Northeast PhD student looks to the future of public education

Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How does it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I haven’t failed 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

Kaci Salnick opens her documentary – aptly named ‘One Thousand Steps’ – with these words and spends the next 40 minutes unpacking how Highline Public Schools, a public school district in Washington state, has attempted its own innovations in education. public.

How can public schools innovate when faced with funding and resource challenges? What does innovation look like and how does it work with, not against, the existing public education system?

As a former Seattle Public High School teacher, Salnick asked herself these questions. Now she’s looking for answers — or at least an opportunity to spark a conversation — through her doctoral program on Northeastern’s Seattle campus. Ultimately, she hopes her work will help highlight the challenges facing public schools and how some people have found ways to innovate despite themselves.

In the case of Highline, the district created three specialty high schools that provide students with more options inside and outside of the classroom.

“I’ve become convinced that the more we allow schools to do this, the more schools will be allowed to do things like this,” Salnick says. “The more we show that ‘we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we found a way to do it’, it lifts us all up.”

After conducting interviews with educators from Washington state districts, Salnick chose Highline as his research focus, largely because “there is nothing at first glance that would particularly set them apart.”

The district serves approximately 17,500 K-12 students in five different cities slightly south of Seattle. About 40% of Highline students identify as Hispanic, and as Salnick puts it, the district doesn’t particularly have “deep pockets.” However, Highline has spent the better part of 20 years expanding its high school options beyond its four traditional, comprehensive high schools – Evergreen, Highline, Mount Rainier, and Tyee.

The district has created three high schools that, to varying degrees, provide more non-traditional high school experiences: Big Picture, Maritime, and Raisbeck Aviation.

Each school operates in a different “context,” Salnick says. Raisbeck Aviation is a more traditional secondary school that emphasizes STEM education, especially aviation. Meanwhile, Big Picture aims to personalize education based on each student’s interests. It is moving away from the typical 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule with internships two days a week and has done away with grades and credits. Maritime falls somewhere between these two options. It has no letter grades — opting for a “mastery-based approach,” Salnick says — but approximates the traditional high school experience.

Each school accepts students based on a lottery system, like the rest of the high schools in the district.

How did Highline, a relatively normal public school district, create three more innovative high school offerings? Salnick says it wasn’t easy.

Finding someone, let alone someone in a position of power, willing to take a risk in a risk-averse field like public education is a huge hurdle for districts like Highline.

“I spoke with someone at the interview stage who tried to start a school like this in a district, and they thought they were close to doing it,” Salnick says. “They had meetings with this person and this person and every step of the way it was happening and then when it came time for someone to say yes, no one was ready to say yes. Nobody ever said no, but nobody was ready to say yes.

To make a meaningful change, you have to have someone who is a “lightning rod,” she says. In Highline’s case, it was Reba Gilman, the founding director of Reisbeck Aviation. But in a field where burnout and turnover are high, consistency of vision isn’t always possible.

“[Gilman] spent years fundraising, talking to people, convincing the district it was a good idea, figuring out where they could have a building,” says Salnick.

In the case of schools like Big Picture and Maritime, Highline has also had to find creative ways to make non-level, non-credit schools work in a system that has testing standards and graduation requirements.

Salnick says Highline’s approach has helped increase student engagement and, therefore, retention in the district.

“When you see people leaving the district for other options, it’s registration and money and all kinds of stuff at the door,” Salnick says. “By opening up Highline to provide different options, I think they’ve kept more students in the district.”

There are certain elements of Highline’s approach that, as a former public school teacher, make Salnick slightly uneasy. Raisbeck Aviation and Maritime received private industry grants to get started. Salnick says she bristles at the idea of ​​a T Mobile high school, but understands Highline schools stopped receiving private grants after the initial start-up cost.

After graduating this spring, Salnick plans to return to the classroom. She says it’s tough for teachers right now, between a teacher shortage caused by an alarming rate of burnout and lawmakers trying to ban books and control how and what educators teach. But despite all that, his research gave him hope.

“I’d love to see these alternative designs replicated more once people see how it’s done,” Salnick says. “I think it’s easier to do something when you see how someone else has done it.”

Salnick encourages those watching the documentary to provide feedback that will inform his research and understanding of innovations in public schools.

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