Amid crisis, how do does a school district identify and enact opportunities for change?
This question has been front-and-center for Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington, since March. "A lot of people talk about the fact we have dual pandemics. There's COVID-19, and then there's systemic racism," said Superintendent Susan Enfield.
Highline certainly isn't alone on this viewpoint, but the district's proximity to Seattle — it surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — and its approach to its mission give it a unique stance, particularly when it comes to equity.
Of Highline's 19,287 students, 38.9% are Hispanic, 14.6% are Black and 14.6% are Asian. It also has a 29% English learner and 16% special education population. And 69% are on free and reduced-price lunch — a statistic the district expects will grow amid the pandemic.
"We don't like reducing our students to labels, so we really work against saying [for example] we have 70% free and reduced lunch students," said Enfield. "We will describe our students to you as brilliant, beautiful and brimming with promise. And only after that will I tell you that, yes, we face all of the challenges urban districts face."
"Rather than a mission or vision in Highline, we have our Highline Promise, and that is to know every student by name, strength and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose," Enfield said.
"A student doesn't need a deep, meaningful relationship with every adult in their school. It just takes one."
Superintendent, Highline Public Schools
Keeping the promise
The Highline Promise was developed in 2012, early in Enfield's nine-year tenure heading the district, and it has since become the school system's "DNA," she said, guiding decisions and giving the community a baseline for holding schools accountable when they fall short. Highline reported a graduation rate of 83.8% for 2020.
Keeping that promise during a school year like no other, however, required the district to form five planning teams that worked throughout spring and summer — including a whole-child planning team tasked to "operationalize, at scale, our promise."
The result: A model called One-to-One Connections, in which every Highline student has an adult from their school assigned to them, who informally checks in with them on a daily or weekly basis to build a relationship.
"It's not solely about academics. It's really about building relationships and connections, because we know we can't leave that to chance in this distance learning model," said Enfield. "As a former high school teacher, I know because I've lived it. A student doesn't need a deep, meaningful relationship with every adult in their school. It just takes one."
That additional support has been all the more crucial in a year when students were confronted not just with a pandemic, but with social unrest in the wake of the police-involved deaths of Black Americans and heated civil rights demonstrations that followed — some of the most publicized of which were in neighboring Seattle.
The tragedies and their aftermath gave the district an opportunity to double-down on its longstanding commitments to equity, which began more than a decade ago.
"We really started looking at our decision-making and the balances of our resources around 2009, where we developed our first equity policy," said Bernie Dorsey, a member of the Highline Public Schools Board of Directors who has previously served as the group's president and vice president. "At the time, we were one of the first districts in Washington state to take that on. There's been a few different iterations of it now, but it continues to be the first policy in our board policy manual."
"Susan, years ago, said, 'Don't tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what I need to know.' We look at that as a mantra."
Vice President, Highline Public Schools Board of Directors
As part of this work, the district has recognized that its teaching staff needs to be more reflective of its student body. Over the last five years, Enfield said, Highline has increased its teachers and leaders of color by 30% to 40%.
But it has also paid attention to these educators' concerns and challenges, and is this year launching staff-created affinity groups to create a feedback loop supporting further improvements. Participating staff can also be compensated for their time.
And the district this year held its third annual equity symposium, with a focus on how to become a more anti-racist school system.
Maria Santiago, treasurer of the Highline Council PTSA and a 1997 graduate of the district whose children are enrolled, said the district is "going beyond the effort of just checking a box" with its equity work. She added it does what it can to ensure this work is accessible for all the languages spoken in the community, and that the community feels the wording being used around equity is appropriate.
Not without challenges
The path to progress, however, hasn't been all smooth.
"We've had some pushback on the fact that we support the Black Lives Matter movement and other other things that are somewhat controversial," said Enfield. "We have a set of talking points our communications team came up with, and we really bring it back to our policies and that we believe in supporting free speech and allowing people to address these issues very openly."
How it communicates with the community these initiatives, as well as instances where it falls short, is ultimately a top priority for Highline, not only in continuing to improve, but in preparing students for the future.
Santiago said the district has made a lot of gains on parent voice and transparency in the last 10 to 15 years in particular. "That has made a big impact on the changes the district has made," Santiago said.
"Internally and externally, we embrace our mistakes just as we embrace our successes," said Dorsey. "We communicate warts and all. Susan, years ago, said, 'Don't tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what I need to know.' We look at that as a mantra, not just for each other and our work on the board and our work within the system, but also with our community."
"We try to always stay cognizant of the fact we've got 19,000-plus sets of eyes looking for the adults in their lives to really model functional behavior," Dorsey said.