Supporting Students: An Interview with Gerald Donaldson, Part One

Edited by Jennifer Sunami

Gerald Donaldson is the family support worker at Leschi Elementary. Recently I had a chance to sit down and conduct a three-part interview with him about the wide-ranging work he’s been able to do at Leschi and throughout the Seattle school system. In this first part of our interview, I asked him to talk about supporting families and implementing restorative practices with students. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

On Being a Family Support Worker

The foundation is making sure families’ basic needs are met—food, shelter, clothing. I have a food bank here, a clothing bank, energy assistance, rental assistance, and scholarships for after school activities. We’re taking some boys to camp for the third annual African-American Males Weekend. We’ll help you with summer school compensation. You name it—we’re in a truck to help you move if need be! My job is to make sure the barriers are eliminated so I can get you to school, keep you here, and educate you.

This year at Leschi Elementary we have in our population 78 homeless students. We have students from as far from Marysville, North Kent, Federal Way, Auburn, Tukwila, and West Seattle as part of the McKinney-Vento [Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance] Act. For example, there is a young brother, he was here from kindergarten, and this is his last year. He’s going to middle school in Marysville. We’re going to take a tour to see what school fits best for him. We’ll also visit him now and then to see how the adjustment is going. We will go to our feeder schools, Meany Middle School and Washington Middle School, and Garfield High School to see how our former students are doing. You feel older when you go to Garfield, because there are some students who are juniors and seniors that you remember as babies, and they’re tall and filled out. But the faces are always the same, the smiles you don’t forget. The voices are changed, but when you see them, you remember. When I first started I told down myself would give it five years, and then every five years that’s five more years.

The program actually started over 30 years ago. I’d written a paper on the influx of the gang population in Seattle, and Thelma Payne was a teacher at Seattle Central community college. She read the paper when the program was just starting. She hired three women in the first year; then myself, Thomas Theodore, and Bernie Hall were the next generation—we were the three Black men she hired. I was placed at T.T. Minor Elementary School, and I was there for five or six years. The support worker who was at Leschi Elementary decided to move to Tampa Bay and she thought it would be a good fit for me here and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been a good run—a lot has changed.

Restorative Practices in the School

The district last year initiated some of the restorative circles [at other schools], and we trained a lot of staff here. We go back further because we’ve always done it with our boys’ groups and our girls’ groups. Two years ago, John Gladden came onboard, and we called our boys’ group Rising Sons. Daneesha Brown is the lead person for our girls’ group. We just thought it was important for students to have a voice. It’s a safe place to go and be able to say how they feel, their concerns in their life, as well as if they think they are being treated equally racially. We’ve talked about the gentrification of the neighborhood, how things have changed. They ask questions, like, “How come we don’t have more Black staff or when they come, how come they leave? Uh, why don’t we have a Black principal and we’ve had two since I’ve been here?” Unless it’s obvious that there’s something that legally we have to report, I’m not going to say who called you out. There have been times where students felt teachers were racist and we look at how can we work with that individual, to say, “You know, my boys and my girls are feeling this,” and then have a safe place to communicate. It’s important to me is we don’t just have our restorative circle as a catchphrase. The students have to see results. I’ll talk to those teachers for you and keep it to me who said it. At times teachers try to guess, though if you’re asking, “Who said this, why?” it’s not the who or the why—it’s addressing your practice that’s important.

The students also talk about the importance of having a circle. It’s really therapeutic, you can get things off your chest and it’s preparing you for life outside of our walls, social-emotional work, because we have a lot of trauma. Being homeless is trauma, you’re traumatized, and we’ve had families who’ve been in gang violence, drug violence, situations like that. As you get older you learn a circle doesn’t have to be 20 people. You and I can be a circle. As long as you can discuss things and get it off your chest it’s important. Just to have a safe place to talk and learn.

Our conversation continues in Part 2 and Part 3.