Photo of WSHS by Steve Shay
President Obama made high school students and teachers, and community colleges a major part of his theme in his State of the Union Speech Tuesday. West Seattle & Chief Sealth high schools, and South Seattle Community College may come into play with some of his ideas he spoke of.

Local educators say Obama's State of the Union address hits close to home

Seattle Education Association (Union) Pres. Olga Addae of West Seattle & South Seattle Community College Pres. Gary Oertli

President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Jan. 24, did more than touch on education, including the quality of public school teachers, the critical role of community colleges and tuition costs. He made it a major theme.

* Please note, emphasis mine on those parts of the speech in bold type. They are referenced later in this story.

The President said, in part, "At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies -- just to make a difference.

"Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making.

"We also know that when students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every state to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.

"So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury -- it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

"...Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing...Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid.  We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money.  States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.  And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down."

Gary Oertli, Pres., South Seattle Community College

South Seattle Pres. Gary Oertli said that while the president challenged some facets of the community college system, he was thrilled that Obama spent a large part of his address on the topic.

"This is the first time a sitting president has spent that much time in a speech on the important role the community college plays," said Oertli. "That's where the majority of the students are now in higher education, not the four-year universities.

"I'm really pleased (Obama) has been talking about community colleges because we are part of the solution for our economic recovery," said Oertli. "We're retraining people to get them employed, or reemployed, and doing a great job of that here at South Seattle."

Regarding the president urging colleges and universities to avoid tuition increases, Oertli said, "Our tuition has gone up almost the same percentage as our state funding has gone down over the past few years. That puts us in an interesting squeeze while we are trying to be the solution in getting people trained and back to work and at the same time having our state budgets cut.

"I believe our local legislators are very supportive of our local community colleges," he said. "All of education needs to operate more effectively and differently in the future and the three Seattle community colleges are ranked among the most efficient in the state. We spend more money (as a percentage) on students and instruction and less on administrative costs.

"The biggest problem that community colleges face is that 50 percent of students come unprepared, and cannot complete college level English or math," Oertli said. "We've got to make sure that high school students are learning. One thing I'm excited about is our 13th Year Promise Scholarship with Chief Sealth and Cleveland High School, and we want to expand to West Seattle and Rainier Beach (high schools). The program offers the first year of college tuition free with built-in help to fill out financial aid forms, and training to help with the Compass test in high school."

South offers a week-long boot camp on math and English which he said has had great success.

Addressing Obama's proposal mentioned in his speech to require states to mandate that all high school students must graduate, or at least stay in school until age 18, Oertli said that those teens not cutting it in high school need some sort of track, or their school experience would not be fruitful.

"It's sad the students of Seattle have this high drop out rate in this very wealthy, well-educatd city," he said. The rate is closed to 30 percent.

"We've got to move more of these students to high school graduation based on students achieving a desired outcome," he said, adding, "or getting them at age 16 to move into Running Start, or other programs so they are not just sitting there. If they have to stay in school until 18 than there needs to be meaningful educational opportunities, not just preparing for college, but maybe to be exposed and prepared for apprenticeships, the trades. Those are high paying jobs. It's not good just to have students in school until they are 18 unless they are having some rigorous instruction."

Olga Addae, Pres., Seattle Education Association (The SAE teacher's union) & West Seattle resident:

Olga Addae agrees with President Obama that folks should stop "bashing teachers."

She explained, "There has been a lot of blame toward teachers lately. "The nation is facing a dilemma, not just Seattle. Historically we have not educated children equitabaly. It's what they call the 'achievement gap'. Children of color disproportionately do not perform as well."

She emphasized that factors outside of the teacher's reach negatively affect learning outcomes, and that there is currently a mantra in certain influential circles that insist the most important thing to determine the quality of a student's education is having a quality teacher in front of them. She partially agrees, and points out that, yes, such in-school factors as highly trained, highly certified teachers are critical, and that kids of color often have a non-certified teacher in front of them. But there are other key ingredients to help a student perform at a high level.

"Students with a higher level of school safety, and home safety, do better," she said, "the 'before' and 'beyond' school day factors. Our communities need to somehow make a stronger connection between family and school house. This used to be done by the PTA which has shrunk nationally from 12 million down to 5 million.

"It's not only teacher quality," she repeated, adding, "How about quality food in their belly? Kids get hyper eating high sugar cereals in the morning, and being served chocolate milk during lunch. Medical needs are not met with poorer students. And we have a capacity management issue in schools. A lot of people who could once afford private school no longer can. People who would normally move out of city (and city schools), the normal pattern of movement, has changed with the economy. People cant afford to move, to sell their house, if it is under water. They're waiting."

Addae, who was a clinical scientist at UW before she became a teacher, agrees with Oertli that those having trouble graduating high school should consider opting for apprenticeships.

She also agrees with Obama when he said, "Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies -- just to make a difference."

"We can't fool ourselves," she said, acknowledging the low pay. "If we want to attract the best and brightest into a profession, those people want to be compensated, and teaching doesn't support a family."

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