Highline Schools’ Super Dr. Susan Enfield Seeks Full-time Kindergartens
by Jack Mayne
Highline School District superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield says she hopes to see the district have full-time paid kindergarten for all beginning students and for the Legislature to find a way to fulfill the state constitutional mandate that the Legislature fully finances schools across the state.
But Enfield is concerned whether the district giving enough appropriate choices to students at the smaller high schools mainly located on the Evergreen High School site in White Center and the Tyee campus in SeaTac.
“The biggest challenge with our small schools is not whether small schools are bad or good, but what is it that a parent can expect their high school student to receive at Evergreen, regardless of what campus they are assigned to because we assign kids to schools,” Enfield said in an interview. “So a kid who is assigned to Evergreen is going to potentially have a very different experience than a student assigned to Highline or Mount Rainier.
“You have a traditional high school that, given its size and scale, can provide things that the smaller campuses can’t provide. That is where I struggle. We are assigning kids to schools and, by doing that, we are forcing them to make choices that perhaps they are not wanting to make – giving up band, giving up advanced placement classes because a smaller school just can’t provide those.
She says it isn’t whether a small school is working or not working.
“But at a time of dwindling resources, are we really providing fairly for all of our kids? Is it fair (for the district) to assign a kid to a small campus when we are assigning others to a big, comprehensive campus?
“These are different experiences and we are making these for them.
“I struggle with that a little bit,” she said.
Enfield said some of the smaller academies are “having extraordinary success.”
“Health Sciences Academy on the Evergreen campus is having wonderful success,” she said. “Global Connections on the Tyee Campus their jazz band just played at (President Barack Obama’s) inauguration.”
Financing with accountability
While still interim superintendent of Seattle Schools, Enfield was appointed a member of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding, which studied education finances during 2012 and issued its final report in December.
“We made some recommendations, but I think the Legislature is still a ways away from determining what they want to do around full funding,” she said.
There are two divergent views, she said.
One is whether the state needs create new revenue to fully finance schools but the obvious question is how to raise the money.
The other view agrees new revenue is needed but the question is how much is needed and how to gage accountability of how the money is spent.
“That gets a little bit dicey because what do you mean by accountability? Not everyone is operating from the same definition of that,” Enfield said.
“I think that if people are thinking that the state is going to pick up share of what we currently use levy dollars for, in the near future, (the thinking) is probably misplaced. I’d love to see that happen eventually and I think there is talk in Olympia about that but I think we are a ways away from agreement.”
Enfield said again, as she did when she was initially interviewed for the Highline superintendent’s job, that a major push by her would be for full-day, district paid kindergartens.
She said several Highline schools don’t have full-day kindergarten and several more where parents have to pay for full day (kindergarten).
The vast majority of students come from low-income homes, so lack of “high quality pre-kindergarten and full-time kindergarten” are deal-breakers for them.
Olympia legislators must start “funding my five-year-olds as whole human beings. We get (half) funding for each kindergartner. It is ridiculous.”
Not having that early learning means it is much more difficult to have a child at grade level by the third grade.
“The research is very clear, that if we don’t have students at grade level by third grade, their chances of success is in our education system really becomes compromised,” Enfield said. “The four and five year old brain is a wondrous thing.”
A child from a foreign background will pick up English quickly if they are in a full-day kindergarten.
“Their brains are wired for language acquisition in a way that, as we get older, just dies.”
Ways to measure success
Enfield was asked to how to measure improvement in a district’s educational process.
“The new state teacher and principal evaluation program includes student growth as one measure in a teacher and principal evaluation. Seattle has been doing this for a few years now.
“No educator worth their salt is going to look you in the eye and say we are not responsible for making sure that a student has growth over a year,” she said. “That is what we do, we are here to teach children.
“So when you send your fourth grader to Highline public schools, you have a fair and appropriate expectation that they’ll we ready for fifth grade at the end of that year,” Enfield said. “We have a obligation to make that happen.
“I also have to have a way to show that that has happened and I have to have a measurement that is consistent across our schools because how one teacher might show a growth might be very different from how another teacher shows growth. In order for me to have confidence in saying to parents and families, ‘Yes, your child is now prepared.’ we need to have a measurement.”
Some Seattle School District teachers recently refused for a time to administer the so-called Measures of Academic Progress test, (known as the MAP test) used to show growth. That test is used in the Highline District.
“Is the MAP the perfect measurement, no I don’t think there is any one perfect measurement.”
But, Enfield said schools must somehow measure student’s growth over the course of a year or some of them will fall into the cracks of the system and not get what they need to successfully advance.
Another problem is how to measure success in untested subjects, such as art, music, P.E.
“How do we show growth there?”
It is not impossible to show accountability, it is just difficult and new approaches to chart growth will be developed over time, Enfield said.
‘Even greater greatness’
After her first nine months at Highline, Enfield views the district as “a great district, poised for even greater greatness,” she said with a big laugh over her choice of words.
The district’s demographics provide some hurdles for families and the children, she said.
“But, I don’t believe that is a barrier to them being successful in school and in life. Our job as educators is to make sure the challenges the students have don’t turn into barriers.”
There is a dedicated staff and dedicated communities and she meets regularly with various civic leaders from Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac, Normandy Park.
“It is a community that really cares.
“I think our biggest challenge is how do we raise the level of expectation for what our kids can achieve at a time when resources are scarce – we’ve all suffered really significant budget cuts. I think this is a community that sees the diversity of our student population as an asset and I believe it is, so the diversity is a wonderful thing.
“The fact that some of our children come to us with challenges that force us to be smarter and perhaps makes us work harder to help them be successful? Yes that is our job.”
Enfield says her job, as superintendent, is to make sure that whatever school a child is assigned to in the district “is a school you feel good about sending your kid to (and) the Zip Codes does not determine the quality of the school.”
Getting to that quality level will take a few years, she says, but “we will get there.”
A pity party
Enfield was asked what her biggest surprise was when she got to Highline after her 15 months as interim superintendent of the Seattle School District.
“I have been very candid about this,” she said. “When I did my all-staff kick-off at the beginning of the year, I said in my early weeks here I came across fabulous people, both in the district and in the broader community, who cared deeply about the district and its kids.
“But, unfortunately, there is a massive pity party happening for our kids, people feel sorry for them. They’re poor, their parents work two jobs, whatever. That pity party does our kids no good. Our job as educators is to prevent those challenges from becoming barriers. There is a lot we can do in the course of a school day with a child, regardless of what their circumstances are to help them move forward and to learn.
“What I want us to focus on is what we can do and what our kids can accomplish and help them believe in themselves regardless of what is happening in the time they are out of school. I am not naive enough to say that what happens to them outside of school doesn’t impact or may not impact what happens in school. But there is an awful lot we can do with the quality of teaching and learning we have in the building.
“As I said to people, empathy is a wonderful value or emotion to have, but when empathy combines with low expectations, it turns into pity and pity does our kids no good.
“So what I want us to do is to raise the bar for what we expect of our kids,” she said.
“The only way that you change people’s belief systems is by changing their experience,” Enfield said. “So, we have got to start showing people what our kids can do. By having successes and by showing folks, ‘yes, our kids can and are.’
“I hope that we can, across Highline, believe in the real potential the kids have.”
She said communicating effectively with parents is an on-going challenge.
“We have not fine-tuned that as yet,” Enfield said.