at the ivory-tower level. She talks about the practical issues and practical solutions. And because she's been in education and the communities, she has, I believe, a firm grasp of the issues that the families and students face."

Al Sugiyama, a former School Board member who co-chaired a joint city-schools committee with Chow, says he's seen her "use her abilities to convince others to do more for children in the school district."

Sugiyama says he supports Chow because she brings to the table her experiences from the classroom, state-level educational policymaking and City Hall. He also believes it's important for the board to have at least one Asian member because Asians and Pacific Islanders are the school district's largest minority — almost a quarter of its 46,000 students.

Chow was a teacher, principal and district administrator in Seattle Public Schools for 26 years. She lost her first campaign race in a 1985 bid to succeed her mother, Ruby, on the King County Council. After that, she became state assistant superintendent of public instruction, a job in which she oversaw basic education, technology and curriculum programs for migrant children.

In 1989, Chow defeated an incumbent in a tight race for a seat on the Seattle City Council, and in 1997 she ran unsuccessfully for mayor. Some questioned then whether she was campaigning to be a superintendent.

Chow quickly dismisses the idea now. "Please, School Board is hard enough," she said.

Chow now runs special programs for Girl Scouts Totem Council, which works with Thurgood Marshall Elementary, First Place and African American Academy to reduce fighting and cultivate girls' self-respect and leadership skills. She's also expanded the council programs serving girls in foster homes, low-income homes and those whose mothers are in jail.

"What we're trying to do is break the cycle of girls thinking that's all, that's their future," Chow said.

Linda Thompson-Black

Thompson-Black, 51, wants to focus on reducing the dropout rate. Now a national trainer for Communities in Schools, a leading stay-in-school network, Thompson-Black says she has crafted strategic plans with hundreds of schools — she could recall only one — to attack disproportionate rates of low attendance, behavior problems and low achievement.

Seattle Public Schools reports that about 60 percent of the class of 2004 graduated on time and 20 percent were still enrolled. Twenty percent dropped out or transferred to another district without it being reported to Seattle.

"I think you need insight to set policy that will help schools transform themselves and grow and change," Thompson-Black said. "I think you want new ideas, not old ideas that have not achieved the results we want."

While Chow points out that she's been a K-12 teacher, Thompson-Black points out that she's been a Seattle Public Schools parent. She served as PTSA president of the former South Shore Middle School and was active in the site council at Franklin High School.

That gives her a different perspective on school principals' autonomy. During a candidates forum last month, Thompson-Black agreed with a statement that the district had given too much power to principals. Chow, who's been endorsed by two dozen Seattle principals, neither agreed nor disagreed. (Chow says the district needs to create more opportunities for schools to share successful practices.)

In an interview last month, Thompson-Black said her biggest worry was the School Board's attempt to address too many issues at once.

"There's a finite number of things that a unified board is going to have to come together on," she said. "We need strong leadership districtwide: Do we have a way of knowing when it isn't working?"

Thompson-Black rattles off several reasons why voters would be better off with her on the board: She has a record of getting results. She can work with multiple interest groups to build consensus. And she's an expert at guiding large, complex organizations through change.

Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice chose her to organize the city's Education Summit in 1990. She takes pride in that summit's open process, which sparked the creation of the Families and Education levy, which supports school nurses and after-school programs.

Charles Rolland, a leader in Communities for Public Education and former deputy chief of staff for Rice, said he'd worked closely with Thompson-Black and Chow. If Thompson-Black weren't running, he'd probably support Chow.

"[Linda] has just been effective in terms of helping young people who have struggles with school," Rolland said. Her work on the Education Summit demonstrates she can bring diverse groups to the table, he said. "For our schools to be successful, it's going to take the whole community coming together."

Added close friend Callie Vassall: "She's always the peacemaker. She's always going to show you the other side of the argument."

A political-action committee, Strong Seattle Schools, is spending $50,000 on direct-mailers that promote Thompson-Black as part of a School Board slate. Top business and political leaders support a slate that includes her as well as Jane Fellner in District 5 and Michael DeBell in District 4. The committee's organizer, Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, is on Thompson-Black's campaign steering committee.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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