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Originally published September 27, 2013 at 6:43 PM | Page modified September 27, 2013 at 9:01 PM

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Students quiz Seattle School Board candidates

A dozen high-school students held a debate for Seattle School Board members Thursday night that covered testing, discipline, spending priorities and other issues.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Seattle CityClub regularly hosts political debates, but on Thursday night it gave civic-minded high-school students the chance to pose their own questions of candidates running for seats on the Seattle School Board.

About 130 people attended the debate at the Vera Project, a funky all-ages music and art venue at Seattle Center.

“Students should care about who’s on the school board because it’s directly affecting them,” said Taneum Fotheringill, a senior at Bothell High School and one of the debate moderators.

In the last few years, CityClub has worked to bring civics education to a generation of youth who may have spent more time focused on tested subjects such as reading and math than on basic citizenship.

The organization’s staff helped the students choose a debate format, fill roles both on and offstage and select questions that covered a wide range of issues — from spending priorities and disproportionate discipline for minority students to testing and the district’s plan to redraw school boundaries.

Candidates Suzanne Dale Estey, Sue Peters and Stephan Blanford largely agreed on most issues, though they differed in what issues they emphasized.

The students also asked candidates how the new common-core learning standards will change the tests they have to take.

“I’m a huge proponent of the common core,” Blanford said.

He said that more rigorous tests will result in lower scores initially, but the district should work to make that dip shallower and temporary.

Estey said she sees the common core as a huge opportunity to improve learning, but she likes the idea that tests should be used more like physicals to identify problems and fix them rather than autopsies of failures.

Peters believes that testing in schools already is too excessive. She wants to make sure that teachers understand how best to teach the new standards before the district starts testing students on them.

“We need to bring in the curriculum first and the assessments second,” Peters said.

The candidates all agreed that Seattle needs to fix the longstanding problem of unequal discipline of minority students — now the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Black students in Seattle are, on average, suspended or expelled more than three times as frequently as white students.

“It’s the primary reason I’m running for school board,” said Blanford, who is African-American.

Peters said schools should make sure that misbehaving students are kept “on site and in our sights” where they can get the help they need rather than kicking them out of school where they are left on their own.

“School should be a place where you can make mistakes,” Peters said.

Estey emphasized the need for more attention to the disparities in home life that begin with prenatal care and widen before children even begin kindergarten.

Organizers said candidate LaCrese Green got held up in the snarled traffic from Microsoft’s annual employee meeting at KeyArena and didn’t arrive until late in the debate, which finished in under an hour.

In preparation for the event, the advocacy organization Our Schools Coalition helped the students identify some of the big issues that the school board has wrestled with in recent years.

Thomas Alsbury, a professor of Seattle Pacific University who has researched school board leadership issues, helped students understand the difference between governance (what schools board do) and management (what administrators do).

“We decided what the most important questions were based on what developed the most discussion between us all,” said Fotheringill, the Bothell High School senior.

“We did have a little help along the way guiding us to what relevant questions were, but when it came down to getting the actual questions, we kind of went off what we as students have experienced so far.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @jhigginsST

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