Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Highline Public Schools is Changing the Conversation

September 07, 2017

Education Northwest’s recent case study brief, “Changing the Conversation,” looks at Highline Public Schools’ participation in the Road Map Project, a collective impact initiative of South King County and South Seattle Schools.

Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of Community Center for Education Results (CCER), an organization supporting the Road Map Project, talks with Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools, about the district’s role and experience in the Road Map Project, including how the work has shifted and grown and what the district is most proud of.  

How has Highline’s participation in the Road Map Project changed the conversation in the district?

Whenever a new superintendent arrives in a district, he or she has a window to make the case for change—but this window does not remain open for long and it cannot be squandered. When I arrived in Highline in 2012 I was thrilled. I had a supportive board, committed staff, untapped community support, and awe-inspiring students. There was a good foundation upon which we could build. As I talked with staff and community members and dug into the data, however, it was also clear that we had significant work to do to increase student engagement and achievement. I knew this would require us, as the adults in the system, to change our own practices.

During my first back-to-school kick-off with staff in 2012, I shared my joy and gratitude for the opportunity to serve as Highline’s superintendent. I then said that based on my initial conversations with staff and community members there was a massive pity party happening for our Highline students that we urgently needed to shut down. Pity does our students no service, I told them. Must we address their challenges and the needs that come when children are living in trauma and poverty and provide necessary supports? Yes. At the same time, though, we must hold our students to high standards, provide them with a wide array of rich, engaging in-school and out-of-school learning experiences, and ensure they graduate with a diploma that is a ticket to the future of their choice. That is our imperative as public educators. Period.

As a leader it is important to identify areas for improvement and create a sense of urgency, while at the same time providing hope and a belief that success is possible. In my first year as superintendent I used data from the Road Map’s annual report to show how Highline was performing in comparison to our neighboring districts. This provided a clear mandate for change while also showing that academic success was possible since other districts in our region with similar demographics were outperforming us on multiple measures. It also set the stage for using data to inform our work and make changes when needed. Thanks to the Road Map, the conversation in Highline is now grounded in data and we talk candidly, with a sense of both urgency and hope, about our work and what we must do to deliver on our Highline promise of knowing every student by name, strength, and need.

How has the work of the Road Map impacted students in your district?

As part of our Race to the Top (RTTT) grant we have made significant investments in our PreK-3rd grade work, and with help from the Gates Foundation, Highline has become a regional leader in ensuring high-quality early learning experiences for every student. In addition, all of our juniors and seniors now take the PSAT and SAT free of charge during the school day—this is a practice we began with RTTT dollars and have now built into our annual district budget. This, along with Road Map-led efforts such as College Bound scholarship enrollment and Discover U week, has helped us strengthen our college-going culture in Highline.

While it is virtually impossible to provide a definitive causal link between one specific initiative or investment and successful district outcomes, I believe that what we have learned from being part of the Road Map has contributed to successes such as these:

  • Highline’s graduation rate rose from 62.5% in 2012 to 74.8% in 2016. Even more important is the fact that between 2013 and 2016 the gaps in 4-year graduation rates between groups of students have virtually closed—see below.

    4-Year Graduation Rate in Highline Public Schools



    Black/African American









  • Our out-of-school suspension and expulsions have dropped from 2,117 in 2012 to 682 in 2017. Again, the bigger story here is the reduction in disproportionality:

    1 or More Out-of-School Suspensions/Expulsions




    Black/African American









 How has the work shifted or grown over the years?

I think we have learned from our mistakes and become braver in sharing them with our colleagues and community. We live in a time when failure is celebrated—high-tech companies and start-ups pride themselves on focusing on iteration versus failure. We are told as school systems to operate in a more entrepreneurial fashion and embrace  failure—yet our reality is quite different. How do I explain to a parent or family member why it is okay that we failed their child? It just doesn’t work that way in education and I think we, especially those of us in richly diverse urban school systems, need to be honest about that. It is easier to be honest when you are not alone, and having like-minded leaders in the Road Map allows for these hard conversations to happen more publicly than they might otherwise.

What advice do we have for nonprofits wanting to partner with school districts? What challenges might they face?

For nonprofits wishing to partner with a school or district, it is important to examine your mission, vision, and goals and to see where there is alignment with the school/district’s goals. School and district goals are generally well-established and based on state and federal requirements, so you may not find significant flexibility in a school/district’s goals. It is important to understand how the school system functions. Schools and districts are bound by local, state, and federal laws and guidelines and do not have the flexibility that nonprofit organizations have. Understanding how the system functions, and the accountability structure, can help nonprofits navigate the relationship and how to best serve the students.

It is also important to establish a relationship and trust with the school(s) and district. It is helpful to have a point of contact at both the district office and the school(s) you plan to work with, preferably with someone that has decision-making authority. This allows you to establish a meaningful relationship and clear, consistent communication. One way to establish a relationship and consistent communication is to have regularly scheduled check-ins to discuss what is working and what needs improvement in the partnership (on both ends). Consider alternative forms of checking-in if in-person isn’t always feasible, such as a newsletter or email updates. Depending on the depth of the partnership, attending school staff meetings, and inviting school/district staff to your organization’s meetings, can help increase understanding and provide an opportunity to better align the goals and strategies.

Lastly, assume positive intent. School systems are bureaucratic in nature and imperfect. While the system always needs improvement, this does not mean that the individuals that work in the system do not have the best intentions for students and aren’t pouring their hearts into their work. We are ultimately here for the same purpose, to set children up for success and create a better society.

What are we most proud of?

That we are still learning and growing. While we have made real gains and continue to make progress, we know how much work remains in order to fully deliver on our Highline promise of knowing every student by name, strength, and need.  I think we all now have a shared sense of urgency and commitment to a more rapid pace of data-driven change. I remember when I first came to Highline people would criticize me for going too fast—and it is true that as leaders we must be mindful that as we lead change we must ensure we are moving forward with, not ahead of, our teams. My response when criticized for moving too quickly in this work has always been: “I am only moving as fast as our students need me to go, which means I am never going fast enough.” Needless to say I continue to pick up the pace and encourage those around me to do the same daily.

I am proud of our recruitment staff and the effort they have put into finding highest quality new teachers—over 52 percent of our new teacher cadre this year are teachers of color and four years ago it was 13 percent.

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