The Seismic Shift in Learning and Communicating
Jason Barnes

Just south of Seattle sits Highline Public Schools — a diverse urban school district serving 18,000 students across 33 schools. Since Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield took the helm in 2012, her focus has been on fulfilling the district’s promise to know every student by name, strength and need in order to prepare them for a future they choose. 

Dr. Enfield is a champion for education, not only for Highline, but for schools across the country.   She has dedicated her career to advocating for equity and promoting the value of public education nationwide. Finalsite’s Chief Revenue Officer Jason Barnes sat down with Dr. Enfield in late 2020 to find out how even during a pandemic, her team is able to fulfill the Highline promise. 

Watch the video below or keep scrolling to read the full transcription.

Q: Can you give us an introduction and overview of Highline Public Schools and the communities you serve?

A: I describe Highline as a richly diverse school system. Our students and families speak about 100 different languages. So when I say richly diverse I mean it. Our top languages are Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali. We are located just south of Seattle and when you land in Sea-Tac International Airport you are actually surrounded by our schools. And we are just under 18,000 students this year and we are very much believers in student first language.

We describe our students in Highline as brilliant, beautiful, and brimming with promise. And only after that will I share with you that roughly seven out of 10 of our students rely on us for their meals; that approximately 10,000 of our 18,000 students come to us speaking a language other than English; and approximately 3,500 of our 18,000 students come with special needs that we support. 

We are guided in our work by our Highline promise that is to know every student by name, strength, and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose. And that has really been our guiding force since back in 2012 when we first established it.

Q: Would you share some of the other core beliefs and commitments you and your leadership team have that you've been relying on as you've been navigating these last several months with the pandemic?

A: One of the big things we've learned is that it's so great to know what your core values are and what drives you as a system. I'm currently in my ninth year. My leadership team has been with me for several years. And the [Highline] promise is really what we lead with for every webinar, every publication, and every communication. But we also refer back to those things in addition to our promise that we've established as our priorities prior to the pandemic and that are still serving us well.

I think it's important to point people to what binds you together as a community and has always bound you together as a community when times get really tough. And so, in our strategic plan we've laid out four components of our foundation. The foundation in our district is built on equity, relationships, instruction, and support. And we were very intentional when we established that foundation many years ago that we wouldn't use jargon, that we wanted our community—our parents, our students, everyone—to really know who we are and what we really care about. And at the end of the day, differentiated instruction doesn't mean a lot to the average parent, but what a parent wants to know is: [that] their kid’s going to be educated; that their kid, their student, their child, will be supported; that there will be real relationships between school and home; and that all of that will be driven from a place of equity.

Q: You and your team have learned about how to engage the community, how to communicate effectively with your parents in general - especially as everything shifted to crisis distance learning. There continues to be ongoing adjustments you need to make in this new school year with COVID not going away. What are some of your learnings that you'd share with others that are in leadership positions?

A: The first, and this is always true but it's certainly amplified in the midst of a pandemic, is that it is impossible to over-communicate. It is absolutely, physically impossible to over-communicate. So, right from the get-go, from the week that we actually made the decision back in March to not have children in school buildings and to go to distance learning, our communications team initially was putting out daily staff and family updates. After several weeks we did some surveying to see how people were feeling about communication and many of our families were like, "Really appreciate it. We could use a little less." So we dialed that back a little bit to a more weekly communication. But I think that people have really appreciated the fact that we are putting information out as we know it and really erring on the side of over communicating.

I think the other thing that we've learned, that I've learned especially is the power of video messages versus written communication. So, I'm now doing weekly video updates to staff and families because what we're hearing is that it's easier and it's more personal. People like that better than an email message. And actually that was really driven home for me because there was a part of me that was thinking, "Well, do I really need to do them on a weekly basis?"

Hybrid Continues from Highline Public Schools on Vimeo.

And I was actually out doorbelling for our tech levy and rang a doorbell and stepped back with my mask and the woman who answered was just saying, "Oh, it's so nice to see you. Thanks for doing this. I've been meaning to email you." She said, "This is hard but it's the right decision." And then she said, "One of the good things that's come out of this is we've really gotten to know you better." And I was really struck by that comment because I do think that as superintendents and leaders, we are now connecting with families and the community at a level of intensity and frequency that we haven't before and there's good that's coming out of that.

And so I think it's really important that we in the midst of the challenges—and the challenges are aplenty, don't get me wrong, I mean there are some really hard days—that we really identify the things that we need to keep doing once this is over because we realize maybe we should have been doing them all along. 

This new way of being and how people are struggling and adapting to this new world was summed up really, really well by my chief talent officer, Steve Grub. And he said this a couple of weeks ago and it's really stuck with all of us on my leadership team and has gotten me thinking differently about how to lead and support through this time. 

He said, "Up until March, as a team and as a district, we were playing checkers." And he said, "And we were really good at checkers. We had mastered checkers." He said, "In fact, I think we were probably some of the best in the state at playing checkers. And then the game changed and it's no longer checkers. And the game that we're playing has no name, has no rule book, has no guidelines whatsoever. And so, we're having to figure it out but unfortunately all we know how to do is play checkers."

And I think that there's real power in that analogy because what it speaks to is just this really seismic shift in learning, in practice that we as district professionals, it doesn't matter what you're doing whether you're a bus driver or a superintendent or a teacher, what we did before a lot of that doesn't work now. So how are we learning as we go and adapting and getting smarter in this new way of learning and working that we're all in right now?

Q: One of the things that you and your team do really well is you tell stories through people. Would you share a little bit more about your communication strategy? 

