“It makes my heart happy”: Celebrating culture creates safe spaces

"It makes my heart so happy that students are coming together to share their experiences and they feel safe doing it," says Superintendent Laurie Dent.

When Superintendent Laurie Dent realized her district was falling behind in meeting the needs of marginalized learners, she and her team sought solutions from her students, parents and community members. Among their goals was to capitalize on rapidly changing demographics in the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District near Tacoma, Washington.

Laurie Dent
Laurie Dent

One glaring problem was a disproportionate suspension rate for students in certain ethnic groups. “It was heart-wrenching to hear that in a district that I love and consider my home—I’ve been here for 25 years—that in many ways [students] felt invisible,” Dent laments.

Compounding the challenge was that the district began its equity work at a time of heightened political divisiveness and resistance from some corners of the community to promoting inclusivity in all school operations. “We were making sure every student felt valued… by celebrating culture, by having different languages present, so students can walk down hallways and see themselves,” says Dent, Washington’s Superintendent of the Year for 2024.

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The results of these efforts were a drop in those problematic suspensions and a significant increase in graduation rates for Hispanic students.

Along the way, a new administrator was hired to ensure equal access for all learners and students formed the district’s first Black student union. The district’s school board, which was also recognized as tops in the state this year, has passed the first policy to explicitly prohibit racist behavior.

“It’s been exciting to see these students feel more empowered in their buildings, feel like they have a voice,” notes Dent, who has been Sumner-Bonney Lake’s leader since 2016. “It makes my heart so happy that students are coming together to share their experiences, and they feel safe doing it.

“We finally made it safe to talk about race in this district,” she adds.

Feeling safe, seeking help

Still, student mental health is one thing that keeps Dent up at night. She hopes Sumner-Bonney Lake is easing the challenge with its DEI work and by hiring more diverse staff members. Dent has placed five counselors at each high school and provided them with intensive training in trauma-informed practices.

She has also expanded teletherapy, hosted a mental health night specifically for student-athletes and their families, and hired a coordinator to oversee Sumner-Boney Lake’s whole-child initiatives. “When kids feel safe at school, they’re going to be more willing to reach out for help,” she attests.

Sumner-Bonney Lake’s students have been academically resilient, as evidenced by rising test scores. But from the pandemic to the constant thrum of social media to various external pressures, there appear to be many causes for the increased levels of anxiety and depression students are experiencing, Dent suspects.

“It’s kids feeling connected and forging that sense of connection again, even with relationships—like ‘It’s OK to look at somebody and talk to them, you don’t have to just text them,'” she concludes. “I don’t know what toll technology is taking on them.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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