Highline Public Schools is a “richly diverse” urban-suburban district that surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. More than half of its almost 18,000 students enter school speaking a language other than English, and 70 percent rely on the district for breakfast and lunch.
But when you ask Superintendent Susan Enfield to describe her district, she doesn’t talk about the challenges her students face. Instead, she talks about their potential and how they are “brilliant, beautiful, and brimming with promise.”
“How we talk to, with, and about our children matters,” Enfield says. “It dawned on me in a meeting a few years ago that some of my colleagues in high-poverty, highly impacted districts almost use the challenge that students and families face as a badge of honor, when in fact it’s a reductionist label that undermines the brilliance and resilience of our kids.”
As Enfield left that meeting, she made it a goal to shift the narrative and to start using student-first language that doesn’t reduce children to labels. The district soon developed what it calls the “Highline Promise,” a mission statement that promises to know every student’s “name, strength, and need,” as well as the school board-approved “equity lens” that requires employees to answer a series of questions before making decisions at the school, department, or district level.
Why is Highline’s story important? Conversations around equity have been ongoing for decades, but how leaders turn those words into sustainable action—and then communicate about what, why, and how you’re doing it—is the more difficult task. Learning from others who are doing it well is a good start.
Now in her ninth year as Highline’s superintendent, with almost 30 years in education, Enfield knows the reality most of her students and families face. But focusing on those negatives, she says, is “a way of selling our kids short.”
“We were sending an unintentional message to our kids that they were somehow limited when instead we are working to refute that on a daily basis,” Enfield says. “Everything we do should refute that if we want them to have every option available to them.”
The Highline Promise, she says, is “a commitment to equity.” The district’s strategic plan has a section on equity. The school board’s policy, which includes the equity lens, is reviewed annually.
“Critically, the policy states that the district’s strategic plan will be our primary equity plan,” Enfield says. “In my view, you’ve lost before you’ve begun if they are separate. No separate equity plan is going to move the system forward. Now, with that statement in policy, we are ensuring that the two are linked forever.”
Central to the implementation of the policy is the equity lens, which is used in all types of decisions ranging from staffing and budgeting to allocating resources and starting or ending programs.
Enfield says the development of the equity lens was well-received by the community, but the implementation received “plenty of pushback.”
“Everybody loves to talk about equity, but when you actually start putting it into practice, it gets real,” she says. “You’re going to push people out of their comfort zones and challenge those who feel they are entitled to what they’ve always been entitled to without question.”
As an example of the pushback, Enfield cites the district’s decision to stop out-of-school suspensions for student defiance.
“Our out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates were obscenely high, and there had to be a different way to handle this,” she says. “Still, you’re going to create some controversy and pushback from people who are accustomed to removing a student for a week or two because the student refuses to take off a hat. But that’s not the right way to approach it. That’s not looking at it in a way that engenders equity.”
Another example involved Raisbeck Aviation High School, a regional magnet school in the Highline district. The agreement for the school stated that Highline students would make up 51 percent of the population, but as the school became more popular and admission more sought after, the number dropped to around 30 percent.
“The school had 400 applications for 100 slots a year, and the admission system was complex,” Enfield says, noting both students and parents had to write essays that were reviewed by an admissions committee. “It was a real gatekeeping mechanism to determine whether the students would be a ‘good fit’ for the school, and so the demographics were not close to the population of Highline.”
Five years ago, despite a firestorm from those outside the district, admissions were moved to a lottery system. “They had created a private school on public dollars, and we couldn’t do that,” she says. “Equity and excellence should go hand in hand, and we had to convince them that we were not watering down excellence. That’s just not the case.
Last May, the school graduated its first lottery class. It also was listed as the third best high school in the state by U.S. News & World Report.
Enfield is proud of the work her district is doing, but coronavirus and the social and racial justice protests over the past year have brought new challenges that the district must continue to address.
The largest long-term challenge, she says, is having honest conversations—and taking action—on issues around race and systemic racism.
“These are hard conversations to have and hard work to do, and there’s no user’s manual on how to do it. You have to get into the mess of it and commit to ongoing learning,” she says.