A: We have an extraordinary communications team in Highline. They're really the best in the business and they really understand and have helped me understand the power of stories and that the data alone does not tell a story. And so, when we talk about our graduation rate data we want to talk about not just the fact that more students are graduating, we want to talk about the different pathways that our students are identifying for themselves and going off to and using it as an opportunity to make sure that we are valuing equally every path a student chooses for themselves.

For a long time in public education, I think we were guilty ofprizing those who were off to a four year college above those who were choosing other pathways. And I think across the nation, but I know here in Highline, we've gotten much better and much more intentional at saying, "Yes, it's great that you got a full ride to study computer science at the University of Washington and we're so proud of you. And yes, the fact that you graduated from our skill center and are now going to work directly as a machinist at Boeing and make sure that the airplanes that we all will one day fly again frequently are all completely safe and functional is equally worth celebrating." And how do we tell those stories in a way that shows other students that there isn't just one right path.

I think that what we have to do as school systems is help students really learn what the right path is for them and then make sure that they are prepared for it. It's not just about keeping our Highline community informed and sharing the good news of what's happening in Highline and celebrating that but it's also about how we are shifting the narrative around public education and why public education matters.

At the day when I'm 35,000 feet in the air I want to know that everything on that airplane has been drilled and bolted and sealed to perfection. And a lot of the people working on those planes are coming out of our public schools. So, it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we invest in them so that they have the critical thinking and problem solving and attention to detail skills that they need to have to succeed in whatever career path they choose. So I think there's a real moral imperative there too around why public education and education at large matters so much.

Q: The role of a district or school's website has really changed and evolved. At Finalsite we really think of it as a digital campus, that it's no longer a digital file cabinet of information for people to get but it's really a place people can come and understand the quality of education, what the pedagogy looks like, what's happening in schools through that digital portal as well as getting the lunch menu and the calendars. Would you share some of the ways you think about the website and how your team's using it in Highline that you weren't thinking about in the past? 

A: Well, I think that there's a really great example here in how you walk your equity talk and how you move beyond compliance to continuous improvement and opportunity. And so, our partnership with Finalsite came about because as I think most people in districts know the office of civil rights was making sure that websites were compliant. So that especially those who are visually impaired in other ways can access information on the website. And so, this meant that most districts had to invest in overhauling their website. But because Catherine Carbone Rogers, my chief communications officer and her team are so good, Catherine saw this as an opportunity for us to walk our equity talk. So rather than see it as we've got to go through all this work and change our website she saw it as this is fundamentally an equity issue. We need to make sure that our information is as accessible as it can be to as many people as possible and we're really proud of that.

The website really is more than I'm going to go check the lunch menu. In many ways it signals to the community who you are and what you stand for. So, making sure that the feeds and the stories that are on there are helping to tell the district story not just deliver information is critically important. And I think that we do a good job of that, of using the website not just as a vehicle for information but as a way to continue to tell our Highline story so that we're constantly hopefully building more trust, more credibility, more confidence within the community around the work that we're doing.

Q: You are not only a leader for Highline and the community there but you're really a national spokesperson, a leader for education. You see the larger ecosystem and you want all of education to improve. As we sit here in October of 2020 weathering this pandemic and you look into the future, what you see that gives you concern in education and also what gives you hope as we move forward? 

A: My biggest concern since we had to make the incredibly painful decision to remain in full distance learning with very few exceptions through at least February that when all is said and done my students in Highline, the vast majority, will have likely been out of their school buildings for a full year. And that given that not all of them had, and despite our best efforts, continue not to have, reliable broadband access at home and a working device have likely been cut off from school at large for almost a year. I don't think any of us really knows yet what the impact of that is going to be academically, social, emotionally, all of it. I just don't think we know what that return will look like and what kinds of impact and frankly damage may have been done to many of our children and young people during this time.

That’s what I fixate on in my dark moments. And then, I think about the students and the staff and the families and the community here in Highline and they really are extraordinary. And when I say that our students are brilliant, beautiful, and brimming with promise I mean it and it's fact. And I believe that our children are capable of greatness even in the most challenging times. And so, when I visit classrooms right now via Zoom and see kindergartners figuring it out and seeing our students with special needs figuring it out with their teachers and para educators and principals how to make distance learning work it gives me great hope that well yes we will have to deal with the aftermath if you will of this whole chapter and its impact on education in this country. I believe that in many ways our children and young people will surprise us with how they adapted likely far better than we as adults and not just how they survived but in many ways how they thrived.

Now, this is a tough thing to balance because I don't want to paint this veneer over the challenges and the reality of how hard this is but there is good work happening out there and to your point we always need to come back to that which gives us hope and as leaders help people know that as I've been saying one day this will be in our rear view mirror. It's clearly not happening as quickly or as soon as we would like but it will be there.

And as I also remind our Highline community I would rather not be living through a global pandemic at all but if I do have to go through it, Highline is where I want to be. Because I've seen our students, our staff, our families, our community step up in ways that just leave me in awe of what people are capable of doing when they come together around a real need. And the needs right now are many but I just feel so grateful to be in a community that is finding a way to collectively wrap our arms around our children and our young people in this time so that they come through this as best they can.

Key Takeaway 

Even through a pandemic, Dr. Susan Enfield and Highline Public Schools have held true to the promise of knowing every student by name, strength and need in order to prepare them for a future they chose. In a year that has presented enormous challenges, Dr. Enfield and her team continue to implement impactful leadership and communications strategies that build trust, credibility and confidence within the community. 

Don’t miss Dr. Enfield’s keynote speech at School PR Day: Communicating to Bridge the Digital and Relationship Divide. Register now to reserve your free seat! 


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