The reality is if our students are hungry, they’re not going to learn. If they can’t access the internet, they’re not going to learn. And if they don’t have a device they can use, they’re not going to learn.
That’s Dr. Susan Enfield, the superintendent of the Highline Public Schools in Washington state. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard, she has held educational leadership positions in the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as well as school districts in Portland, Oregon and Seattle and Vancouver, Washington. She is also a member of Chiefs for Change.
During school closures, Dr. Enfield has been a fierce advocate for closing the digital divide that makes remote instruction inaccessible for students without home broadband access, as well as ensuring that low-income students, accustomed to getting meals at school, don’t go hungry.
Can you tell me a little about Highline Public Schools?
We’re an urban district outside of Seattle with about 18,000 students in 33 schools. Our community is richly diverse with nearly 50% of our students speaking a first language other than English. Of the 100 different languages spoken, the most common are Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali. About 70% of our students rely on us for breakfast and lunch.
What happened when you had to close down in-school learning in mid-March due to COVID-19?
We weren’t ready. While we had invested significantly in technology and were able to deploy 13,000 devices in the spring, we had too many students without home broadband access. My chief technology officer estimated that when we closed schools in March roughly 6,000 students were potentially cut off from remote instruction. We have worked over the past several months to bring that number down to 2,500 and won’t stop until all students are connected. And this isn’t just Highline—this is America. You hear heartbreaking stories throughout the country about kids sitting in a Taco Bell parking lot trying to access the internet. This fundamental inequity cuts our kids off from education and we need leadership at the national and state level to change this.
But that leadership’s not there. So what did you do?
We’re lucky enough to have wonderful partners, including the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools and, especially, our Highline Schools Foundation which has been raising funds to connect needy students to the internet. Through the Foundation, donors can sponsor a family for $140 a year. We had one Seattle resident recently who wrote a check for $14,000 to connect 100 families. This kind of help is invaluable.
While I am grateful for the generosity of our community, I’m appalled that we have to hold the equivalent of a bake sale-type fundraiser for something that should be available to every student. Fundraising is a band-aid, not a long-term strategy or solution.
That explains the movement called #ConnectKidsNow, right?
Yes. In the spring a number of superintendents from the League of Innovative Schools came together and launched a campaign called #ConnectKidsNow to raise awareness around the digital divide and the urgency we feel to address it.
We believe the internet needs to be a public utility and fortunately, there is a growing push across the nation to do exactly that. As long as COVID-19 is part of our reality, remote instruction will be a part of many of our students’ lives for the foreseeable future. We need a permanent, national solution so that all kids are connected from their homes to their school communities. Whether a child lives in New Jersey or Washington, the dilemma is the same.
Can you tell me about how you manage food service?
As I said earlier, the majority of our students are eligible for free/reduced lunch and if school had been open they would be receiving breakfast and lunch in our buildings. When schools closed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued waivers that allowed us to expand and feed all kids like we do during the summer, not just those who qualify. Since March we have been able to provide meals for any child or young person under 18 who showed up.
The waivers have also allowed us to distribute meals from different sites, like our central office or a park, making it easier for families to pick them up. On more than one occasion I’ve had families tell me, “this is the only food in our house.” We have real food insecurity issues in our community, forcing some parents at times to choose between buying groceries or diapers. Until last week we were busy lobbying USDA to renew these waivers so we could #FeedKidsNow, and there was real concern that politics would prevail over children. Fortunately, the waivers have been extended through December 31 so until then we will be able to provide meals to anyone under 18 who needs them.
How do you see the school year moving forward?
We will be guided by our Highline Promise: “EVERY STUDENT in Highline Public Schools is known by name, strength and need, and graduates prepared for the future they choose.” This is more than a mission, vision or tagline. It is who we are, it’s the DNA of our system. We are more committed than ever before to delivering on our promise despite the challenges of remote instruction.
How will you do that?
Our teachers need and deserve support to teach in this new distance learning model—and we know that families’ expectations of the quality of teaching and learning will be higher than in the spring, understandably so. We made the decision to move our first day for students from September 3 to September 9 so teachers could become more familiar with our learning platforms and collaborate with one another.
Once school starts on the 9th, we’ll have a full day of instruction for each student and, in keeping with our promise, we have put together a plan so that every student will be connected to a staff member who checks in with them every week. Also, we have three days before school starts that we’re calling “Family Connection Days” where teachers will have a 15-20 minute conversation with each family to get to know them and establish a relationship since partnerships with families are absolutely critical for students to be successful.
We are honest about the challenges facing us, but Highline is an amazing community and our staff and families are stepping up in truly inspiring ways to ensure that our children are seen, supported and successful. We can and will do this because #WeAreHighline.
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...