Update: Founding Raisbeck Aviation High School Principal Reba Gilman will join Wednesday’s panel discussion.

Can public schools better serve students if there are more options and fewer constraints in the classroom? 

Former Seattle public high school teacher Kaci Salnick has been exploring this question as a doctoral student at Northeastern University. She’s conducted dozens of interviews with educators across Washington state for her research and has homed in on Highline Public Schools, which points to some intriguing answers. 

On Sept. 28, Salnick will share “One Thousand Steps,” a 40-minute documentary on her findings so far, followed by a panel discussion with Highline educators and administrators moderated by The Seattle Times Education Lab. The free community screening at 7 p.m. at Central Cinema in Seattle will be followed by a feedback-sharing session to help inform Salnick’s work. 

The pandemic highlighted a well-known fact among educators that a high school schedule with six periods a day between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. “works for some kids OK, but there’s just a lot of kids that it’s never worked for,” she said. 

She gave the example of seeing more districts, including Highline, continuing to offer and refine online learning options even after school buildings reopened. 

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The Highline district serves around 17,500 K-12 students in Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, SeaTac and White Center. The majority of students are identified as Hispanic (around 40%). Over the past two decades, Highline has significantly diversified its high school options. In addition to offering four traditional high schools (Evergreen, Highline, Mount Rainier, Tyee) it also offers three choice high schools: Big Picture, Maritime and Raisbeck Aviation. 

These focused learning schools are open to any students from any district, regardless of the school they were assigned. In Highline, interested families must apply and students are admitted via lottery. According to district data, Highline increased its four-year high school graduation rate nearly 10% between the 2015-16 and 2020-21 school years. 

Salnick thinks Highline’s approach builds stewardship, consensus and infrastructure around innovation in public education, and could be a model for other public schools and districts. She hopes her research and film will shed light and spark discussions on the challenges of innovation in public schools. 

In the film, Reba Gilman, Aviation High School’s founding principal, recalls making a pitch for the school’s concept: a school focused on raising students’ science, technology, engineering and math skills by letting kids practice in aviation and aerospace. 

Gilman recounted: “At the end of that presentation, the school board president said, ‘Well, you know, Reba, we don’t have two nickels to rub together here in the Highline District. But if you can go find the money, we like your concept.’ ”

Salnick said educators and administrators told her that pitches for bold change are often met with similar responses.  

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“Nobody said no, but nobody ever said yes, and so [their proposals] just died in the water,” Salnick said. “It’s not surprising when you think about large school districts in particular and how institutions work. When it comes to saying yes and actually supporting it and sticking your individual neck out, that doesn’t happen as often and that’s what’s needed.”

Of the educators and administrators who have had some success, most succeeded because they stayed scrappy, flew under the radar while putting a plan in place and then asked for support. 

“I think it takes a special kind of person to have the confidence to go into a district and get money however you can, and get resources however you can,” she said. “Reba worked on Aviation for 10 years before it was even a school, which is wild. [Imagine] a whole decade of your life just plugging away, keeping the vision and pulling everyone along with you.” 

Salnick said she hopes anyone who sees her film gets a better understanding about how challenging it is to open a new, innovative public school, to find the budget and leadership to do so, and to then keep it open.

“It’s really hard to get public support, and it’s really hard to convince new families, if you’re a new school, to send their kids to you,” she said. 

During the Sept. 28 screening, audience members can mix and mingle with other educators and community members when doors open at 6:30. The screening will start at 7. A panel discussion will follow. Along with Salnick and Gilman, the panelists will include: Highline Big Picture High School Principal Jeff Petty, Maritime High School Principal Tremain Holloway, Aviation Principal Therese Tipton, founding school counselor Katie Carper and teachers Nik Joshi and Scott McComb.

Salnick, who hopes to stay involved in public high schools after finishing her degree, said she’s rooting for public schools to stay viable and relevant. She said a major advantage to the approaches she’s seeing at Highline is retention. “If we make the net wider, meaning we offer students more options in the public school space, we will retain more students in the public school space.” 

Watch ‘One Thousand Steps’

If you go …

What: A free community screening of “One Thousand Steps,” a 40-minute documentary film on innovation in Highline Public Schools. A panel discussion will follow. 

When: Wednesday, Sept. 28. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Screening begins at 7. 

Where: Central Cinema, 1411 21st Ave., Seattle. (Look for the neon sign at the corner of 21st Avenue and East Union Street.) Parking is limited and walking or public transit is encouraged. 

Register: Seating is limited and RSVPs are encouraged at onethousandsteps.org

More info: For more information about this project, to participate in this research or to share your thoughts, contact Kaci Salnick at salnick.k@northeastern.edu

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