Her life’s work has been equity in education, and it’s that commitment that compelled Denise Juneau to make the difficult decision to leave Montana for the opportunity to lead Seattle’s public schools.
That move now imminent, Juneau said she’s focused on the goal of leading the Seattle Public Schools District as it brings to reality a broad community resolve to correct the wide achievement gap between its white and minority students.
In an interview with Missoula Current, the former Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction said her 2016 run for this state’s sole seat in the U.S. House was likely her last run for elective office.
Admittedly, her new job – which officially begins July 1 – is steeped in politics. But this time, she’s the chief administrator answering to an elected board.
She’s excited by the challenge and sees myriad opportunities.
“I’m looking at this as a really great adventure,” Juneau said as she readied her Missoula home for the move west. “This allows me to stay in public service, certainly in a political role, although not an elected position.”
Already, she’s spent time in Seattle, meeting earlier this month with the mayor, city council, student leaders, parent groups and business organizations.
She’s outlined a transition plan as she takes over the superintendent’s role from Larry Nyland, whose contract was not renewed.
For the first three months at least, she’ll do neighborhood listening tours, meeting with “all the groups” and “getting down to the nitty-gritty of hearing all of the diverse voices.”
“I want to make sure I hear from as many voices as possible,” Juneau said. “I’m going to take some time and get to know the district and the community.
“There are a lot of common goals between the city and the business community and parent organizations, and I want to make sure students have a seat at the table. I’m going to take some time and learn from all of them.”
Then she’ll devote a number of months to working with the school board to set a strategic direction – with priorities and goals – for her office.
She’ll do so with the blessing of the city’s newspaper, the Seattle Times, where the editorial board has called on the school board to give Juneau the time, discretion and funding needed to start closing the district’s achievement gap.
“Juneau appears to have the skills and drive to improve Seattle Public Schools, as long as the school board gets out of the way and lets her lead,” the newspaper wrote after her appointment in April.
“Although the school board and Superintendent Larry Nyland have called for eliminating the academic achievement gaps between students of different racial and economic groups a moral imperative, the district has not made progress in this area,” the Times continued.
A 2016 study by researchers at Stanford University found black students in Seattle Public Schools tested 3.5 grade levels behind their white classmates.
A year later, those same researchers found an even wider gap – 3.7 grade levels.
In two terms as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, Juneau led Graduation Matters Montana. The initiative has helped to increase graduation rates for all Montana high school students by 5 percent, and for Native American students by 8 percent.
Juneau emphasized that work – and her personal commitment to educational equality – during the interviews that led to her selection from a field of 63 candidates for the Seattle post.
“I have never met a parent – never – that did not want a better life for their child,” she said at a public forum that was the last step in the selection process. “And that always comes through education.
“And so I am a big believer in making sure that people are at the table, that communities have a voice. I’ve always said that we don’t need a higher wall, we need a longer table. We need to find the people who don’t feel included to be sitting at that table, and then really listen.”
“We are talking about a public education system, and so we need to listen to the public,” Juneau said.
Seattle has worked on its graduation rate as well, showing success with efforts in recent years, but with a significant gap remaining.
Between 2013 and 2017, the graduation rate for white students jumped from 82.4 percent to 85.7 percent, while the rate for black/African American and Hispanic/Latino increased from 61.3 percent to 74.4 percent and 56.1 percent to 64 percent, respectively.
During that same time, Seattle Public Schools’ Native American/Alaskan Native graduation rate edged up from 48 percent to 50 percent.
Juneau said it was Seattle’s focus on “racial and economic equity and social justice – all those things that public education helps to provide” – that convinced her to apply for and accept the superintendent’s post.
“Their priorities are really focused on closing opportunity gaps,” she said. “And it’s not just the school district. It’s parent organizations, private groups, the business community. They’re all having the same conversations about equal educational opportunities for every student. They’re poised to do great things, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Juneau said she took a break after losing the 2016 election to then-incumbent Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke.
“I looked around and talked to people about some other opportunities,” she said. “I could have gone to D.C. or a couple of other places. But none seemed to be the right thing for me.”
Over the past year, she’s helped the state of Oregon to implement its Indian Education for All legislation, much as she did in Montana years ago.
The Seattle opportunity came to her by way of an executive search firm, which reached out to Juneau. She did the necessary research and realized the job “was a great leadership opportunity for me.”
The search process was surprisingly fast, from start to finish in two months. But school board members said they were thorough, and were committed to bringing stability after hiring three superintendents in six years.
“It moved super fast,” Juneau said. But since being hired for the $295,000-a-year position, Juneau said she’s only become more excited and dedicated to the work that lies ahead.
“It’s super hard to leave Montana,” she said. “That’s one reason why I turned down all the other opportunities. I didn’t want to leave the state. But this seemed like a good fit for me.”
She’s less torn by the decision to leave elective politics.
Juneau was the first Native American woman to hold statewide elected office in Montana. She is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet Tribe.
“I think I’m finished with politics as a candidate,” she said, even as a new wave of female candidates succeeded in June’s Montana primary, including Kathleen Williams as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the U.S. House race against incumbent Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte.
“Women won all over the place,” Juneau said. “It’s a great thing.”
She noted that in New Mexico, Deb Haaland topped five Democratic opponents in a U.S. House district that includes Albuquerque, and could well be the first Native American woman elected to Congress in November.
In Montana, Williams’ selection over a large field of qualified male candidates was “pretty exciting” as well, Juneau said. “Kathleen was running against very good, competent male opponents.
“But people want to vote for women. That stigma, or whatever it is, against electing women is starting to be overcome. People know we’ll work hard and get things done. Women can see all sides of an issues.”
Juneau said Williams is “doing exactly the right thing” by making herself so accessible, campaigning from town to town during the primary – she visited all 56 counties – and hosting open meetings in each.
“Montana expects access to their candidates and their elected officials – that they are going to be able to talk to you personally,” Juneau said. “Kathleen is showing up in all of these places and her opponent is not. There will be a stark difference in presence during this campaign.
“She’s not afraid of engaging in conversations with Montanans. She’s doing a great job of meeting public expectations.”
It will be interesting, Juneau said, to see how Gianforte runs against a woman.
She knows what Williams will do.
“She is able to meet him head on, and to be strong and tough,” Juneau said. “She has proven that she is someone to be reckoned with.”
Seattle politics are a different animal, she conceded. “It’s a very blue area, very progressive. I’m excited to learn more about how all of that works, when everybody is thinking from a progressive mindset.”
She’s not finished with Montana by any means. It’s her home, where she was raised and educated and spent her career to date.
“In the end, I know that I will circle back,” Juneau said.