Highline Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield talks about the district's strategic planning process to the White Center Chamber of Commerce at Mac's Triangle Pub on March 12.
“Poverty is not a learning disability”: Enfield’s plan for the future of Highline Schools
When Susan Enfield took the job as Highline School District’s new superintendent in 2012, she started reaching out to staff and community to get a feel for the culture she was now charged with guiding into the future.
“One of the things I was struck by was … a deep sense of commitment and caring for the schools, (and) a lot of feeling sorry for our kids and their plight,” Enfield said, recalling her early days with the district while speaking to the White Center Chamber of Commerce on March 12.
“People would say, ‘We are so glad you are here but these students are so poor, and they speak other languages, and their parents have two jobs,’ and I got really good at nodding politely and smiling and then saying, ‘And there are children with those characteristics all over the country who are performing way better.’”
70 percent of Highline’s students are on free or reduced lunch, a barometer that Enfield said some (including herself) had become desensitized to. What that means, she said, is that 13,000 of Highline’s 18,000 students live in poverty.
One of her first messages to Highline staff was harsh, but mostly well received: “We got to shut down the pity party. Our kids are just as capable as kids anywhere else. It’s what we as the adults expect of them and what we put into place to help them reach their goals that makes a difference.”
Reworking the system
Enfield and Highline’s 45-person Core Planning Team are currently working through a “strategic planning process,” expected to be complete in June, that she defines as a “game changer” that ignores the era of accountability “where school districts get smacked down when they don’t meet their goals” (leading to lower expectations).
Her example: When she came on board at Highline the goal over a decade was to go from 53 percent of third graders being able to read to 62 percent.
“We basically told half of our kids: ‘We’ve given up on you, you are not going to make it this year’ … and I have a huge problem with that.”
Replacing timid with the bold, Enfield said she is implementing 95 percent goals across the board, from graduation rates to early learning to the eradication of out-of-school suspension.
Enfield’s early learning revamp is two-pronged, and a crucial part of her education philosophy.
“I have a profound and unshakeable belief in the power of early learning,” she said. “The stronger start we give our kids, the better off they are going to be in our system.”
With next year’s incoming kindergartners, her goal is to have 95 percent, or 9 out of 10, above standard in core subjects by third grade, “Because we know that if we don’t get our kids where they need to be by third grade, their chance to graduate plummets.”
Furthering that goal, while politicians in Olympia fail time and time again to fully fund education, she is moving forward in prioritizing limited budget space to bring full-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs online across the Highline district over the next three years.
She called full funding from lawmakers a “moral and economic imperative.” Currently, the state only half-funds kindergarten programs, according to Enfield.
Sticking with the numbers, Enfield said Highline’s goal is to have 95 percent of next year’s incoming freshman graduate from high school.
In the future, that success rate will greatly hinge upon her aggressive early learning goals to better preparing children for the next several years of school.
To help current students, she also plans to ensure every 9th grader is connected with an adult in school – a mentor – “to put them on track to graduate successfully," she said, "and I do believe we can and will get to a 95 percent graduation rate.”
An end (mostly) to out-of-school suspensions
Also closely linked to graduation rates, according to Enfield, is out-of-school suspensions.
“We are suspending kids at a frightening rate and very few of them look like me, and it’s a problem,” Enfield, who is white, said, adding that even missing a few days can cause a negative ripple in a student’s education that might mean they don’t graduate.
While she said sending kids home still has a place with those “who are a danger to others or themselves” the majority of discipline cases will result in in-school suspension where the student is removed from their regular classroom, but continues to do their work with the guidance of a counselor. Pilot programs are already happening.
Enfield said most kids are sent home because of defiance, which she defines as a trademark of youth.
“I was a high school student once,” she said. “You show me a kid who’s not defiant, and I’ll show you a walking miracle.”
Highline’s current policy is to send students home for truancy, which Enfield described as something you’d expect to see in a network sitcom.
“You are not coming to school?” she quipped, “We’ll show you; we are not going to let you come to school!”
While Enfield and her team work to evolve Highline’s policies as part of their strategic planning process, she said community input is needed. To that end, she encourages parents to sign up for 15-minute office-hour conversations with the superintendent, attending upcoming public meetings (more information at www.highlineschools.org) and take part in the online conversation, Imagine Highline, at www.imaginehighline.org.