Susan Enfield had an ambitious goal: End out-of-school suspensions, a practice that’s particularly harmful for most students of color at Highline schools. And it worked to some extent, at least for a couple of years.
But by the 2016-17 school year, after she turned her attention to other things, she saw discipline numbers creep back up.
The return of a problem she thought she had mostly solved taught Enfield, who leads Highline as superintendent, how difficult it is to make systemic change. You can’t just pass a policy and consider it done.
“We have a very extensive and, I think, excellent equity policy,” said Enfield, who is white. “But policy really means little unless you have people who have the belief system and the courage to act on it.”
At a time when two powerful, historic events are playing out — the social justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, and the COVID-19 pandemic that has shuttered school doors across the nation — some education leaders say it’s time now to make sweeping changes that could allow schools to work better for students of color, beyond figuring out what the next confusing school year will look like.
But to make change that lasts, Enfield hopes educators and other school leaders will take the lessons she learned to heart: Reforms aimed at making school equitable must be sustained over time — and enacted by people who believe in them. Real change is messy, requires commitment and is likely to be uncomfortable.
It’s a lesson Trish Millines Dziko learned on her own terms, from more than two decades of school reform efforts. Dziko, who is African American, left a successful career in the tech world in the 1990s to start an education nonprofit, Technology Access Foundation (TAF), with the aim of transforming the school model from top to bottom to better serve students of color. She wanted to help students learn the skills they needed to compete in the growing technology sector.
She and many other education experts say the K-12 curriculum needs to be overhauled to more accurately represent the experiences of Black and brown people, that teachers need strong anti-racist training, and that schools need to drop standardized tests and use better methods to assess students.
Her school transformation concept is being used in four school districts — Highline, Federal Way, Seattle and Tacoma. Its model school is TAF@Saghalie, a 6th-12th grade school in Federal Way that uses the inquiry- or project-based learning model, in which students do projects that help them guide their own learning.
Setting high standards
Enfield, a former Seattle schools administrator, took the helm of Highline Public Schools in 2012 with the intent of setting high standards for all kids. About 80% of students who attend the district’s schools are of color.
One of the first things Enfield tackled: suspensions and expulsions for students of color that were “at alarmingly high rates for ridiculously minor infractions,” she said. The most common reason for such punishments, she said, wasn’t related to drugs or violence –it was for an infraction called “defiance,” which means anything from resisting instructions to verbally challenging a teacher. If the district wanted high expectations for its students, it also needed new expectations for itself.
In the first few years following the district’s commitment to end this disparity, suspensions and expulsions went down.
But when the district turned its attention to other priorities, discipline numbers started ticking back up, particularly among Black students.
According to the district’s most recent annual report from the 2018-19 school year, about 15.6% of the district’s students are Black, but they make up more than 21% of behavior incidents that ended in a consequence. African American students were disciplined at particularly high rates relative to other Black students, such as students who immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia or Somalia, a recent district report shows.
“It’s (a) lack of reflection and examination on an individual level by teachers and on the systems level, by all of us,” she said. “It doesn’t continue unless you continue to examine it.” The district is now reexamining its discipline practices, she said, with a focus on building relationships between students and teachers — whether they’re learning together in person or online.
In some ways, the Highline experience highlights a problem many education leaders of color point to: programmatic and incremental changes only get you so far.
The TAF model
In a seventh grade social studies class at TAF@Saghalie a few years ago, the subject was slavery. A student raised his hand and pointed to a map of the United States. “If slavery was here today, what states would be for it and what states would be against it?” he asked.
Dziko, observing the class in the back of the room, thought it was a great question. But the teacher did not. “Off-topic,” he said, shutting the student down.
Dziko wished the teacher had asked the student, what do you think? He could have pivoted away from the day’s curriculum and told his students to discuss the idea among themselves, then classwide. It could have been a rich, memorable lesson.
“But in order to do something like that, as a teacher, you have to actually value the voices of your students,” said Dziko, “and not believe you are the vessel of all information.” That teacher didn’t last at the school, which TAF calls the first in Washington to be co-managed by a nonprofit and a public school district.
Schools fail students of color, Dziko said, because they do not value their voices, or develop strong relationships between student and teacher. Instead, schools focus excessively on standardized tests, which require teachers to cover a specific curriculum. She thinks the content schools teach today “is so Eurocentric that the kids don’t know about the rest of the world — they don’t even know about the many cultures in this country.”
Dziko’s model of education reform uses an inquiry-based learning model, in which students do projects that help them guide their own learning. Students who work this way are more engaged in their own education, she said, and regardless of their academic abilities or needs, they’re able to “plug into learning with everybody else.” Project-based learning also allows students to meet state learning standards in many different ways, she said, not just high-stakes tests.
At TAF@Saghalie, students are grouped into “houses” of 80, with three teachers (math, science and humanities) leading each house. Every class is 90 minutes, and everything is taught in an interdisciplinary fashion. A science lesson might also include a language arts lesson, for example, as students learn how to write effectively about science.
In a recent class project, students explored a hypothetical scenario in which one part of the state had abundant coal resources, another part had oil, and a third had wind power. The students learned which Native American tribes lived in each part of the state, and imagined the costs to the land and the people if those resources were extracted. The students talked to tribal members, studied the history of the tribes and learned about energy sources.
Projects like these are more work. “But man, is it worth it,” she said.
Teachers get extensive professional development to hone their craft, including a deep and thorough exploration of antiracism. “Being antiracist is the North Star,” she said. “It’s not enough to say ‘I don’t discriminate,’ because that’s a lie. To be an antiracist means you actually take action, you become an advocate, you put something on the line.”
Her school transformation model will be used in Seattle’s Washington Middle School this summer and fall. But TAF’s entry into Washington’s largest school district didn’t come without a fight.
The proposal to bring TAF to Washington blended gifted and general education students at Washington Middle to clear the way for the partnership, because TAF doesn’t track students by academic aptitude. The parents of gifted students — most of whom were white — were skeptical that the school would be able to meet their students’ needs.
“They were unwilling to listen to anything a little different for their kid,” Dziko said. The final plan will gradually bring gifted students into the TAF curriculum, with teachers differentiating to give them the services they need.
TAF says 100% of its students graduate on time, and 95% get accepted to a college. And while Dziko doesn’t think test scores tell much, 85% of TAF@Saghalie’s 10th graders met the state standard for English, and 65% met the standard for math, significantly higher than the state average.
Dziko’s foundation’s approach is to tackle transformation one school at a time. What would it take for an entire district to make lasting change?
In Highline, Enfield’s next focus is to become an actively antiracist school district. An upcoming districtwide symposium will focus on what this could look like, she said.
“It fundamentally challenges those of us who are white leaders to determine what it means to cede power and decenter ourselves in some of these conversations and this work,” she said. “And that is hard. I’m totally on this learning journey as well.”