Denise Juneau has been picked to lead the Seattle School District as its next superintendent after a unanimous 7-0 vote by the city’s school board Wednesday.
The Seattle Times put the hire in historic terms. The paper wrote: “When Denise Juneau takes the reins of Seattle Public Schools in July, she will be the first Native American superintendent in the city’s history.”
Juneau, a Mandan Hidatsa Arikara tribal citizen, was twice elected to run Montana’s schools as the Superintendent of Public Instruction. She has said her journey has taken her from Head Start to Harvard. She has been working as an educational consultant and in 2016 was the Montana Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Congress.
The Seattle School district educates more than 53,000 children from kindergarten through 12th grade. The district’s annual budget is $857.7 million a year.
Seattle makes sense in so many ways for Juneau and vice versa.
Seattle is a city that sees itself as diverse and ready to face the challenges of a multicultural, multilingual society. The school district says its “students speak 108 languages, and, according to federal data, Seattle's 98118 zip code is home to speakers of 66 languages, more than any other zip code in the United States. But, like many urban districts, there is an educational achievement gap that persists across ethnic groups.”
Juneau is also Blackfeet and she grew up in the community of Browning. Seattle has been an urban destination for many Blackfeet, starting around World War II. (Debora Juarez, a Blackfeet citizen serves on the Seattle City Council). Juneau also has ties to Sealaska, a regional Alaska Native corporation, that represents another significant population group in Seattle.
There are some 2,000 Native American students in the district that could benefit from the same educational attention that Juneau gave students in Montana. (It’s worth noting that more than half of the American Indian children in Montana’s schools were in urban districts.)
Juneau told The Seattle Times in an interview that she was most proud of the “Graduation Matters” initiative that worked to reverse dropout rates. The Times said: “The initiative was considered a success; graduation rates rose from 81 percent in 2009 to 86 percent in 2017. For Native students, the rate was much lower but also increased, from 61 percent in 2009 to 69 percent in 2017. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the overall graduation increase was thanks to Juneau’s leadership, calling her a “fierce advocate for public education and public service.”
Another Juneau initiative, the Schools of Promise program was designed to help turn around troubled schools, especially small schools, with resources and collaborative partnerships.
The school board will meet again in April to offer Juneau a formal contract. The pay is expected to be around $300,000 a year.
To say that Juneau has a passion for education is an understatement. A couple of years ago in an interview she said ‘whenever she gets down by what’s going on around her’ she has an antidote. “I just love going into schools and be with students and talk to them about their hopes and dreams,” Juneau said. “They are always optimistic about the future. Hands down, the most optimistic people about what the future holds. You can’t help but leaving that school being more optimistic about our future, every time.”